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Moving from a Fixed Mindset to a Growth Mindset

Our mindset can often be the determining factor for whether we succeed or fail at a certain task. Transitioning from a fixed mindset to a growth mindset can change your approach on setbacks, viewing them not as predetermined failures but rather opportunities to learn and grow.

Building healthy habits and learning new skills are always hardest at the beginning—no matter what we may try, failure will visit us time and time again. How we meet those setbacks, though, will determine whether we choose to overcome them or let them derail us entirely. In her book, Mindset: Changing the Way You Think to Fulfill Your Potential, Carol Dweck describes two specific personal belief systems that can dictate how we deal with adversity in our lives—she calls them “the fixed mindset” and “the growth mindset.” Here’s a quick rundown on what they are:

Fixed Mindset

A fixed mindset is predicated on the false belief that one’s talent or skill in a given area will always remain the same. Someone who has a fixed mindset will rely heavily on external affirmations of their worth, instead of focusing on improving their skillset or honing their craft. When faced with their own failure in a given task, a person with a fixed mindset is likely to cave to the pressure, seeing their failure as a sign of their own shortcoming.

Growth Mindset

A growth mindset rejects the idea that a person’s skillset will never change. Instead, it embraces the fact that abilities can be cultivated through patience and perseverance, and that by allowing oneself to fail, a person gives themself the chance to grow and improve. A person with a growth mindset is invested in the process of growth, rather than the end result, and genuinely derives pressure from the process of learning. By refusing to view failure as a measure of one’s self-worth, people with a growth mindset are more likely to achieve their goals in the long-term.

Transitioning between mindsets

While it’s easy to say that a growth mindset will lead to more personal development, it’s not nearly as easy to follow through and implement it in everyday life. Let’s use an example:
Our friend, Arnie, had been meaning to learn alto saxophone for years—about twice a year, he would spend a week or so playing scales and trying to learn songs every day. By the end of the week, he would get better at playing a few scales, but he would still have trouble playing basic melodies that he assumed he could master with a few hours of practice. Instead of celebrating the progress he’d made on scales over the course of the week and choosing to rise to the challenge of the songs, Arnie would point to his failures as reason to believe that he simply wasn’t, and never would be, a capable saxophone player. In this case, Arnie’s fixed mindset prevented him from moving further along with the saxophone because he assumed his failure was indicative of a supposedly intrinsic talent or ability.
About a year ago, though, Arnie quite literally changed his tune and adopted a growth mindset when approaching the saxophone—rather than reflecting his worth or talent in some way, Arnie newly saw his failures as a chance to grow. He developed the patience and confidence to acknowledge the areas in which he was failing and frame them as challenges that could be surmounted with the proper patience and discipline. Instead of finding an easy excuse to abandon his saxophone practice —“I’ll never be good enough!” as he used to say—Arnie continued his daily regimen and patiently developed his playing ability.
By adopting a growth mindset, he took mental energy that had otherwise been focused on his shortcomings, and re-directed it towards the actual task at hand. Arnie re-framed adversity as a problem to be solved, not a reason to give up, and today, he knows how to play over 100 songs. “I’m not good enough to play in a band yet,” he told me a few days ago, “but that just means there’s more work to be done.”

Our mindsets can be circumstantial

Before guessing which mindset you carry in your everyday life, it’s important to remember that no person exclusively has one mindset or the other. It’s more of a spectrum, in which some people are more open to meeting challenges than others. If you’ve been working in a given field or on a particular skill for a long time, you’re far more likely to have adopted a growth mindset when focusing on that particular skill or task. Though Arnie had a fixed mindset when it came to saxophone, for instance, he has for years known how to patiently hone his skills as a web designer, since he had been working in the field since college and learned early on that he must accept failure as an essential part of his personal growth. The further along we get into a specific skillset, the easier it is to adopt a growth mindset. There’s a reason that the first step is always the hardest.
Living in a culture that focuses so heavily on talent and quantifiable results, it can be hard to be patient with yourself. But that’s exactly what it will take to achieve the long-term growth that we all aspire to—we must allow ourselves to fail, and use each failure as a chance to keep growing. And this applies not only to internal impediments, but external ones as well—when a button on Arnie’s saxophone broke, for instance, he had to hold off on practicing for a week as the sax was in the shop. But instead of allowing this setback to spell the end of his growth, Arnie had no problem getting back to it as soon as the sax was repaired and ready to go again. He openly acknowledged that he’d regressed a little bit during his week-long hiatus, but he didn’t allow this to intimidate him.
We’ll all face setbacks at some point in our lives, whether at work or in our personal lives. What matters is how we choose to frame those setbacks, and whether we continue to hold ourselves up. Rather than relying on quantifiable results or notions of merit like test scores or performance evaluations to determine whether or not we should be doing what we’re doing, it’s far healthier and more productive to ask how we can overcome the obstacles we face. By setting lofty goals, it’s possible to set yourself up for disappointment. Instead, try to commit to a daily regimen so that, no matter what, you’ll feel fulfilled by your own personal growth.

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