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Growth Mindset: The Science of Achieving Your Potential

Do you have a growth mindset? Do you even know what a growth mindset is? Maybe you do. But until recently, I didn’t.

And when I went on a little journey to learn more about it (and how to get one o’ them fancy mindsets for myself), what I learned kind of blew my mind… set.

To get you started on your own journey to a growth mindset—which, according to the scientists basically unlocks your full potential as a human—I’ll ask you a question:

When I say Michael Jordan, what comes to mind first?

  • Speed?
  • Agility?
  • Power?
  • Raw talent?

You might expect any of those answers. But what about hard work? Did that make your list? And if so, how far down?

When the typical sports fan watches clips of Jordan and sees his career stats, they picture the talent he had to possess to achieve that.

But what does Jordan think about Jordan’s career? If you listen, you’ll hear him say it many times: incredibly hard work is what made him the legacy he is today.

From the outside, his talent looks effortless. But from the inside, apparently, it looks the opposite.

Growth mindset and the talent perception divide: Was it talent? Or was it hard work you just didn't see?

Why did a man who seems to exude raw talent need to work so hard to get where he is? According to him, the hard work is what enabled his talent.

In a 2013 interview w/ Ahmad Rashad, Jordan talks at length about work ethic and how he thinks about his success.

In a seminal moment of the interview, Rashad asks Jordan, “Was fear of failure a motivator?”

And Jordan replies without hesitation. “I never feared about my skills, ya know, because I put in the work. Work ethic eliminates fear.”

Throughout his career, Jordan displayed what psychologists call the “growth mindset”—the belief that effort (not talent) is what generates results.

You can see that mindset at play throughout Jordan’s life, not just during the NBA years. When he moved to baseball, he’d arrive at practice early and hit balls until his hands bled. Today, he works on his businesses—a chain of steakhouses, a car dealership, and an NBA team.

It’s working. He’s worth almost a $1 billion.

The talent pyramid. It's easy to disregard the enormous foundation of hard work (the not fun part) that enables talent to shine (the fun part).

If you think you can attribute that much diversity of success to natural talent, you should think again.

According to Jordan, and according to a growing body of research, a growth mindset is what enables that kind of success.

Growth Mindset: What it is and where it came from

The idea that your mindset affects your life is hardly a new one. Many great thinkers, writers, and orators have extolled the virtues of mastering your mind to improve yourself for centuries. No, millenniums.

Basically, think one way, get one result. Think another, get another.

“Your thoughts determine your reality” has been a popular refrain for ages. It sounds good and it feels right, but is it true?

Michael Jordan is just one person on an endless list of anecdotal stories that would say yes.

Unfortunately, anecdotes are unreliable. What we really need is science. Something that puts a stake in the ground and explains why the anecdotes work (and how they can work for us).

Enter Carol Dweck, a professor who’s soft-spoken demeanor and fragile constitution could easily conceal her profound knowledge about the way your mind works if it weren’t for the fact that, when she speaks, her conviction forces you to listen.

And that conviction is well earned. Her decades of research into the way we learn has built a sturdy foundation of empirical evidence that tells that, “yes, your mindset matters!”

That evidence led to her magnum opus, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success.

It’s a fascinating read, but the crux of it is that you can measure your mindset on a continuum. At one end of the scale is a fixed mindset. At the other end is growth.

Fixed mindset is at one end of the continuum and growth mindset is at the other. The further you are to one end, the more (or less) you embrace learning new things.

What Dweck uncovered is that people on the right (growth mindset) tend to believe their intelligence and their abilities are malleable—that they can change (aka grow) based on how much effort they put into it. They think about their brain like a muscle. If they use it more and challenge it, it will grow stronger.

And those on the left (fixed mindset) consider those things to be set traits, like their eye color or if they have dimples when they smile. If you’re smart, it’s because you were born that way. If you’re talented, the talent comes from your genes. Not much you can do about it either way.

So that’s a simple explanation of the difference between fixed and growth mindset, but why does it actually matter?

What can a growth mindset actually do for you?

The difference between a fixed and growth mindset is simple to understand. You tend to believe you are who you are and there’s not much you can do about it (fixed). Or, you believe you’re in control of who you are, and you can change if you try (growth).

But is one actually better than the other?

According to Dweck, a growth mindset is absolutely better. In almost every way.

What she discovered through a series of experiments and studies is that people with a growth mindset not only learn more new things, but they learn those new things faster and better.

