Change Your Mindset, Achieve the Impossible?


“Becoming is better than being.” Dr. Carol Dweck predicates this poignant statement in her exceptional book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, in reference to her theories of the power that our perception of personal development holds over our performance in any given aspect of life. In Mindset, Dweck coins the terms “growth mindset” and “fixed mindset:” two cognitive models of ability that can describe an individual’s attitude toward the development of their capabilities [1]. These two “mindsets” have been proven to affect the productivity and contentment a person ultimately experiences in life. Because of its wide applications and flexible nature, Dweck has dedicated a significant amount of time in educating people about how adopting a growth mindset can greatly benefit one’s life achievements and overall motivation. I speculate that, by applying Dweck’s mindset theory and remaining cognizant of various principles of achievement, anyone can acquire the cognitive processes necessary to improve and succeed in life.

It is necessary to understand the difference between a “growth mindset” and a “fixed mindset.” These terms have become central in psychological literature regarding motivation and achievement after Dweck published Mindset in 2006; as countless other researchers have applied these terms in conducting their own research in the impacts that a person’s cognitive model of ability has on his perception of his capabilities and the impacts this perception has on his overall achievement.

Growth Mindset

The growth mindset is the term given to the cognitive model of ability of an individual who believes that she, through hard work and consistent practice, has the power to ‘grow’ in any skill that she pleases. People with the growth mindset assert that effort is useful when ability is low and that failure comes from low effort. They tend to focus on learning goals, and after some form of a setback, they realize that they should increase or change their efforts in order to achieve a more desirable outcome the next time. They understand that success comes in intervals or increments, and realize that people cannot always succeed completely on their first try—effort in increments is necessary to continue to grow in a certain area. These people are constantly cognitively evolving or, to reference Dweck’s statement, becoming.

To paint a portrait of an individual who exhibits characteristics of the growth mindset, I’ve fabricated an image of a high school student named Lou. Lou has tried out for varsity soccer twice already, only to be denied team membership both times. This year’s soccer tryouts are scheduled for next week, but Lou has been preparing for this occasion all year. After being rejected for the second time last year, Lou realized that his practice habits weren’t yielding the skills necessary to make the varsity cut. Instead of proclaiming himself a failure and quitting the sport, Lou decided to accept a position on the JV soccer team and hone his athletic skills by doing so. He consistently sought out advice from his coach and from friends who had made the varsity soccer team. He practiced almost everyday, worked out everyday, and respectfully accepted criticism throughout his training. Though he often encountered discouraging thoughts, and sometimes even felt like giving up would be the best choice, he decided to keep working hard all year. He ended up improving dramatically at soccer and plans on continuing to work hard at the sport regardless of the outcome of next week’s try outs.

Fixed Mindset

Contrarily, the fixed mindset is the mindset of an individual who believes that all of his or her capabilities are set in stone. Unlike people who practice a growth mindset, people with a fixed mindset have a tendency to focus on performance goals, believe that effort won’t make a difference in a task when one’s ability is low, believe that failure is a result of low ability, and tend to withdraw from participating in an activity after failing. People with fixed mindsets, Dweck proposes, are even more prone to feelings of helplessness. This only affirms their fixed mindset because they truly believe that they do not have the internal locus of control required to change their ‘set’ predicaments. For people with fixed mindsets, it’s all or nothing. The entity of one’s initial attempts ultimately determines an individual’s capacity in a certain area. Individuals of this model of ability believe that they have fixed talents and traits, and these talents and traits determine (and limit) who they will ever be.

To depict some typical characteristics of a person with a fixed mindset, I’ve fabricated another story of a high school student named Annie. Ever since she won a community writing competition in third grade, Annie’s teachers, family, and peers have constantly told her that she’s an amazing writer. As the years passed by, Annie continued to write stories that rarely deviated from her all-star format from third grade. By her freshman year in high school, Annie’s English teacher noticed that Annie’s writing was rather juvenile and that she hadn’t improved very much over the course of first semester even though she appeared to be a very bright student. He approached Annie about the matter as an attempt to help Annie continue to grow as a writer, but Annie was devastated by his feedback. She interpreted her teacher’s constructive criticism as insults and indicators of her own failure. Instead of taking her teacher’s advice, Annie continued to write in her old format. After receiving more criticism from her teacher, she stopped turning in her papers all together. She ended up receiving a low mark in English, and because of that, she decided that she was a terrible writer.

