By championing lifelong learning, adaptability, and process over static abilities, you'll set yourself up for both personal and professional growth.
From widely shared blogs by LinkedIn influencers to STEM educators teaching critical thinking, we've all heard people celebrate the potentially life-changing results that adopting a "growth mindset" can bring.
But what is a growth mindset, exactly? And why does it make sense to cultivate one?
In this comprehensive guide, we'll give you the lowdown on this trending topic and provide advice on how to implement a growth mindset in your day-to-day life — showing you how a small change in mental habits can have a huge payoff.
What is a growth mindset?
“In a growth mindset, people believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work — brains and talent are just the starting point. This view creates a love of learning and a resilience that is essential for great accomplishment.”
— Carol Dweck, 2015
While ideas around the importance mindsets have been around for decades, much of the widespread popularity of the "growth mindset" can be attributed to the work of the celebrated Stanford University psychology professor, Carol Dweck.
In her bestselling 2006 book, Mindset: The Psychology of Success, Dweck argues that people’s views about “where ability comes from” can be placed on a continuum between a “fixed mindset” and a “growth mindset.” Let's take a look at them in further detail.
A fixed mindset: static and risk-averse
With a fixed mindset, people believe their basic abilities, intelligence and talents are innate, fixed traits. In other words, these traits are something a person either possesses or lacks. Consequently, the actions and goals of people with a fixed mindset revolve around being risk-averse and staying in their “comfort zones.”
The irony behind a fixed mindset is that it hinders people of all intellectual abilities.
For those with a reputation for being “naturally smart,” exuding an air of succeeding without trying (in other words, maintaining their reputation) comes at a cost of creativity and innovation. For underachievers, a fixed attitude to intelligence prevents them from discovering skills they didn’t know they possessed. In both cases, a fixed mindset makes it harder for people to realise their true potential.
A growth mindset: agile and innovative
People with a growth mindset understand and acknowledge that their talents and abilities (and even intelligence) can be developed through effort, mentorship and persistence.
This mindset does not necessarily view intelligence as a blank canvas or that everyone has an equal footing, however. Instead, they believe anyone, regardless of socioeconomic background, can become smarter with a bit of dedication and hard work.
With a growth mindset, every perceived failure is seen as an opportunity to learn new skills and adopt new strategies. Instead of an insurmountable obstacle to our ambitions, failure becomes an integral step towards success.
The ‘power of yet’ vs ‘the tyranny of now’
Dweck suggests that you go one further by transcending the paradigm of success and failure altogether. As an alternative, she proposes you address challenges by saying to yourself: “not yet.”
While “success” and “failure” are two broad concepts that can lead to exhaustive semantics, the two simple words “not yet” open up a window to the future. They give learning a temporal dimension and push us towards your goals. They are an integral part of the growth mindset.
Dweck calls this idea of an ongoing journey the “power of yet,” which she contrasts with the “tyranny of now” response inherent in a fixed mindset (“if I fail at the first hurdle, there’s no point in persisting”). In a growth mindset, the potential for growth overrides and overcomes in-the-moment anxieties.
The science behind a growth mindset
The notion of a growth mindset is closely linked to neuroplasticity, which describes the brain’s ability to change continuously throughout an adult’s life.
Thanks to the brain’s neuroplasticity, the connections between neurons can change with experience. Neural growth can be accelerated by our behaviours or lifestyle modulators, including physical activity, a healthy diet and a good sleep routine.
Broadly speaking, there are two types of brain plasticity:
- Functional neuroplasticity — our brain’s ability to transfer functions from a damaged region to other undamaged regions
- Structural neuroplasticity — our brain's ability to change its physical structure (neuronal connections) as a result of learning
While the theory of brain plasticity has been around since the 19th century, the idea was largely ignored by the scientific community well into the 20th century. Indeed, despite claims by the psychologist, William James that "organic matter, especially nervous tissue, seems endowed with a very extraordinary degree of plasticity" (from his 1890 book The Principles of Psychology), the consensus among researchers was that changes in the brain could only occur in infancy and childhood.
