In the past decade or so, you may have heard the term “growth mindset” thrown around a lot. Many podcasters, influencers, self-improvement coaches, etc. talk about how important it is to have a growth mindset and that it’s something we should all be striving for.
But what is a growth mindset? And why does it seem to matter so much? And finally, if it’s so great, how can we actually develop one?
The term “growth mindset” was first coined by Dr. Carol Dweck, an American psychologist, after studying the behavior of thousands of children. In her book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, Dr. Dweck actually coined two terms: growth mindset and fixed mindset. These terms help us better understand people’s underlying assumptions about intelligence and their ability to learn.
Essentially, a fixed mindset describes a belief that we are only as intelligent and talented as we are now, and that no amount of hard work can really affect that. Those with fixed mindsets may find themselves feeling embarrassed when they don’t get something right on the first try since they are often worried about how others perceive their intelligence, skills, and abilities.
A growth mindset, on the other hand, describes a belief that we can grow smarter and more skilled with hard work, effort, and time. It’s about believing that you can grow, change, and improve.
Through her studies, Dr. Dweck discovered that students with growth mindsets significantly outperformed children with fixed mindsets. Believing that you have the ability to grow actually has a huge effect on morale and ultimate success.
But why is this?
As it turns out, when you have a growth mindset, you’re more likely to try new things, explore new possibilities, and you’re not afraid to fail or experience setbacks because you know that those are just a part of the process.
Dr. Dweck writes of the growth mindset:
“The passion for stretching yourself and sticking to it, even (or especially) when it’s not going well, is the hallmark of the growth mindset. This is the mindset that allows people to thrive during some of the most challenging times in their lives.”
So if a growth mindset helps students become more successful and happier, how can we cultivate a growth mindset in ourselves? Here are a few ways you can start training your brain to think with a growth mindset instead of a fixed one:
Stop worrying about if you’re smart enough, start worrying if you’re working hard enough
As Dr. Dweck explains:
“Genius is not enough; we need to get the job done.”
At the end of the day, does it really matter how intelligent you are if you get the job done? Of course not. The most important thing is whether you put in your best effort.
To cultivate a growth mindset, stop judging your worth based on how smart you perceive yourself to be and start focusing on trying your best, learning along the way, and enjoying the process.
Reframe failures as learning opportunities
A hallmark of the growth mindset is a reframing of failures as learning opportunities. People with fixed mindsets often see failures as reflections of their own intelligence or skill, so they end up giving up when confronted with disappointment.
But instead of seeing failure as a negative thing, reframe it as an opportunity to learn something. So it didn’t work, what could you try instead? If this set of actions resulted in failure, how could you change things next time to result in success?
This is a huge part of developing a growth mindset and will keep you headed forward instead of falling behind.
Reframe setbacks as part of the process
Similarly, it’s important to remember that setbacks, failures, frustrations, disappointments, etc. are 100% natural.
How many times did Edison try to make a lightbulb? How many setbacks did Oprah Winfrey face on her journey to fame? How many times have you yourself experienced a setback, but continued on regardless?
A setback or failure is not something to be ashamed of, but embraced. Learn from it, appreciate it, then move on.
Praise effort rather than outcomes
In Dr. Dweck’s book, she writes:
“After seven experiments with hundreds of children, we had some of the clearest findings I’ve ever seen: Praising children’s intelligence harms their motivation and it harms their performance. How can that be? Don’t children love to be praised? Yes, children love praise. And they especially love to be praised for their intelligence and talent. It really does give them a boost, a special glow—but only for the moment. The minute they hit a snag, their confidence goes out the window and their motivation hits rock bottom. If success means they’re smart, then failure means they’re dumb. That’s the fixed mindset.”
Dr. Dweck brilliantly sums up what is so insidious about the fixed mindset: praise itself is not always productive.
Even if you congratulate yourself, you may end up hurting long term. It’s important to remember that praising your intelligence and talent won’t help you grow and learn. Instead, praising hard work and tenacity is a better way to develop the growth mindset and encourage improvement.
Don’t be afraid to ask questions
One trait that people with growth mindsets often exhibit is the ability to ask questions.
Of course, we can all ask questions. But those with growth mindsets are not afraid to appear silly, strange, or unintelligent for asking them.
Rather than worrying about how others will perceive your intelligence when asking a question, focus on trying your best to learn and grow. You obviously can’t be expected to know everything or to do everything on your own. So reach out when you need help. Ask questions when you don’t know. That is where real intelligence is formed.
As Dr. Dweck writes:
“True self-confidence is “the courage to be open—to welcome change and new ideas regardless of their source.” Real self-confidence is not reflected in a title, an expensive suit, a fancy car, or a series of acquisitions. It is reflected in your mindset: your readiness to grow.”
Take on new challenges
People with growth mindsets deeply believe that they can learn and become anything if they apply themselves.
But if you’re currently stuck in a fixed mindset, this might be hard to believe right away.
So in order to start seeing it in action, take on a new challenge. Start with something small and manageable that you know you can do. When you accomplish it, move on to something a bit larger that maybe you’re not so sure you can do.
Over time, you’ll realize that it’s totally possible for you to improve your skills, abilities, and talents. You just need to put in the effort and time.
In her book, Dr. Dweck writes:
“We like to think of our champions and idols as superheroes who were born different from us. We don’t like to think of them as relatively ordinary people who made themselves extraordinary.”
Why don’t we like to think this way? Well, maybe because it means there really is no excuse for us not to be as extraordinary as our champions and idols. Maybe because it means that the only thing holding us back this whole time was ourselves. Maybe because if we accept that our champions and idols are really just ordinary people who worked hard, then in order to become great, we have to work hard too — and maybe that sounds exhausting.
Whatever the reason, once we acknowledge that intelligence, talent, skills, abilities, etc. can be improved upon with effort, an endless array of possibilities opens up to us.
With a growth mindset, suddenly anything is possible. You can get a better job. You can ace your chemistry test. Sure, there will be setbacks, but your abilities will improve.
And perhaps more importantly, failures don’t seem so bleak. Setbacks aren’t a reflection of your self-worth. Frustrations don’t mean it’s time to give up — they just mean it’s time to pivot. And isn’t that just a more exciting, joyful way to live?
So in whatever small ways you can, begin to explore what it feels like to have a growth mindset. You may just be surprised at all the amazing things you accomplish.