Implications

Given the discrepancies between these two mindsets, the growth mindset is ultimately the desired mindset to have. Having a growth mindset can enable an individual to be a better, more confident student and member of the workforce because of its associated traits that emphasize resilience from adversity. Though, as aforementioned, cognitive models of ability are flexible and can therefore change, Dweck has posited that having a consistently growth-oriented mindset from childhood can help foster an individual’s self esteem early on, as well as create more opportunities for cognitive and experiential growth. Because of this, there have been many recent studies in developmental psychology that have focused on how one’s mindset affects children’s beliefs about their abilities and therefore their overall academic performance.



Is Your Mindset Hindering Your Own Achievement?

You can take this brief quiz to figure out your own mindset. By figuring out your current mindset, you can become aware of how the ways that you think about your capabilities can affect your overall achievement. If you discover that you currently have a fixed mindset, fear not: if you change your way of thinking, you too can reap the benefits of adopting a growth mindset.

Carol Dweck offers several steps that you can take by yourself to progress toward implementing a growth mindset. These steps consist of learning to recognize what your fixed mindset sounds like, realizing that you can choose how to react after any setback, adopt a mental voice that encourages thinking about your abilities in a positive light to counter any fixed thoughts, and finally, actively using setbacks as opportunities to grow [2].

Thoughts such as “If you fail, you’ll be a failure,” “If you don’t try, you can protect your dignity,” and other excuses that diminish the importance of effort and resilience are phrases that your fixed mindset “voice” will try to feed to you. When phrases of the fixed mindset cross your mind, being aware of them will help you realize that they are not productive thoughts and will usually end up only hindering you. You always have a choice in how you interpret challenges, setbacks, and criticism, and how you interpret them can change the overall outcome of your experiences. Keep in mind that by choosing to tell yourself that effort is what ultimately determines success and achievement, you can cognitively convince yourself that taking a risk and trying again is almost always a more productive decision than choosing to avoid constructive opportunities that require one to take such a risk. Putting these positive thoughts of the growth mindset into action will increase the likelihood of anyone’s success.

Testimonial

After learning about the mindset theory, as well as my ability to change my own mindset, I personally was able to embrace a growth mindset about my mathematical capabilities. For most of my life, I thought that I was terrible at math. This belief stemmed from listening to my internal fixed mindset in moments of mathematical adversity, such as: “I didn’t understand this lesson in class. Why should I even bother doing my homework tonight? I won’t get anything right anyway,” “I don’t want to ask the teacher for help because I don’t want him to think I’m stupid,” and “I got a B in a math class, therefore I suck at math.” After having read Mindset, the fallacies of my fixed mindset in math became, in retrospect, painfully obvious: if you don’t put in effort and study, you can’t fully understand the material. If you don’t fully understand the material, you can’t get a desirable grade. Now, by simply studying and not being afraid to ask questions (products of my new growth mindset), I’ve maintained a solid A in my current math class and have solved mathematic equations in front of a whole auditorium of biology students: things that I admit used to be quite difficult for me.

For those of you who already have a growth mindset, my new approach to math probably sounds like common sense. However, it’s important to be sensitive and realize that not everyone has a growth mindset, even though everyone is capable of having a growth mindset. For those of you who want to undergo a radical transition in your ways of approaching challenges, on the other hand, adopt a growth mindset like I did and achieve things you formerly thought to be impossible for you.

Of course, the mindset theory isn’t some magical formula for becoming an instant genius, star athlete, or megastar. Achieving excellence in any field requires consistent hard work, and failure will always be inevitable. Adopting a growth mindset does not automatically imply infallibility, nor does it guarantee success. While having a growth-oriented way of thinking will likely generate positive advancements, it certainly has its limitations. The fact that I’m now performing higher in math than ever before does not necessarily mean that I’m capable of mentally calculating the answers to multivariable equations, nor does it mean that I’m inventing new theorems and attempting to win the Nobel Prize or something. My natural capabilities in math simply preclude me from such effortless mathematical brilliance. However, I’ve been able to take my natural capabilities and capitalize on them tremendously in my own context. It’s important to realize that you will always have personal limitations, but you should always strive to achieve your goals because you can never gauge your potential to achieve them without trying.

Without having changed my mindset, I would have wasted all of my mathematical potential due to a simple cognitive error. As Carol S. Dweck herself says, “I am always moved by outstanding achievement and saddened by wasted potential.” [3]. What potential could you be wasting?


Attribution

[1] Dweck, Carol S. Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. New York: Random House, 2006. Print.
[2] How can you change from a fixed mindset to a growth mindset?, Mindset
[3] About the Author: Carol Dweck Mindset

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