By the 1960s, James’ hypotheses had been vindicated by a growing body of supporting evidence, including studies that showed healthy regions of the brain could partially take over functions that had been destroyed during a stroke.
Since then, further research has revealed other characteristics of neuroplasticity. We now know that while neuroplasticity declines as we age, the process does not come to a complete standstill. What’s more, we also know that new neurons can appear in certain regions of the brain right up until our final moments.
Arguably the most well-known example of brain plasticity in action was the study of London taxi drivers (Maguire, Woollett, & Spiers, 2006). In the study, taxi drivers were found to have a larger hippocampus (the brain structure that plays a role in learning and memory) than London bus drivers.
The reason? While bus drivers mostly followed pre-planned routes, taxi drivers were required to remember each backstreet and possible detour when navigating across the city. By stimulating their hippocampus on a regular basis, taxi drivers quite literally changed the physical structure of their brains. Similar structural changes have been observed in the left inferior parietal cortex of bilingual people (Mechelli et al., 2004), as well as in the motor cortex of professional musicians (Gaser & Schlaug, 2003).
4 ways to cultivate a growth mindset
1) Gravitate towards people who already have a growth mindset
As work becomes increasingly specialised and competitive, finding solutions or coming up with new ideas can prove difficult. This can have a knock-on effect on your learning and development, and people can end up falling back upon the familiarity of a fixed mindset to cope with uncertainty.
To adopt the growth mindset necessary for success, it’s important to focus on people’s capacity and not their pedigree. In other words, people who demonstrate a commitment to learning and a passion for experimentation should be sought out. Such people will encourage collaboration, act with initiative, and have the foresight and resilience to adapt to future challenges.
The psychologist Abraham Maslow once said, "every day we can step into growth with courage or retreat into safety." Given that people with a growth mindset are naturally inclined towards stepping into the unknown, observing their actions can give you the courage to follow suit. Seek out colleagues who inspire you. Aim to inspire others.
2) Be inquisitive and take risks
In the competitive world of work, the margins between sinking and swimming can feel small. To stay afloat, too many people fall back on a risk-averse way of thinking — a mindset that inevitably rubs off on their coworkers.
With so much change going on in society, however, playing it safe is a risk in itself. Without risk-taking, creativity and innovation are completely stifled, making it harder to propel yourself forward.
Failure is an inevitable part of life. When taking on challenges, you need to acknowledge that success isn’t guaranteed. However, there is always something to learn — even if that means going back to the drawing board and changing your approach.
Ultimately, a growth-mindset culture removes the fear of failure. What is “failure,” after all, but a way of analysing events that have already happened? What is “failure” if not a chance to learn from those events?
3) Tap into your intrinsic motivators
As we have seen, a growth mindset focuses on learning and development. From an individual perspective, making the most out of learning and development depends on being able to unlock intrinsic motivation: an inner drive that pushes you to pursue an activity, not for external rewards, but because the action itself is gratifying.
As various studies in behavioural psychology have proven, intrinsic motivators are far more powerful than external motivators. Aside from encouraging collaboration and a higher degree of effort and long-term performance (Pinder 2011), self-motivation has been shown to be just as effective in increasing performance as external rewards (such as bonuses) in a workplace setting (Cerasoli et al. 2014).
For businesses that say they promote a growth mindset, being able to motivate employees is how they prove it. It’s worth remembering that intrinsic motivators are highly individualised, not universal. What pushes you to thrive may hinder someone else. So how can you tap into intrinsic motivators?
The ideas of the American author Daniel Pink may provide an answer. In his 2009 book, Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, Pink drew on research conducted by psychologists in the 1970s to outline a new framework for motivation. Pink labels this paradigm shift “Motivation 3.0 — an upgrade from primitive survival mode (Motivation 1.0) and from the culture of reward and punishment that characterises fixed-mindset organisations (Motivation 2.0).
