Growth mindset and fixed mindset: Which do you choose?

Hiking in Slovenia

As I thought about the research for my book on maximizing learning during development experiences, I immediately knew that I wanted to include something on growth mindset. The term kept popping up in Ted Talks, webinars, and articles and it seemed like a key to ongoing learning and success.

What is growth mindset?

In her book, Mindset: The new psychology of success, Carol Dweck writes, “growth mindset is based on the belief that your basic qualities are things you can cultivate through your efforts, your strategies, and help from others.” In other words, if you believe you can get better, smarter, faster AND you put effort into it – then you will.

Fixed mindset, on the other hand, is a belief that your intelligence, gifts, character, creative ability, etc are fixed and cannot be improved. We are born with a certain amount of innate talent and we cannot develop past that point.

Why does growth mindset matter? 

Carol Dweck’s research repeatedly links growth mindset and continued growth and success throughout life. She provides examples of people that we now view as experts in their field, like Michael Jordan, Albert Einstein, and Jackson Pollack, that didn’t show promise early in their careers. It was practice, effort, and experimentation that led to success.

This concept doesn’t just apply to world-renowned individuals. Dweck shares stories of kids that are taught the growth mindset and suddenly say “You mean I don’t have to be dumb?” After this realization, test scores improved rapidly. Belief in their abilities created a new reality.

My story

I’ve always been a learner. I enjoyed going to school, read with a flashlight under my bedcovers, and collected pond water to examine under the microscope I got for Christmas. I started this book assuming that I had a growth mindset. But as I read I realized that while I do have a growth mindset in my intellectual ability, there are other areas of my life where a fixed mindset is alive and well.

There’s one area where I shifted from a growth mindset as child to a fixed mindset in middle school and then again to a growth mindset as an adult – creativity.

I’m guessing many of you will identify with my story. As a child I painted and drew to my heart’s content. I never thought about whether my art was “good”. That changed in middle school when art class suddenly had rules and grades. It was immediately clear that I was not good. Art went from being fun and playful to something I avoided for years.

As I grew older my fixed mindset around art broadened to general creativity. Despite the fact that I wrote poems and loved taking photographs, I did not view myself as creative. My mindset told me that I wasn’t good at drawing and painting and therefore I wasn’t a creative person.

My entire attitude towards creativity changed with one conversation nine years ago. I was working on a global leadership development program and I had just pitched an idea to my manager. She looked at me and said, “Heather, you’re always saying that you want to be creative. You just conceptualized an entirely new module for our program. That IS creativity.”

For years I had equated creativity with my perceived failure in seventh grade art class. Suddenly I realized that the root of the word creativity is CREATE – and I did that all the time. That shift opened a whole new world for me. New ideas came to me with more frequency and ease. I looked at my photography as art. I didn’t just write curriculum for our programs at work – I created them.

I also took this growth mindset with me when I started to write a few years ago. Instead of thinking that I was either naturally “good” or “bad” at writing, I adopted an attitude of learning and enjoyment. I took classes, was open to feedback, and didn’t take myself too seriously. Not only has the quality of my writing improved, I’ve also written in styles that I never considered. I even have two silly poems that I’d like to turn into children’s books! I never would have written them in my fixed mindset state.

Your story

Where do you have a fixed mindset in your life? It might show up as a hidden saboteur, the little voice in your head telling you that you’ll never be good at public speaking or math or running. It may emerge as fear of taking on a big project at work or applying for a promotion. It could even appear as a limiting belief around dating, parenting, or belonging.

“We’ve found that whatever mindset people have in a particular area will guide them in that area.” Yes, we are born with certain abilities. But, as Dweck writes, it is curiosity, challenge, and effort that feed our abilities and cause us to learn, grow, and eventually succeed.

What might be possible for you with that mindset?

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