Growth Mindset: The Belief That Drives Success
11 Minute Read
“The other thing exceptional people seem to have is a special talent for converting life’s setbacks into future successes.”
- Carol Dweck
I have more than 20 years of experience working with companies worldwide and addressing the most challenging leadership issues.
Whenever some of my younger collaborators see me in action, I know the question in their minds is:
Will I ever be able to do that?
So, why is it that some people, when confronted with challenges maintain faith and hope that they too can, ultimately, succeed?
Carol Dweck is a researcher at Stanford University. She was fascinated by what drives success and outstanding performance and dedicated her career to the study of motivation.
Her groundbreaking work uncovered the mindsets of people who achieve excellence and mastery.
She found that people can either have a growth mindset or a fixed mindset.
What Are Mindsets?
First things first. What exactly do we mean with mindset? Mindset is simply a belief system.
It’s an attitude, disposition or tendency that a person adopts to respond to challenges, tasks, and opportunities.
These beliefs are what determine whether or not someone will learn and master a skill. They influence every area of life.
In an organization, the skill sets of employees are not as impactful as whether or not they believe they can develop their skill set.
Fixed Mindset - I don’t have it.
“People will greatly misestimate their performance and ability. But those with fixed mindset account for almost all the inaccuracy.”
- Carol Dweck
The essence of the fixed mindset is the belief that talents, abilities, and intelligence are fixed traits.
Dweck studied students to understand how people deal with failures and tackle difficult problems.
“In a fixed mindset, students believe their basic abilities, their intelligence, their talents, are just fixed traits. They have a certain amount and that's that, and then their goal becomes to look smart all the time and never look dumb. In a growth mindset, students understand that their talents and abilities can be developed through effort, good teaching, and persistence. They don't necessarily think everyone's the same or anyone can be Einstein, but they believe everyone can get smarter if they work at it.”
- Carol Dweck
As soon as children learn to evaluate themselves, some of them come to fear challenges. They’re more concerned with looking smart than with learning.
In a study with 4 year-olds, Dweck and colleagues offered them a choice:
- They could redo an easy jigsaw
- Or try a more challenging one
Even at this age, children with a fixed mindset chose to keep doing the same easy option. Avoiding mistakes was their primary motivation. “Kids who are born smart don’t make mistakes” they said.
If you believe that intelligence and abilities are fixed, you either have it or you don’t have it. Therefore, mistakes and failures signal that you don’t have it. They’re perceived as indicators of lack of intelligence.
Their identity is tied up with it. In a fixed mindset, if you fail you’re a failure. It defines who you are. That’s why every success is so important.
And because no one wants to feel like a failure they don’t expose themselves to situations where they can potentially fail. But in doing so, they also avoid learning.
Real Life Puzzles
If you’re asking yourself, what do 4-year-old puzzles have to do with real life, hold your horses. At the University of Hong Kong, everything is in English, yet not all students who enter the university are fluent in English.
After identifying the students who weren’t fluent in English, they asked them: if the faculty offered an English course for students looking to improve their skills, would you take it?
They also measured their mindset. And found that students with a fixed mindset passed the opportunity to learn a skill crucial for their academic achievement.
They would rather compromise their academic journey than expose their weaknesses. Students with a growth mindset jumped ahead at the opportunity to learn.
Fixed mindset makes people refuse to learn.
“We know there is a mindset in which people are enmeshed in the idea of their own talent and specialness. When things go wrong, they lose their focus and their ability, putting everything they want in jeopardy.”
- Carol Dweck
The Mindset Question:
To assesses whether you have a growth or fixed mindset ask yourself how much you agree with this statement:
“You have a certain amount of intelligence, and you can’t really do much to change it.”
“Exceptional individuals have a special talent for identifying their own strengths and weaknesses.”
- Howard Gardner
People with a growth mindset believe their talents, abilities, and intelligence can be developed.
When presented with an opportunity to learn, they’re eager to stretch themselves. If they fail, they will likely seek to understand what they could have done differently.
Before Dweck’s research, she thought people either cope with challenges, or they don’t. She was shocked to find that some students actually loved challenges.
The 4-year-old children in the puzzle study with a growth mindset had a very different take on it. They thought it was the strangest question:
“Why are you asking me this lady? Why would anyone want to keep doing the same puzzle over and over again?
So they kept choosing harder and harder puzzles. One girl was so excited she said: “I’m dying to figure them out!”
How one belief leads to success:
Love of challenge
Belief in effort
Resilience in the face of setbacks
Greater, more creative success
People with a growth mindset are learners. They believe that with enough effort they’re able to succeed. Because they expose themselves to challenges, they’re able to accept and use constructive feedback to optimize their performance. So their performance keeps improving. And they keep stretching themselves.