Motivation 3.0 rejects traditional, fixed approaches to motivation and instead encourages us to harness our intrinsic motivation — giving ourselves the tools to be self-motivated as well as the freedom to do work we are truly passionate about.
Pink argues that intrinsic motivation or self-motivation is based on three key factors:
- Autonomy — the urge to direct our own lives, to feel a sense of ownership for our work and control over our own destiny.
- Mastery — the desire to get better at something that matters. This yearning to be an expert in a particular field can also be described as virtuosity.
- Purpose — the drive to be part of something larger than ourselves and to feel that what we do is important and valued. This is often synonymous with big-picture thinking and can help you adopt a more strategic, long-term approach to your life and career.
By focusing on being intrinsically motivated, you can encourage yourself and others to pursue these ideas of autonomy, mastery, and purpose. Doing so can increase your engagement and drive, and — most importantly — improve your sense of fulfilment at work.
4) Train yourself to be emotionally agile
A growth mindset does not just encompass the more logical or analytical aspects of our lives. Humans are emotional beings, and knowing how to manage our emotions is vital for our day-to-day health, happiness and productivity.
In her TED talk, “The gift and power of emotional courage,” the South African psychologist Susan David underscores the importance of emotional agility. For David, our emotions signpost our values and give us opportunities to shape our lives according to these values.
If ensuring we’re better equipped to manage our emotions is not on our radar, perhaps it should be. According to the World Health Organisation, depression and anxiety together is the leading cause of disability globally — more than cancer or heart disease. The cost to global productivity? US$1 trillion per year.
In these uncertain times, too many people are unable to find strategies to cope with the winds of change. The tendency for many people is to either fall back upon rigid emotions or to deny they are struggling.
Emotional agility helps us deal with the rigidity of denial, which can be one of the most destructive emotions for both our work and personal lives.
While countless parents, educational institutions and workplaces have tried to help people better deal with their emotions, the strategies employed have often had the opposite effect.
Splitting emotions into dichotomies of “positive” and “negative”, for example, only serves to accentuate the highs and lows of the corresponding emotions. David calls this way of thinking the “tyranny of positivity.” Indeed, research shows that emotions only become stronger when they are ignored. For our emotional responses to be constructive, we need to be analytical about our emotions. Adopting strategies that enable us to deal with our emotions in an agile manner can be truly transformative.
According to David, “emotions are data, not directives.” By viewing emotions, which often appear to be chaotic and hard to pin down, as analogous to something ordered like data, we can externalise an emotion when it appears.
For example, instead of confronting anger with an “I am angry” outlook, you can observe anger as “I am currently experiencing an emotion like anger.” Adopting a growth mindset separates you from the emotion — giving you scope to reflect and learn from it.
The takeaway? Emotions guide our values. By applying a growth mindset to these guiding principles, you will be more engaged and more likely to emotionally invest in your work.
Apart from making us rethink intelligence and ability, arguably the defining feature of a growth mindset is perceiving challenges as opportunities rather than obstacles.
In this sense, a growth mindset is not just a way of thinking; it’s a way of acting and a way of responding to external problems.
We are all faced with unique challenges on a day-to-day basis, however serious or mundane. From balancing our work and personal lives to dealing with a difficult colleague, our mindset affects both ourselves and those around us.
On a larger scale, the 2020 coronavirus pandemic has highlighted the life-or-death importance of ensuring we have the collective means to decisively respond to different challenges.
When facing uncertainty, accepting things is key. We can only change the things in our power. Events will pan out in ways that we can barely expect. To face the future head-on, the million-dollar question we should all ask ourselves is this:
“What can I/we learn from this experience that can help me/us move forward?”
We’ve all heard the terrible cliche “success is a journey, not a destination.” The problem with cliches, however, is that they are usually true. As the role models who have adopted and nurtured a growth mindset have proven, seeing yourself and others as being on journeys will help you focus on the process and not dwell on minor setbacks.
Of course, it’s easy to fall back into fixed-mindset thinking. People are not perfect. But if you can start to take risks, experiment, and pursue your passions, innovation and growth will inevitably follow.
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