Why do we go after the things we want? Science says motivation2. If we really want something, we work for it. Or at least, that’s what we expect. In reality, people don’t always go after the things they want. The “Why?” of this realization brought about a concept; fixed vs growth mindset.
Picture this. A high school’s board has given a teacher great news. One of their students can win a ‘Best Improved’ award. The prize is a university scholarship. What this means, is that the student who can raise their GPA by the highest points in a semester wins the scholarship. Now, in this scenario, there will be two types of students. There will be students who say “I’m already doing the best I can. There’s no way I can significantly improve my grades in just one semester”. There will be another group who says, “You know what, I think I can do this. I’ll have to study a lot more, go out less.... but it’s possible”.
This is a simple illustration of a fixed vs growth mindset. The first group has a fixed mindset, and the second has a growth mindset. The first group believes that they have a limit to what they can achieve. They’re not interested in trying, even if doing so may provide a scholarship and a better quality of school life. The fixed-minded group prefers the assurance that comes with not trying. The second group, the growth-minded group, is not opposed to changing their beliefs. They’re open to trying new things, changing their routine, and so on, for the promise of something better than what they currently have.
Carol Dweck, a psychologist and Stanford professor has explored the concept of fixed vs growth mindset. Here’s how she describes both mindsets in her book, ‘Mindset: The New Psychology of Success’.
The people who have a fixed mindset see intelligence, physical strength, and other characteristics as predetermined. They believe that their traits, strengths, and weaknesses cannot be changed. The fixed mindset allows people to put limitations on their own capabilities. If they aren’t good at something, then they believe that they never will be.
The fixed mindset also gives people tunnel vision on the abilities which they are good at. They often tend to focus on the things they can do well, and ignore everything else. For example, someone who has a fixed mindset and is a great swimmer may believe that their only career choice is competitive swimming. They may say something like “I was born to swim.'' Or “If I don’t swim, what else will I do?” As you can imagine, the effect of this type of mindset could be limiting to an individual. Both in their private and professional life.
People with a growth mindset believe that they can grow and cultivate their abilities. They believe that they can achieve any goal, as long as they can commit to it. They are open to challenges, but more importantly, they are open to failing. This appreciation for failure makes it easier for them to try things they may not be “good” at. They are not ignorant of their weaknesses, they are willing to work on them.
This does not mean that people with a growth mindset are good at everything. In fact, it is the recognition of all the things they are not good at, that pushes them to pursue change. They are usually focused on the next improvement they can make, rather than wondering if they’ve reached their peaks.
Now, at first glance, we may all like to think “I’m the person with a growth mindset.” But, are you? Let’s look at the different approaches of people with fixed vs growth mindsets.
When put in similar situations, people with fixed and growth mindsets will respond differently. To demonstrate, here are some scenarios which we may come across. Here’s how someone with a fixed mindset will react vs someone with a growth mindset.
You’ve been counting down the days to your company’s annual review. After the review, you find out that your management gave a colleague the promotion you were expecting.
A fixed-minded response will be to put yourself down and lose trust in your efforts and contribution to your department. It could also be to (falsely) accuse your department of unfair treatment and give less effort to your tasks.
A growth-minded response will be to approach your manager and directly inform them that you’re interested in moving up the ladder. It will also be to put more effort into your work and learn from + collaborate with colleagues, rather than blame them.
Whether you slept late or hit ‘snooze’ too many times, missing the bus can be a bad start to a good day.
A fixed-minded response will be to go into a mood, curse at the driver, or choose to stay home that day. Anything but make the needed adjustments to ensure that you are on time the next day.
A growth-minded response will be to make changes and adjustments to your night or morning routines. These changes may help you to get to the bus stop on time.
You get to class and find out that your test grades are out. Despite how hard you worked, you failed.
A fixed-minded response will be to berate yourself for even trying. You may even go a step further to say that you’ve given it your best, and that’s the most effort that can come from you.
A growth-minded response will be to go over your test script to review your errors and learn from them. You may also approach your teacher to explain why you failed certain questions and learn from their response.
