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Getting Unstuck - Why the Research Says Your Mindset Matters

You can choose one of two mindsets to apply to learning, developing skills and achieving goals. Knowing the difference between these two mindsets – more than innate ability – can spell the difference between success and failure.

Ever wonder why some people who seem to have all the talent in the world don’t quite fulfill their potential in the end, while others with more modest gifts ascend to surprising heights of achievement? Most of us can remember someone in high school who seemed most likely to succeed – but didn’t. Meanwhile, there’s the classmate who never displayed any special abilities, yet is thriving today.

A rapidly growing body of evidence shows that how we develop our skills can be far more important than any innate talent we may possess. There is a science to developing skills quickly, which I'll be sharing in an upcoming article.

But before tackling the specifics of skills development, how we focus on our mindset provides the foundation for maximizing our abilities, and goes a long way toward explaining why the tortoise often shines while the hare fizzles.

Are You Growing or Are You Stuck?

Carol Dweck, a Stanford University psychologist, has conducted extensive research into what she terms the “fixed mindset” and the "growth mindset.” In short, those with a fixed mindset focus on how people perceive them rather than on improving their abilities. If you are considered to be a good tennis player, or a good manager, or a good anything, adopting a fixed mindset means that you will focus your energies on making sure people continue to think you’re good.

You’ll avoid taking risks or attempting something new for fear that you might fall short of your reputation – and that people will notice and no longer think as highly of your abilities. Possessing a fixed mindset means you’re stuck in your own ego, constantly burnishing your reputation rather than your abilities.

A growth mindset, on the other hand, means that you focus on improving, even if that means taking a step back in the short run. You’re not so concerned that people will think less of you when you try something new and come up short. You’ll keep working on that something new until you get better at it even if it means stumbling a bit.

And so paradoxically, people will think more highly of you in the long run as your skills ultimately improve. You’re not so concerned about taking risks if doing so will give you a shot at being better.

After analyzing countless corporate executives, musicians, athletes, students and others from a range of disciplines, Dweck found that those who adopted a growth mindset consistently rose to the top far more than those who may have initially possessed innate talent. Those with a fixed mindset remained stuck at the level of their initial innate or perceived ability, seldom moving beyond it as they carefully guarded their ego and their reputation. Those with a fixed mindset are also more likely to lie or cheat to bolster their reputation.

Simply put, those who believe the axiom “either you have it or you don’t,” tend to continue to perform at the level they think they “have it.” Those who believe that they can improve through their own efforts will make the effort and – not surprisingly – improve.

How does this play out? A tennis player with a fixed mindset is going to keep using the same tried-and-true techniques. When they’re practicing their game, they’ll do the same things over and over. They’ll be afraid to try anything new for fear of failure, fear of doing something that detracts from their fixed view of their abilities. They’ll give up easily when confronted by a challenge, and they’ll even believe that having to make an effort or take a risk somehow means their natural talent is inadequate – and so they’ll avoid it.

The tennis player with the growth mindset is going to constantly try new ways of moving on the court, new ways of hitting the ball, new ways of thinking about the game. No, they’re not going to try something new and untested for the sake of “growth” during a championship match. But constantly expanding the scope of their game and the range and depth of their skills will be their overall priority whenever they are working on their game. They’ll do this without regard to “failing” as they take the inevitable step back while learning a new skill.

How to Create a Growth Mindset to Boost Your Abilities

There are a few steps you can take starting today to move into a growth mindset and maximize your achievement:

1. Embrace a growth mindset. The first step is to fully assimilate the belief that a growth mindset will make you better while a fixed mindset will leave you stuck. I highly recommend reading Professor Dweck’s seminal book – appropriately entitled Mindset - where she extensively discusses the two-mindset concept, her considerable research behind it, and how the two mindsets play out in a wide range of real life contexts.

In the meantime, these selected quotes from Mindset will help you focus your efforts toward growth. According to Professor Dweck:

For twenty years, my research has shown that the view you adopt for yourself profoundly affects the way you lead your life. It can determine whether you become the person you want to be and whether you accomplish the things you value. . .

