People with a firm mindset think that people are born with a particular mix of skills, abilities, intelligence, and character. No value of work or effort can turn these basic facts about a person.
When someone has a fixed mindset, they tend to see the world in a binary fashion. There are winners and losers, smart people and dumb people. For example, Susan assumes that the midterm test has assessed her abilities and found her wanting in the story above. There’s nothing she can do, so she might as well give up.
People with a fixed mindset often:
- Believe effort is a sign of stupidity (because smart/talented people shouldn’t have to try)
- Believe that success or failure defines them
- Are reluctant to try challenging activities (in case they don’t do well and thus prove themselves to be not smart/talented/gifted)
- Ignore feedback (because they can’t change anyway)
- Feel that feedback is a personal criticism
- Feel threatened by others’ success
When someone has a fixed mindset, they are eager to demonstrate their good qualities. A child with a fixed mindset wants to show how smart, talented and useful they are. After all, if these qualities are fixed, they want to be on the winning side.
Ironically, this need to demonstrate their skills can lead to rejecting opportunities to improve. For example, Dweck’s research has shown that when children with a fixed mindset are given a choice between repeating an easy puzzle they’ve already mastered and tackled a new mystery that they could learn from, these children generally choose to repeat the easy puzzle. Why would anyone redo something easy? Because if they try the new puzzle and fail, it might reveal that they aren’t smart after all.
In contrast to those with a fixed mindset, people who have a growth mindset believe that one’s talents, intelligence, skills, abilities, and even character traits and interpersonal skills can be developed over time. In this world view, challenges are embraced, and setbacks are viewed as opportunities for learning and growth.
People with a growth mindset don’t see the world as divided into success and failure, winners and losers; they see setbacks as a sign that more effort and perhaps a different strategy is needed to achieve their goals. Of course, setbacks can still sting for a person with a growth mindset, but they don’t see setbacks as failures – just as a sign that they need to work harder.
People with a growth mindset recognize that everyone has a different mix of skills and talents, and they understand that not everyone can become Mozart or Einstein. But they do believe that with time and effort, skills in any area can be improved. People with a growth mindset tend to:
- Embrace challenges
- Enjoy learning
- Try various strategies to solve a problem
- Ask for help when they need it
- Listen to feedback
- Believe that effort is essential for gaining mastery
- Understand that errors are a part of learning
- See mistakes and setbacks as learning opportunities
- See others’ successes as inspirational
Because people with a growth mindset embrace life-long learning, their achievements over time often eclipse those of people hailed as “natural talents” who don’t put in the work to reach their goals.
What You Can Gain with the Right Mindset
What can you accomplish by cultivating a growth mindset? Well, the quick answer is anything you want. If there’s an area of learning or skill that you are interested in, you can learn, grow, and improve your skills if you apply a growth mindset.
Whether you want to improve your intellectual skills in logic, math, rhetoric, or astrophysics; develop your creativity in music, drawing, writing, or film; or boost your athletic ability on the court, on the trail, or the yoga mat, you can improve in any area you wish.
To understand why this is true, it’s helpful to know the concept of neural plasticity.
The human brain has around 100 billion neurons, which are a special kind of nerve cell. These neurons connect through connection points called synapses to make approximately 100 trillion connections.
This vast network of neurons controls everything about our bodies and minds, from our digestion and breathing to our mental functions such as memory, knowledge, thoughts, and emotions. Crucially, this neural network allows us to take in information, process it, remember it, and make new connections between things we know (animals with big teeth can bite) and new things we encounter for the first time (I’ve never seen that animal before, but it’s got big teeth! Run!).
Started a few decades ago, scientists believed that the neurons in our brains grew rapidly in childhood but then stopped growing as we reach maturity. The lack of new neural growth, it was thought, limited how much adults could learn and change in later life. In essence, the scientific understanding of our brain was, “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.”
However, recent developments in neuroscience have completely changed this understanding. With new tools that allow us to look inside the brain, scientists have discovered that neurons can grow and change throughout our lives. For example, after a stroke, humans can relearn skills such as walking, speaking, and delicate hand movements, even if the original part of the brain that controls that function is damaged. The ability of our brains to change and grow is known as neural plasticity.
One moving example of neural plasticity is actor Christopher Reeve, known for his role as Superman. Reeve turned out to be a real-life Superman after a horse-riding accident left him a person with quadriplegia. Before Reeve, the established medical wisdom was that people with spinal cord injuries might continue to improve and regain some function for months after their accident, but, by around two years post-accident, no more improvement would be possible. Reeve, however, was determined to beat the odds.
Shortly after his accident, Reeve began physical therapy. Around five years after his accident, he regained the ability to move his index finger. Inspired, he started even more intensive training. While he would never walk or gain control over some parts of his body, he could dramatically improve his health and regain some movement and sensation.
Perhaps most importantly, his example opened up new avenues of research. Since built on these early findings, scientists have made great strides in helping people with spinal cord injuries regain function, sensation, and movement.
While Christopher Reeve might be an extreme example, his story illustrates an important truth: we can learn and grow at any age. In other words, a growth mindset isn’t just an excellent idea; it’s the scientific truth of how our brains work. No matter what you wish to improve, with strategic effort, growth and learning are possible.