You have a bit of wanderlust, but you’ve never been able to save up enough to travel anywhere. Your last savings plan just fell through and you’re disappointed in yourself.
A fixed-minded approach will be to say something like “Well, I’m just horrible with money. I’ll never be able to save enough. It’s just who I am.”
A growth-minded approach will be to try another savings plan, ask for advice, consult with a financial advisor, and so on. A growth-minded person will keep trying.
Your friend or partner keeps complaining about certain behavior of yours. This issue has finally driven you to a misunderstanding.
A fixed-minded response will be to say something along the lines of “Well, that’s just how I am. If you can’t accept that I’m *insert toxic behavior*, then there’s nothing I can do.”
A growth-minded response will be to evaluate yourself and recognize that behavior they keep complaining about. It will also be working on yourself to improve your behavior and protect that relationship.
One misconception is that people either have a fixed or growth mindset. We identify with one or the other. But humans are not so linear. For example, someone could be growing at a fast pace at work, but slacking on their health and fitness goals. Why? Because they believe that “They’re just not that gym guy”. They may have a growth mindset when it comes to working, but a fixed mindset regarding their health and fitness.
It is important to take a proper look at your life and perform an honest evaluation. Are you growth-minded in all areas of your life?
Thankfully, a fixed mindset can be changed. Thinking otherwise will be… well… a fixed mindset. A fixed minded person can become growth-minded. The human body makes this process possible through neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity is the ability of the brain to change how it responds to situations through exposure to new practices and experiences1.
Regardless of how fixed your actions, behavior, and beliefs seem, they can all be altered thanks to the process of neuroplasticity. By creating new habits and repeating certain growth-focused actions, you can initiate neuroplasticity for a better mindset.
We explain the qualities of a growth mindset here. You can also read up a bit on using mindfulness practices to help develop your growth mindset for change. Below are some important changes to consider making.
“If you don’t try, you’ll never fail” is not a good piece of advice. It never was. Change your view of failure by seeing it as a learning opportunity. Every time you fail at something, you’ve learned a new way to not do that thing. Accept that you’ll likely fail at most things, and that’s okay. Once you get a win, the failures will no longer matter so much.
Not everything can be self-taught. Sometimes, you need an experienced eye to look over your work, practices, methods, and so on. When you feel yourself losing motivation due to a particular roadblock, don’t be afraid to ask for help.
Representation matters. People often feel like they cannot do something because they’ve never seen someone like them achieve the same thing. If you’re at this point, it is important to seek out people in your area of interest who have succeeded. Learning about their process, failures, and wins can serve as an inspiration for you.
If you can’t find anyone to look up to, take that as a challenge. Become the person who others will look up to.
“Inaction breeds doubt and fear. Action breeds confidence and courage. If you want to conquer fear, do not sit at home and think about it. Go out and get busy.” ―Dale Carnegie
Sometimes, there’s no way to tell what lies ahead of you from the start. You need to take the dive and see where that leads you.
It’s easy to see that between a fixed vs growth mindset, being growth-oriented is the better option. This mindset allows you to pursue the quality of life you want while enjoying the process. Growth itself is a continuous process, so remember to measure your progress in small milestones rather than big changes. There’s no perfect yet. Only better.
|Kolb, Bryan & Muhammad, Arif. (2014). Harnessing the power of neuroplasticity for intervention. Frontiers in human neuroscience. 8. 377. 10.3389/fnhum.2014.00377.|
|Legault, Lisa. (2016). Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivation. Encyclopedia of Personality and Individual Differences. 10.1007/978-3-319-28099-8_1139-1.|
Jen’s a passionate environmentalist and sustainability expert. With a science degree from Babcock University Jen loves applying her research skills to craft editorial that connects with our global changemaker and readership audiences centered around topics including zero waste, sustainability, climate change, and biodiversity.
Elsewhere Jen’s interests include the role that future technology and data have in helping us solve some of the planet’s biggest challenges.