And the long-term outcomes of those findings were crystal clear, too: students with a growth mindset got better grades and ascended to higher levels of achievement later in life. They met more of their goals and stayed on more successful paths.

Why?

Because the mindset you have changes everything about how you approach challenges and opportunities—including whether you use the word “challenge” or “opportunity” for the same circumstance.

The mindset language barrier. Your mindset influences your language, and your language influences your mindset. When life happens, choose your words carefully.

In Mindset, Dweck explains that “no matter what your ability is, effort is what ignites that ability and turns it into accomplishment.”

And according to her research, a growth mindset is what motivates you to put in that effort. It’s what makes you dig deep to get through the difficulties of learning something new.

When you believe you’re capable of growing and overcoming obstacles—and that the process can make you smarter, stronger, or better—you feel a lot more motivation to put in the hours of difficult work that will actually get you there.

You’re striving for something you know you can achieve, so you’re at peace with the struggle.

But when you’re stuck in a fixed mindset, you’re exactly that: stuck.

If you can’t grow, if you can’t learn, if you can’t change, why would you bother trying? You don’t think you can do it, and failure would just confirm it.

Would you try to drive your car 300 miles if you only thought you had 100 miles worth of gas in the tank?

Your mindset is like the gas gauge on your car for the long journey of life. With a growth mindset, you're always ready for the next trip. With a fixed mindset, your tank is always empty when you need it most.

Dweck’s research shows that the students she examined were far less likely to even try to learn something new when they showed signs of a fixed mindset. And when they did try, they didn’t try as hard or for as long.

Here’s what Dweck said in Mindset:

In the fixed mindset, everything is about the outcome. If you fail—or if you’re not the best—it’s all been wasted. The growth mindset allows people to value what they’re doing regardless of the outcome. They’re tackling problems, charting new courses, working on important issues. Maybe they haven’t found the cure for cancer, but the search was deeply meaningful.

And when you think about it, we all start our lives with an intense growth mindset. That should make it easy and natural to be a growth oriented person. Yet, all of us—at least occasionally—struggle with a fixed mindset.

Everyone is born with a growth mindset, but only some of us keep it. You're presented with challenges as life goes on. The way you respond to them will determine the direction your mindset goes.

Again, from Dweck:

What on earth would make someone a nonlearner? Everyone is born with an intense drive to learn. Infants stretch their skills daily. Not just ordinary skills, but the most difficult tasks of a lifetime, like learning to walk and talk. They never decide it’s too hard or not worth the effort. Babies don’t worry about making mistakes or humiliating themselves. They walk, they fall, they get up. They just barge forward. What could put an end to this exuberant learning? The fixed mindset. As soon as children become able to evaluate themselves, some of them become afraid of challenges. They become afraid of not being smart. I have studied thousands of people from preschoolers on, and it’s breathtaking how many reject an opportunity to learn.

So, if you want to improve your life and take more control over what you achieve, then it’s clear that a growth mindset is going to be a lot more useful than a fixed one.

Do you have a growth mindset?

You probably already have a sense of which side of the spectrum you’re on. But if you’re not certain, here’s a quick, 3-question survey that will give you a (rough) idea of whether you have more of a fixed or growth mindset.

  • Optional

Let’s look at those questions in a little more detail.

1. Do you think you “are who you are” and that won’t change? Or do you think you improve as you learn more?

If you think of yourself—your intelligence and your abilities—as something you don’t have control over, you lean towards a fixed mindset.

But if you believe you can change your intelligence and abilities (either by trying hard and growing or by giving up and losing them), then you lean towards a growth mindset.

2. If you aced a difficult test, which of these compliments from your family or friends would be most satisfying to you?

(a) You’re so smart!
(b)You worked really hard!

If you chose a, you lean towards a fixed mindset. If you chose b, you trend towards a growth mindset.

People with a fixed mindset value their natural talents above their efforts, so it will be more satisfying to be complimented for being smart.

But people who hold a growth mindset take pride in their hard work more than their natural gifts, so a compliment that notes their effort would be the most encouraging.

3. When you don’t understand something, do you tend to ask more or fewer questions about it?

If you ask more questions, that indicates you have more of a growth mindset. It shows an interest in a subject you don’t fully understand, and that interest comes from a desire to learn—a characteristic of those who aim to grow.

If you ask fewer questions, it indicates you have more of a fixed mindset. You may be less interested in unfamiliar topics, or you may feel some fear about showing others that you don’t know as much as them about something. That’s a characteristic of those who see themselves as fixed.

