- The Challenge: We often assume our abilities and behaviors cannot (or are too hard to) be changed.
- The Science: You are, indeed, capable of change! It’s all about the way we look at it!
- The Solution: Cultivating a growth mindset can create positive change and new opportunities in your life!
We are often taught from a young age and through a variety of influences that ability is fixed. Either we’re smart or we’re not. We’re athletic or we’re not. We’re artistic or we’re not. And certainly, we all differ to some extent in the types of things that seem to come more naturally to us.
Sometimes we’re standing in our own way
The problem is, this way of thinking can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. For example, if a young child does poorly on a math test and thinks “I failed this test because I’m not good at math,” she is less likely to study as much for the next test (thinking it’s not worth the effort, since she’s not good at math). Consequently, she also does poorly on the next test, which reinforces the belief in her lack of mathematical ability.
However, if this same child, after doing poorly on the first math test thinks instead, “I must have failed this test because I didn’t study enough, or didn’t have the right kind of help” then she is more likely to seek out the help she needs the next time, and spend more time studying – thus increasing her chances of doing better on the next test.
What is your type of mindset?
This example illustrates the difference between what Carol Dweck calls a “fixed” mindset and a “growth” mindset. People who have a fixed mindset tend to believe that abilities and talents are fixed traits, and that that they are stable over time. In other words, people are born a certain way and don’t change.
People who have a growth mindset, on the other hand, tend to believe that with dedication and intentional practice, we can improve our abilities and learn new skills and behaviors. In other words, people can change.
Believe you can develop new skills
What seems like a simple and perhaps inconsequential distinction has big implications for what we can achieve. Research shows that students who believe (or are taught) that intellectual abilities can be developed (as opposed to being characteristics that are fixed) are more likely to succeed in challenging classes, and show high achievement through challenging transitions. In sum, if you believe that your abilities can be developed, you’re more likely to develop them.
Your mindset in the workplace
Not only does a fixed or growth mindset influence our personal behavior, but it also influences the way we see and treat others. A 2008 study of managers found that those who assumed personal qualities to be fixed traits (i.e. a fixed mindset) were less likely to recognize positive changes in the performance of their staff. They were also less likely to coach their employees about how to improve performance. However, managers who received an intervention designed to cultivate a growth mindset subsequently provided more useful coaching to their employees, and more accurate performance appraisals.
How our mindset also affects our relationships
Mindset affects our friendships and romantic relationships as well. A 2012 study of romantic couples revealed that people who do not think their partner is capable of changing (a fixed mindset) are much less likely to notice their partner’s genuine efforts to improve the relationship when these efforts do happen. People who believe their partner can change (a growth mindset) and recognize that s/he is making efforts to improve (even small efforts) are more likely to feel happy and secure in their relationship.
These kind of interactions happen every day. For example, think of that friend of yours who never follows through on what he promises. If you have a fixed mindset, then you likely believe this person will never change (i.e. “that’s just the way he is”). Because of this mindset, the research shows that you are less likely to engage with him, to give him feedback that might be useful, or to help him find strategies that might make follow-through easier. Perhaps most importantly, you are much less likely to notice any improvements in this person’s behavior if he makes them. In other words, because you think he can’t change, you’re not able to see changes when they happen, even if they’re right in front of your face.
What you can do:
1) Don’t write yourself off! Catch yourself making blanket statements about your own abilities, and try to reframe them.
- Instead of saying, “I’m not athletic,” reframe by saying “I haven’t spent a lot of time playing sports.”
- Or try adding the word “yet” onto the end of those blanket statements, and open the door of possibility. For example, “I’m not a good artist…yet” or “I can’t speak well in front of people…yet.”
2) Notice change and effort. Be on the lookout for positive changes in others’ abilities and behavior, no matter how small these improvements may be. Point them out and show appreciation and encouragement for people’s effort; noticing and appreciating the changes people are striving to make will strengthen your relationships.
3)Cultivate a growth mindset. Believe that we all can further develop our abilities and skills with dedication and practice. We can learn new things if we work at it!
The moral of the story?
Adopting a growth mindset has the potential to open up new opportunities in your own life. It will also allow you to see other people differently (and often in a more positive light), and open up possibilities for new and improved relationships. Start noticing your mindset today!
Katie Conlon, M.A., MAPP is a Trainer, Coach, and Consultant. She works with the Center for Leadership and Organizational Change at the University of Maryland and runs her own private practice, The Phoenix Nest. She is an Assistant Instructor in the Masters of Applied Positive Psychology program at the University of Pennsylvania, and a member of the faculty of the Flourishing Center’s Certificate in Applied Positive Psychology. Katie also develops curriculum for George Mason University’s Center for the Advancement of Well-Being. She earned a master’s degree in applied positive psychology from the University of Pennsylvania and a master’s degree in counseling and personnel services from the University of Maryland.