Believing that your qualities are carved in stone – the fixed mindset – creates an urgency to prove yourself over and over. If you have only a certain amount of intelligence, a certain personality, and a certain moral character – well, then you’d better prove that you have a healthy dose of them. It simply wouldn’t do to look or feel deficient in these most basic characteristics. . .

There’s another mindset in which these traits are not simply the hand you’re dealt and have to live with, always trying to convince yourself and others that you have a royal flush when you’re secretly worried it’s a pair of tens. In this mindset, the hand you’re dealt is just the starting point for development. . . Although people may differ in every which way – in their initial talents and aptitudes, interests or temperaments – everyone can change and grow through application and experience.

Note that this does not mean that you have to believe that you will win the Nobel Prize or become Michael Jordan or Mozart if only you put in the proper effort. It means, according to Dweck, that your full potential is unknown and unknowable, and so you keep working and trying new things because you likely can rise far higher than your current level.

Here’s Carol Dweck presenting the research on how adopting the growth mindset, how acting as if your current level does not dictate your unknowable potential, can foster high levels of achievement even among people who come from severely disadvantaged backgrounds:

2. Constantly focus on growth. Once you have determined to adopt a growth mindset, the simplest way to follow through is to constantly focus on learning rather than approval. The minute you begin to worry about what people think rather than how you can improve, you begin to play it safe and stagnate rather than take the necessary steps to ascend to the next level.

Of course, this doesn’t mean you never have to worry about what your boss or other people in your life think. But regardless of whether your boss likes the report you just wrote, your larger goal is to keep learning and growing and improving so you can do it better the next time (or even develop the skills to get a new job with a better boss) rather than continue to play it safe to try to protect your perceived reputation.

3. Set your internal dialogue for growth. Dweck shows through her research that the way we speak to our children can influence which mindset they will adopt. We might be well-meaning when we constantly tell Johnny, “You’re so talented” or “You’re such a smart boy” or “You’re such a gifted athlete” whenever he does something well.

But we’re not doing Johnny any favors because what Johnny hears is that he has natural abilities that caused his success (or at least that’s what the adults in his life think), and so he’d better not do anything that would give people a different impression. In other words, Johnny now has a recipe for developing a fixed mindset.

If instead, you tell Johnny, “I’m impressed with the amount of time you spent to make such a wonderful drawing,” or “When you concentrate, you really play the game well,” you’re telling him that his effort matters. And the message he gets is that if he keeps making the effort, he’ll keep getting better.

This distinction is not only helpful in raising children, but also in carefully crafting what we tell ourselves. If you gave a great presentation, you’re selling yourself short if you say to yourself, “Good going. They loved it. I did an awesome job.” That kind of positive thinking will not do much for you if your next presentation should bomb.

Instead, you could say to yourself at the end of a good presentation, “Good going. You did your homework. You prepared. You thoroughly covered the topic.” If you use the self-talk of a growth mindset, then if your next presentation should bomb, you’ll be hard at work thinking about what you could do differently and how to prepare better the next time rather than simply feeling sorry for yourself.

And if you didn’t properly prepare and somehow managed to pull it off, you can acknowledge that you didn’t prepare and start thinking about ways the presentation could be that much more polished if you put in the work. That approach will give you a much better shot at upping your game the next time around than if you merely pat yourself on the back and marvel at how good you are.

If you look at high achievers – from Ben Franklin to Steve Jobs – you’ll see the growth mindset at work. You’ll see people who weren’t particularly concerned about what others thought about their abilities, and instead constantly rolled up their sleeves to improve their abilities. You’ll see people who failed time and again, and used each failure as a stepping stone to grow to the next level.

When Steve Jobs was a young, idiosyncratic college dropout, it wasn’t so readily apparent that he had the right stuff to build one of the world’s largest and most innovative companies. When Michael Jordan was passed over for his high school varsity team, it wasn’t so readily apparent that he was to become one of the greatest legends ever to play the game of basketball.

The list is long of people who rode to success on the wave of the growth mindset. Might you become one of them?



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