Fixed Vs Growth
Challenges: should be avoided
Obstacles: make them give up
Effort: is pointless
Criticism: negative feedback is ignored
Success of others: is a threat
Challenges: are fun
Obstacles: make them persist
Effort: is the path to excellence
Criticism: is a valuable learning tool
Success of others: inspires them
CEO’s with fixed mindsets are easy to identify. They’ll project an image of perfection and have a reputation for not accepting feedback.
They feel threatened by other people’s talent and intelligence, so they’re compelled to hire and work with people that validate their genius, sometimes at the expense of reporting critical issues.
Their main concern is looking smart, which is reflected in their business decisions.
The question a CEO needs to regularly face is this one:
Should I confront my shortcomings or should I build a reality where I have none?
A fixed mindset drives leaders to surround themselves with yay sayers and ignore the critics. Creating a bubble that is so dismissive of crucial information it can destroy a business.
“I wish to have as my epitaph: Here lies a man who was wise enough to bring into his service men who knew more than he.”
- Andrew Carnegie
Growth-oriented leaders believe in human potential and development.
Instead of using their organizations as a means to validate their greatness, they use their organizations to promote not just their growth but their employees and the company's growth.
Leaders with a growth mindset thrive with challenges. The leadership mindset is about embracing challenges and prioritizing long-term learning over quick fixes.
Growth mindset leaders transform their companies by instilling a culture of learning, flexibility, and teamwork.
Jack Welch was such a leader. When he arrived at GE the company was worth 14 billion dollars. Twenty years later it was worth a staggering 490 billion dollars.
It’s hard to assess the full impact of his administration, but it can only be a multiple product of his performance.
He was famous for caring for his employees. He would go directly to the workers on the assembly line and hear what they had to say.
His workers were respected, acknowledged and nurtured. He actively sought to learn from them.
Fixed mindset leaders are all about themselves. Their favorite words are “me” and “I”. Jack Welch was all about “we” and “us”. He emphasized teamwork and gave credit to his collaborators.
When he failed, buying an investment firm that lost billions of dollars, he learned that:
“True self-confidence is the courage to be open, to welcome change and new ideas regardless of their source. Real self-confidence is not reflected in a title, an expensive suit, a fancy car or a series of acquisitions. It is reflected in your mindset: your readiness to grow.”
He hired people based on their mindset, not their qualifications. He looked for the people eager to learn and with a passion for their work.
A resume is a poor testament to the inner workings of people and he was aware of that and learned to recognize the ones with a growth mindset.
Dweck and colleagues wanted to see how the different mindsets reflected in brain activity. They brought participants into their brain-wave lab in Columbia and asked them difficult questions.
As they got feedback on their questions, the researchers were looking to see if their brain showed signs of interest.
People with a fixed mindset displayed interest when they were told whether their answers were right or wrong.
However, when they were given information that could help them learn, their brains showed no sign of interest. Their brains were only scanning for ability, not learning.
Only people with a growth mindset were carefully listening and paying attention to information that could help them learn. Learning was what mattered to them.
Changing Your Mind
Now the question is, can someone with a fixed mindset develop a growth orientation? The answer is yes.
Because it really comes down to a belief and everyone has changed their mind about something at least once.
However, we can be intentional about it. And here’s how:
Go back to the mindset question and assess the areas in which you believe your abilities are fixed. Most people have different mindsets for different areas of their life.
2. Question the belief
Talking yourself into a new belief is hardly the way to go about it. We change our minds when we experience things differently. But to experience it, we first need to question the belief so that the doubt will make room for a new set of behaviors.
Look for examples of people who developed their skill through deliberate effort and achieved the results you’re seeking to get. How did they go about it? What were their thought processes? What strategies helped them the most?
You’ll find that behind their achievement was an identity linked to their daily actions. Meaning, it’s not about going through the motions. It’s about seeing yourself as someone with a set of habits focused on the processes of skill development.
Great artists, writers, leaders and anyone who excels in their craft commit to daily practice. They show up for it every day. And because of it, they come to see themselves as artists, writers, and leaders.
Jack Welch committed to a set of daily practices that made him the extraordinary leader he was. He checked in with his collaborators daily, he listened and learned from them, he instilled a culture of learning because he surrounded himself with other learners. He wasn't committed to the results, he was consistent with his process.
Wrapping It Up
The results we achieve and the quality of life we live is inextricably linked to our beliefs.
Most people with extraordinary talent weren’t just born that way. They developed it through years and years of practicing and learning.
Believing that you can be a better leader, a better listener, a better parent, that you can improve your creativity and any other skill you’re looking to develop is a fundamental part of it.
But it’s not about end results or quick fixes, it’s about developing a learner identity.
People with a growth mindset see themselves as learners. They might not have the ability yet, but they have the yet. And that makes all the difference.
“I don’t divide the world into the weak and the strong, or the successes and the failures... I divide the world into the learners and the non-learners.”
- Benjamin Barber
Now we'd love to know your opinion. Are you a growth mindset leader? What strategies helped you create a learning culture? Leave a comment below.