What is a ‘Growth Mindset’ (and how can it help me achieve my goals)?

One of my proudest moments as a parent came over the summer when my 10 year old son explained to me why he’d decided to adopt a ‘growth mindset’. An unusual thing for a young boy to be pondering admittedly. But thanks to a book by Matthew Syed entitled You Are Awesome, my son had learnt an important lesson in challenging the beliefs that might hold him back in life. That effort rather than IQ was what counted and that having the right mindset is key to achieving your dreams.

I know for certain that ‘growth mindset’ was not a phrase that tripped off my tongue during my youth. Or indeed at any time probably until my 30s, when I first became interested in the psychology of how we look at the world and it’s impact on our ability to reach our goals.

What Is A Growth Mindset?

The concept of fixed versus growth mindset came about from studies carried out by Professor Carol Dwerk between the 1970s and 2000s. She initially began her research into how children cope with failure. She discovered that while for some it was catastrophic, for others it was welcomed as an opportunity to learn. This spawned several decades of further research culminating in two core concepts. People with a fixed mindset view ability and IQ as something they either have or have not. In contrast people with a growth mindset believe that intelligence and skills can be learnt and improved over time.

“Growth mindset is based on the belief that your basic qualities are things you can cultivate through your efforts.”

– Professor Carol Dwerk

The Science

Dwerk’s research centred around maths puzzles presented to children aged 9 to 12. Told they achieved 80% in their first test, the children were then praised either for their natural intelligence or for their effort on the task.

After further puzzles the children’s subsequent behaviour was monitored and formed the basis of the findings. Children praised for their intelligence were less willing to take on more challenging tasks, enjoyed the tasks less and were less likely to persist on difficult tasks. Overall these children performed worse in future tasks.

In contrast children praised for their effort were more willing to choose tasks that would help them learn new skills, enjoyed the tasks more and were more likely to persist on challenging tasks. Furthermore, 86% of children praised for their intelligence were concerned with how their peers performed. Only 23% of those praised for effort were similarly concerned with their peers, with most of them requesting feedback on how they could improve themselves.

So what does this tell us?

Well it tells us that someone with a growth mindset is more likely to believe they can improve their skills. They are more willing to take on challenges and be more resilient when faced with adversity. Through learning a growth mindset, a person can change their perception of what is possible. They are better able to recognise how effort and persistence can enable them to achieve their goals.

How Can I Develop A Growth Mindset?

The good news is that it can be learnt. Here are three ways you can intentionally cultivate your own growth mindset.

Practice

Like many people, my husband believes he is not good at maths. But despite this self-held belief, he can calculate some pretty complicated sums in his head without the aide of a calculator or paper and pen. He can add, subtract and multiply in this context because his sales role utilises this skill day after day after day. Practice enables him to become good at mental arithmetic.

Start thinking about practice from a growth mindset point of view and seek out opportunities to try it. Accept that you will not be good at something at first. See all practice as an incremental process to developing that skill over time.

Opportunity

Farrah Storr recently wrote a book about ‘The Discomfort Zone‘ in which she talks about the importance of not staying safely within our sphere of comfort. She argues that the way we develop our skills is by pushing through those periods of discomfort in order to realise our full potential.

By trying out new things and challenging ourselves to risk those uncomfortable feelings, we present ourselves with the opportunity to learn what works. Be prepared to make mistakes, accept feedback and use both as opportunities to refine for the next time.

Grit

Grit is the key that unlocks the power of a growth mindset. It is the idea that people who persevere in the face of challenges have something called ‘grit’. The concept comes from studies by Angela Duckworth around the same time as Prof. Dwerk’s influential research into fixed and growth mindsets. The studies analysed military cadets, National Spelling Bee participants, sales representatives and inner-city elementary school teachers. All of these studies aimed to see who would be successful and why.

Duckworth concluded that across all settings there was one common predictor of success – ‘grit’.

“Grit is passion and perseverance for very long-term goals. Grit is having stamina. Grit is sticking with your future, day in day out. Not just for the week, not just for the month, but for years. And working really hard to make that future a reality.”

– Angela Duckworth

Having grit helps the achievement of long-term goals because it gives you the ability to overcome obstacles and adversity.

What Does It Mean For Me?

In more recent years the concept of growth mindset has occasionally morphed into “anyone can achieve anything if they put their mind to it”. Sadly it’s not quite that simplistic. What we can say is this: inherent gifts or talents do not predetermine the ability to learn. It changes depending upon our effort. When we understand a growth mindset, we are more likely to persevere through failure because we recognise that failure is temporary. This perseverance builds our grit, our willingness to adapt from the lessons we’ve learned and our ability to keep striving to reach our long-term goals.

If this post has got you thinking about developing your long-term goals, find out more about How to Write a Personal Development Plan That Actually Works.

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