Personal Narrative Voice: Growth Mindset

Posted on May 27, 2016

Last post, we introduced Carol Dweck’s concepts of the Growth Mindset and its opposite, Fixed Mindset. In my work with clients, and my own thinking about myself, I have realized that power of Fixed Mindsets keeps people stuck in self-deprecating patterns of thinking. The Fixed Mindset comes out in our language, and can keep us repeating behavioral patterns that prevent us from realizing our full potential and living the life we want for ourselves. Part of helping clients reclaim their personal narratives is helping them find the Growth Mindset voice.

As a reminder, Dweck explains the concept in the following way: “This Growth Mindset is based on the belief that your basic qualities are things you can cultivate through your efforts. Although people may differ in every which way…they believe that a client’s true potential is unknown (and unknowable); that it’s impossible to foresee what can be accomplished with years of passion, toil, and training.” Her research demonstrates how Growth Mindsets build robustness and resiliency, while Fixed Mindsets create artificial limits to what someone can accomplish. Shifting from fixed to growth thinking increases the positive energy brought to a client’s life and work.

Let’s now iStock_000015600350XSmallcontrast Fixed and Growth Mindsets with the goal of identifying how we can move ourselves and/or our clients out into healthier ways of thinking, while creating a positive view of self.

Fixed Mindsets focus on being judged, while Growth Mindsets search for areas to improve.

In my trainings, I often tell the story about how I grew 6 inches between my Freshman and Sophomore years of high school. I walked into my first day of Sophomore year at 6’6” and 125lbs. I struggled with both walking and self-esteem!

One of the strategies my well-meaning parents and teachers used to boost my self-esteem was to say statements like: “You’re a natural at science” or “You are so smart.” Catch the language being used here, because it’s critical. Being told that I AM something, even something positive, led my brain to internalize this into my identity as a student and a person. This is the Fixed Mindset, because regardless of effort, I was “a natural” or “smart,” and any effort I made seemed to have little influence in determining outcomes.

In contrast, Growth Mindset statements like, “You worked so hard for that A on your chemistry test” or “You’ve really put a lot of effort into your homework this year and look how your grades have improved,” equate success with hard work, and not an innate ability. So why is this important? Well, if in my Fixed Mindset I believed I was great in science and then got a C on a chemistry test, I would naturally conclude that my failure was an inherent flaw. Dweck found that this led to feelings of depression or anger in the face of difficult situations. If I now think that I’m now “bad” at science, it destroys motivation to work harder next time, because the outcome is disconnected from my level of effort.

In contrast, a person with a Growth Mindset realizes that success is a result of the effort put forth. If confronted with hardship, the Growth Mindset motivates one to work much harder the next time. The person recognizes that there’s the possibility of a better future, and that they have the control to determine that future. A Growth Mindset means recognizing that a better future is dependent on the effort and work invested in making it a reality.

Those with a Fixed Mindset believe that some people are born superior. Natural talent may help some people succeed in things like music and sports. Dweck’s research shows that successful people work harder to develop this talent. Few geniuses are born. Instead, they’re created through hours, days, years, and decades of dedication and practice. Those who believe their skills are a result of hard work spend more time developing those skills and expertise.

The Fixed Mindset results in missed opportunities for growth. Any challenge tends eliminate motivation to take positive action. Those with a Growth Mindset are motivated by the challenge, and work with great resiliency and robustness when confronted with an initial setback. People with Growth Mindsets love opportunities to learn. Here is where I use the Growth Mindset as a self-care tool. If we are only surviving our work, it is easy to become frustrated and burnout. If we see ourselves as a work in progress, we understand the importance of our own professional development and give ourselves permission to make mistakes along the way as part of our own professional journey.

As someone that struggled with a Fixed Mindset most of my life, I can’t tell you how freeing it is to catch my old patterns of thinking and replace them with Growth Mindset self-talk. Because I had so many Fixed messages that I told myself, it was easy to catch several a day at first. Statements like, “I have no musical talent,” became, “I would rather go for a run or read a book than learn guitar.” “Why am I presenting anything on the brain, I’m not a neuroscientist,” became, “What an amazing area to build an expertise in, and at this point, everyone is learning!”

To my surprise, a couple of times catching myself in the Fixed Mindset and reframing into Growth Mindset language changed future messages I was saying to myself. Dweck found that most people had this experience once they could identify Fixed thinking. I did realize something important – I was living a life and had a career that supported Growth Mindset thinking. Unfortunately, so many of my clients did not have the same opportunities.

Clients struggling with poverty, homelessness, addiction, and other intense struggles live under the pressure of stigma, labels, and judgement. This reality can easily reinforce that there is something wrong with the person, solidifying a Fixed Mindset and keeping clients in patterns of depression and frustration. Next week, we will examine strategies to help clients (and ourselves!) start to see themselves as a work in progress and realize that past struggles do not have to continue into the future.

In the meantime, my question this week is about you! Have you identified any Fixed Mindset thinking in your own life? If so, how could you simply reframe this using Growth Mindset thinking?

8 responses to “Personal Narrative Voice: Growth Mindset”

  1. Barbara DiPietro says:

    Thanks for a great discussion, Matt. I’m particularly struck by the Fixed Mindset in our advocacy work. We can’t get bogged down in thinking our systems will never change and that it’s no use trying to push for improvement. Your blog this week and last is a needed reminder that a Growth mindset challenges us to continue to work hard and realize the potential we see in achieving Justice, to be goal-oriented to that end. Let’s challenge ourselves and encourage each other to continue our struggle and find Joy in it!

    • Matt Bennett says:

      It gets hard sometimes with advocacy when nothing seems to change quickly or logically. One way I keep in the Growth Mindset is thinking what would the world be like without great people fighting the fight for social justice everyday. How many people are alive in Baltimore today because of HCH’s work? How many people are living a better life nationally due to your power as an advocate and change agent? Ten, hundreds, thousand, more?

  2. Erin Dupuis says:

    Great post, Matt! Thanks! To answer your question…

    Fixed: I can’t trail run or powerlift anymore the way I want to because… (insert various injuries).

    Growth: I look forward to finding new ways of exercising and improving my fitness that maximize my body’s potential, and possibly even healing the parts of me that feel like limitations right now.

  3. Matt Bennett says:

    Beautiful! It is kinda easy, right?

  4. Philip J. Malebranche says:

    In my experience, the litany of failure dampened prospects for success; but an inkling of difference and self-love was the seed for motivation that increased with the years–even with the continuing setbacks. I was carving a niche of knowledge, and it seemed increasingly essential for a wider collection of humans, starting with me. I learned to “walk” with my developing “Weltanschaung,” able to be discreet with my intention on solving personal and social problems, eventually. The unfortunate perceptions of others regarding me were, for a while, a tool or cover of protection as I collected a body of knowledge that would pave a path to success. I still believe that I’ll get there, someday.

  5. Philip J. Malebranche says:

    Reading about the examples of others was important in my trajectory. Biographies and other forms of literature introduced new possibilities, and helped forge a way to think and act. The Bible has been a sine qua non in this journey. One of the finest pieces of literature is Paul’s writing on love, in 1 Corinthians, in the New Testament. It’s chapter 13.

  6. Philip J. Malebranche says:

    Others take the initiative to view me in ways that are incongruous with my background. I believe that my background only preserve me and propel me. The idee fixe of society is problematic for the society; I try to make less so for me.

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