When I was growing up, I thought that I was smart. Everyone around me said so, so why should I doubt them? Maybe I was, and maybe I wasn’t, but I am beginning to suspect the effect this praise had on me was profound and terrible. I’ll get to that in a minute, but first, you may be wondering why any of this is relevant four decades later.
While at the World Domination Summit, I met Breanne in the cheesesteak line during the closing party (somehow meeting people in lines is incredibly interesting at WDS.) As we talked about her passion to rebuild education through teaching people to create world class online courses, she suggested I read Mindset: The New Psychology of Success by Carol Dweck. Last week I finally picked up a copy, and I’m very happy that I did.
Dweck is a psychologist who’s defined a two mindset system for viewing the world. Her work has shown that a person’s mindset determines their approach to learning and to life, and that one is far better than the other.
The Fixed Mindset
Individuals with a fixed mindset see all ability as something that is set at birth. Everything from athletic prowess, to artistic talent, to intelligence, are immutable quantities to them. For these people failures are a disaster. Failures define the limits of their potential. They will avoid them at all costs. Fixed mindset thinkers will even seek to avoid attempting things they suspect they might not excel in.
The Growth Mindset
Those is a growth mindset believe everyone has unlimited potential. To their way of thinking, effort and time are the only barriers to success in anything they undertake. Failures are merely learning opportunities on the way to mastery. In their view we all start out at different levels, but this only changes the length of the journey, not the ultimate ceiling of our skills. They love challenges and stretching themselves, and take a lesson from every failure.
Learning about these two mindsets has given me a new perspective on my life, and quite a a few things to consider, now that I have children of my own.
Ok, back to our story.
I can clearly see that, for much of my life, I had a fixed mindset. (Mom if you are reading this, don’t be too hard on yourself, I know firsthand how difficult it can be to not tell your smart, beautiful kids how smart and beautiful they are.) I was always terrified that someone would find out I wasn’t as smart as they thought I was (Um…I still am at times, Impostor Syndrome is a bitch). I would put difficult assignments off until the last minute so I had the excuse that I’d run out of time. In sports I would never push myself to the limit because I was afraid to find out how low that limit was. When I got older, I never asked girls for dates until it became painfully obvious that rejection was not a possibility. In every situation, when presented with the opportunity to challenge myself, I opted out and changed direction.
The result was a long string of successful, and very mediocre, accomplishments. It saddens me to look back on what might have been. Fear was omnipresent and doubt plagued me. It is a terrible state of being that I would not wish on anyone.
Do You Have a Fixed Mindset?
If you are wondering which camp you are in (if it is not already obvious) here are a few questions to help you decide.
Do you blame others for every failure?
Do you avoid doing things when you are unsure of success?
Do you catch yourself thinking that some people are just incapable of ever understanding no matter how hard you try to teach them?
Do you believe that successful people have god-given talents that most are unlucky not to have?
If you answered yes to any of these questions, you have a Fixed mindset.
It’s not the End of the World
Luckily for me, and for those who are now trying to deny that they answered yes to something in the previous section, Dweck’s work went farther than simply defining the two mindsets. She found that mindsets are not immutable. Though mindset is easiest to change in children, it is still a possibility even very late in life. Here’s the short version.
Learn to hear your fixed mindset – When your brain starts telling you to avoid something because you might fail, or that you are “just not good at math…”, or you find yourself making excuses for failure and shifting blame, notice it. Recognize the frequency of such thoughts.
Choose how you interpret challenges and failures – You are the only one really in control of your mind. When you notice yourself falling into fixed mindset patterns of thinking, choose to take the growth mindset path. Say yes to things that scare you. Celebrate your failures and the things that they have taught you. Be patient with yourself. Accept that learning sometimes takes a sustained effort, and that even the most successful people have hit walls along the way that took time to surpass.
Notice fixed mindset behavior in others – Sometimes we feel like we are the only ones in the world with a given problem. By watching those around us, particularly those we hold up as models of success, for symptoms of fixed mindset thinking we can begin to convince ourselves that the correlation between talent and success is an illusion.
Back to our Hero
Somewhere along the line my mindset changed. Though I started late, I began to push myself a little more. The more I tried, and failed, the more I learned. I found that failing did not make me a failure. People still respected my knowledge. What’s more they were impressed by my courage to try new things. I began to feel like I was finally in more control of my life. Once those floodgates were open, all kinds of good things began to happen.
I can’t pinpoint how I got there in my life, but now that I understand how my mindset was holding me back, I have a few additional suggestions I discovered along the way that might help you.
If you want to see how wrong some of your assumptions are about what is possible, check out Jia Jiang’s amazing blog about his 100 days of Rejection Therapy. Asking for the unthinkable is a no-lose proposition. If you’re rejected, you’re no worse off than before, and also that there was really no reason to be afraid to ask. If the answer is yes, you’ll have a whole new perspective on what’s possible when you take a chance. Both of these outcomes foster a growth mindset.
Surround yourself with your Betters
When you are the smartest person in the room, it’s time to get a new room. The same thinking applies to any other skill or talent. If you are the one everyone around you associates with greatness, it’s too easy to fall into a fixed mindset. Avoid pedestals at all costs.
Push Your Limits
Test yourself in everything you do. Learn to compete against yourself instead of measuring your worth against others. Try to be a little bit better every day. Understanding your limits is good, but knowing that you can move them is better.
Focus on Your Failures
Every failure has a lesson. If you can find it and learn from it, your next result will be better. In her book Dweck spoke of how Michael Jordan knew the exact number of times he had been trusted to take the game winning shot and had missed. He also knew the number of games he had lost. When he made mistakes he would practice for hours to discover a fix, then make sure he never repeated his error. These are the characteristics of a master of the growth mindset.
None of these is a quick fix. They take hard work and focus. I’ve been there, and I know how hard it is. Give them a shot, and let me know how it goes in the comments.