growth mindset

The way we think directly impacts our growth. A simple change in mindset can change your thought patterns and confidence – therefore your success.

During the 1990’s we saw the ‘self-esteem’ movement take over the world. We were encouraged to tell everyone, and ourselves, how brilliant, how smart, how talented they, or we, were. This approach was meant to inspire people and subsequently boost their overall achievement.

Instead, there was a wide belief that this approach led to the acceptance of mediocrity – it didn’t challenge people to fulfil their potential. According to extensive research conducted by Carol Dweck and her colleagues, the act of telling people they are brilliant, or smart, or talented, actually backfired. It creates fear and results in people settling instead of striving for more.

The mindset we choose, and specifically the mindset around the choice of words we use, the communication we choose with others and ourselves, and our approach towards learning, can have far reaching influences on our potential to succeed. Carol Dweck’s research speaks to two very distinct mindsets: A Fixed Mindset and a Growth Mindset.

Growth Mindset

This mindset believes that intelligence and talent can be developed over time, leading to a greater desire to learn. Here lies a strong belief that our brains, like any muscle, can be trained, grown, and strengthened, all creating a desire and ability to improve. Those who believe that their talents can be developed through investing in hard work, good strategies, and the valuable input from others are those that have a Growth Mindset.

These people tend to achieve more than those with a more Fixed Mindset. This is because they worry less about looking smart and they focus more on learning.

Fixed Mindset

This mindset believes that intelligence and talent is fixed and not subject to development. They believe that they are born with specific talents. A Fixed Mindset orientated person has the tendency to avoid the opportunity to learn. Their priority remains in looking good/smart/talented to others and won’t want to risk jeopardising this.

Over the years Trevor Ragan has directed efforts on the concept of learning, and a lot of his thoughts compliment those of Carol Dweck. A useful video link to review can be found here:

Trevor speaks about a shift that we experience when growing up. In our early ages, we tend to adopt the “child-like approach to learning.” This is where we try something, crash or fall, celebrate the mistake, learn from it, and do it again. However, as we grow older we move away from this approach and there is a shift towards punishing mistakes, avoiding mistakes, avoiding seeking mistakes, and start feeling ashamed of mistakes.

This shift puts a huge damper on our ability to learn and grow. Trevor says this:

 “as we grow older, as we hear about the things we can and cannot do, as we are rewarded for being perfect, as we are punished for making mistakes, as 75% of the feedback we hear is the destructive kind that pushes us further down that road, this shift happens, and we abandon the ‘mistake-filled’ approach to learning”.

Trevor goes on to mention the two distinct factors leading to this shift and from here we can draw parallels to both the Growth Mindset and the Fixed Mindset.

In an experiment, it was found that students praised for their ability (intelligence) had a 20% decrease in their overall average score, while those students praise for their process (effort) had a 30% increase in their overall average score. Read more about the experiment here:

These two factors include Feedback and what Trevor Ragan terms our Lizard Brain (amygdala). A great example of the feedback system can be seen in one particular research project conducted by Carol Dweck and her colleagues. They gave 100’s of students a really easy test. After the test, half of the students were praised for their ability (intelligence) where they received comments such as “you must be smart”, while the other half were praised for their process (effort) where they received comments such as “you must have worked hard”.

After giving the students their feedback they were all faced with the option of taking either a more difficult test or an easier test. The results were fascinating. 67% of the students praised for ability chose to take the easier test. Why? Because they wanted to look smart again. Their sense of self-value and self-worth was caught up in their result and the idea of being perceived as smart. 92% of the group praised for their effort took the harder test. Why? Instead of their focus being on how they look to others, their focus was on the process, the desire to put in more effort and to embrace the challenge, and the willingness to learn and grow.

After this, all the students were then given a seemingly impossible test. Again, the results were fascinating. The students praised for their ability and intelligence became frustrated and had a tendency to give up easily, while those praised for their process and effort had a tendency to enjoy the experience and worked harder and longer. To end off this research, the students were then given one final test designed to be as easy as the first one. The students praised for their ability (intelligence) had a 20% decrease in their overall average score, while those students praise for their process (effort) had a 30% increase in their overall average score. To get a recap of this research process you can view a short video clip here:

The second factor for the shift is due to what Trevor Ragan calls our Lizard Brain (Amygdala), located right by the brain stem. Its core purpose of creating safety and survival for ourselves by simply producing fear. The Lizard Brain thrives on comfort zones, doing things we are good at, fitting in, easy things, safe things, i.e. a similar mindset to those students praised for their ability in the research project above. The Lizard Brain likes to look good and thus naturally hates change, struggle, difficult things, effort, challenges, mistakes, looking bad, i.e. all the core characteristics of a Growth Mindset. As we grow older we tend to shift more towards a Fixed Mindset as our Lizard Brain grows stronger and likes to take more control. As Trevor Ragan mentions, this becomes the voice in our head that says; slow down, you aren’t ready, play it safe, or start tomorrow.     

Carol Dweck’s research indicates that we can be taught to change our mindset, move away from the Lizard Brain influence, and move towards the more positively influential Growth Mindset.

How to change your mindset:

Embrace challenges

Seek challenges consistently. Learn to understand that challenge can improve your personal awareness around your strengths and weaknesses. Becoming more mindful of your strengths can improve and boost self-confidence, and learning where your weaknesses lie can help you identify where to direct your focus and attention going forward. 

Persist in the face of setbacks

Don’t get discouraged by setbacks, rather buy-in to the fact that your self-value, self-worth, self-image is not tied to your success or how you will look to others. Learn to love the idea that failing produces the most productive space for growth, and that in every perceived ‘negative’ experience there will always be positives to take away. 

See effort as the path to mastery

Learn to love effort, to love the grind, and see the effort as a necessary component for growth, knowledge, and skill mastery. As cliché as it may sound, nothing great was ever created immediately. To achieve greatness persistent effort, time, and patience is always required. Move away from seeing effort as useless or something to be avoided. 

Learn from criticism

Learn to see criticism as a source of useful feedback. Both positive (constructive) and negative feedback is useful information. Adopt the mindset that feedback, especially negative, is not necessarily directed at you personally, but rather at your current state of ability. You need to understand the source from which it is coming. Discern whether the source is credible and with this try identifying what aspects of the criticism are valid and worth using going forward.  

Find lessons and inspiration in the success of others

Learn to find inspiration from those who are successful around you. Instead of becoming jealous, become fixated on understanding how they were successful, or what they may have done differently to you or others who were not as successful. 

Learn to run with your Lizard Brain

If we try and stop it, we could end up accentuating the thoughts we have, or overthinking things. Rather use it as a compass and do the opposite of what it tells you to do. As Trevor Ragan says, when the Lizard Brain freaks out it is a sign that you are in the right place, and that you are in an opportunity to learn and grow to become better. 

EduConnect 2Cents

As a Growth Mindset individual, you become more aware of your improvements and this creates a positive feedback loop that boosts you to continue learning and improving. Be encouraged to catch yourself out when you are behaving more within a Fixed Mindset and actively seek opportunities to continue developing and maintaining a Growth Mindset. It can really be a powerful “game changer”!        


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