Take the average of the 3 answers above, and that’s a rough indication of whether you have more of a fixed or growth mindset.

Is a growth mindset really that simple?

Yep, it really is!

Where it gets a little more nuanced is judging your own mindset in the day-to-day.

According to Dweck, it’s important to understand that the fixed-growth mindset continuum really is a continuum. Some people will fall all the way to one end or the other.

Someone like Michael Jordan will believe they’re capable of learning and excelling at anything. They have super-growth mindsets. And others, like your lazy, whiny cousin in Denver can’t imagine their life going any other direction than the one it’s going now. God forbid they ever change that by trying something different. They have a super-fixed mindset.

The rest of us fall somewhere in the middle. We usually fall on one side or the other.

And while you have an overall mindset, you might find that it’s wildly different around different topics or under different circumstances.

You can be growth oriented in one part of life, but fixed in another. You might think you can conquer any cooking challenge while also believing you'll never be great at golf.

You might think of yourself as the most capable chef on Earth while simultaneously seeing yourself as the most hopelessly clumsy golfer.

That’s normal. And if you find yourself in that situation, the prescription is simple:

If you generally fall towards the fixed end of the spectrum, you need to work to move over to the growth end—even if just a little bit.

If you generally fall on the growth side, you should work to get closer to the furthest end so that you can bring those thought patterns into all areas of your life.

And if you struggle with a fixed mindset in one particular area, then that is the place you must apply the most effort to improve.

So, where do you fall?

And what if you don’t have that coveted growth mindset? Can you develop one?

Yep, you can.

How to Develop Your Growth Mindset

This is where we make some real progress.

Now you know what a growth mindset is, what it can do for you, and whether or not you’ve got one.

But it can be frustrating to understand all that and still not know what to do to actually develop it in yourself.

We're all trying to gain access to "Castle Happiness." Sometimes, you know what to do to get in, but it still feels really hard to get started.

Let’s fix that.

When you’re confronting your fixed mindset, it can feel like you don’t have any point of reference for how to change it. There’s nothing you can do. (That’s the pitfall of the fixed mindset, after all!)

In reality, there is something you can do.

You can scavenge your brain and create a list (even if it’s short) of areas in your life where you already have a growth mindset.

The goal is to look for times when you learned something and it made you better. That’s a perfect example of the growth mindset at work, and every one of us—including you—have experienced it.

Maybe you’ve always struggled with math and you tell yourself that’s just you. You’re bad with numbers.

But then you remember you picked up a new skill at work—maybe learning how to manage a project or do budget forecasting or… whatever—really quickly. You’d never used that skill before, but you put in some effort and you learned. Now it’s easy.

Personally, I hold a growth mindset in many areas of my life. I love the effort of learning, and I use it to pick up new skills regularly.

But one place I still struggle is with relationships. I’m very introverted and connection has never been effortless for me. When I experience a failure, sometimes I’ll go pretty hard on myself. I’ll say, “Tyler, you’re just not a relationship person. It’s not for you.”

That’s dangerous! Mostly because it’s not true, and I have proof. There are so many areas of my life where I can see that I’ve had to struggle to learn what feels effortless today. Learning relationships is no different.

When you have a growth mindset, big wins come by accumulating lots of small successes.

When I remind myself I’ve learned other difficult things before and I can see my progress in relationships over time, it helps reinforce the growth mindset that I need to keep developing to make more progress.

Let’s put this “growth mindset” stuff to work right now.

Alright, let’s take everything you just learned and make it immediately useful.

Start by thinking of a goal you’d like to accomplish.

Make it a small one you could complete in the next few days. And make it something you feel like you should be able to do, but you can’t right now. Or you haven’t really tried yet.

Your mindset towards this goal has almost certainly held you back from making that initial effort.

Maybe you’ve told yourself that it just isn’t in you to do it, or you’re not able to find the time to make it happen.

Take a moment to speak to yourself as if you were approaching this goal from a growth mindset—that if you make the time to learn and put in the effort, you will be able to achieve it.

Think of yourself as your own teacher encouraging you to take on a new learning challenge.

And the way I want you to do that is by reminding yourself of examples (the more recent the better) where you achieved something difficult by working hard for it.

Make a list. It’s really motivating.

Finally, choose one small thing to do (today!) that will move you one step closer to achieving that personal goal. Commit to putting at least 20 minutes of effort towards it.

When you finish, give yourself a compliment, and make it specific. Praise yourself for doing the work.

Let’s see where that gets you.

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