Changing Your MindsetJune 4 , 2013

Last post I summarized the impressive research on how your mindset can have a significant effect on both your physical and mental responses to a stimulus.  This week we’ll talk about how to change your mindset.

Carol Dweck, a top psychologist from Stanford and author of Mindset: the New Psychology of Success is one of the world’s experts on mindset.   Her work focuses on the mindset around learning, intelligence, achievement and success.

Fixed Mindset

In Dweck’s work, she describes two ways of looking at the world.  One is that abilities and talents such as intelligence, creativity, quantitative analysis or athletic ability are fixed, meaning you believe that people are either born a genius, a quant jock, a top athlete or they aren’t.  This is called the fixed mindset.

If you have a fixed mindset; you believe things should come naturally to people who have talent, that if something requires effort, you clearly aren’t good at it.  Challenges and obstacles are threatening because they directly affect your sense of ability and your sense of self — if a test is hard, you must not “be smart.” If you don’t pick up a new sport immediately, it’s because you are “not athletic.”  This makes it very difficult to try new things and take risks, because you may fail.  And failure destroys your self-perception, if you’re a fixed-mindset person.  But people can’t learn if they don’t take risks and try new things, so in a fixed mindset learning and growth become severely limited.

Growth Mindset

The other view believes that these same talents and attributes — intelligence, creativity and so on — can be cultivated through effort and instruction, that throughout your life you can get smarter and more talented as you work on the attribute and learn from experience. This is called a growth mindset.

In this mindset, your brain is a muscle which gets stronger with use.  Every time you learn something new, your brain forms new connections and you increase your intellectual skills.  If you have a growth mindset, you get excited about taking on challenges as a way to learn and grow.  This mindset encourages persistence and resilience when hitting the inevitable obstacles on the way towards your goals.

I hear your mental wheels turning right now.  Of course you have a growth mindset. Of course you can get better at things.  But take a deeper look.  Don’t you also have whole areas that you dismiss because, “I have no artistic ability.”  Or “I’m not good at math.”   Or “I’m just not athletic.”  Most of us are somewhere in the middle, but having a fixed mindset in any areas will limit how much you can grow and what risks you are willing to take.

The Research

The growth vs. fixed mindset was first described from research on adolescents and college students.  Students with a growth mindset were motivated to learn and exert effort, and outperformed those with a fixed mindset.  And in studies that trained students in the growth mindset, participants showed significant increases in effort and engagement.  It also improved test scores, provided for better grades, improved resilience in the face of challenges and increased life satisfaction.

The research has since been expanded into the business world.  When managers were taught a growth mindset, they increased their skills, were more likely to admit mistakes and more likely to overcome them.   They became more willing and able coaches and were more likely to notice performance improvements in their employees. They were also more likely to seek out constructive feedback from subordinates.  Negotiators taught a growth mindset were more able to push past obstacles and reach an agreement that benefitted both sides.   (Look past the graphic below for how to change your mindset.)

Image: Nigel Holmes / Graph Content: Carol Dweck

Changing from a fixed mindset to a growth mindset

(Adapted from Carol Dweck’s website)

Step 1 Learn to hear your fixed mindset voice.

As I talked about in this post (Taking on the voices in your head), we all have voices in our heads telling us what to do or trying to keep us safe.  When you can start hearing these voices as just that — voices, rather than you —  you can start to get some control of your actions and responses.  Look at Step 3 for some examples.

Step 2 Recognize that you have a choice.

How you interpret challenges, setbacks, and criticism is your choice. You can interpret them in a fixed mindset as signs that your fixed talents or abilities are lacking. Or you can interpret them in a growth mindset as signs that you need to ramp up your strategies and effort, stretch yourself, and expand your abilities. It’s up to you.

As you face challenges, setbacks and criticisms, listen to the fixed mindset voice and [Step 3] talk back to the voices with a growth mindset voice.

If you hear a FIXED MINDSET comment: Argue with a GROWTH MINDSET response:
“Are you sure you can do it? Maybe you don’t have the talent.” “I’m not sure I can do it now, but I think I can learn to with time and effort.”
“What if you fail—you’ll be a failure” “All successful people had failures along the way.”  (For more see this post ‘Learn to fail or fail to learn’)
“If you don’t try, you can protect yourself and keep your dignity.” “If I don’t try, I automatically fail. Where’s the dignity in that?”
“This would have been a snap if you really had talent.” “That is so wrong. Basketball wasn’t easy for Michael Jordan and science wasn’t easy for Thomas Edison. They had a passion and put in tons of effort.”
“It’s not my fault. It was something or someone else’s fault.” “If I don’t take responsibility, I can’t fix it. Let me listen—however painful it is– and learn whatever I can.”

Step 4. Take growth mindset action.

Giving voice to the growth mindset thinking will help you decide the best way forward.  Then you have the choice to take on the challenge, to learn from your setbacks and try again and to hear the criticism as a way to constructively improve on your work.

With practice you’ll hear this fixed-mindset voice more often and be ready with a growth-mindset response.  Over time, you’ll gain more and more choice and make it work for you.

So over the next week, slow down so you can notice what the voices are saying to you. If they are limiting you, try out another approach.

Eric Karpinski
The Happiness Coach
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