How to Grow Your Mind

If you’ve spent much time around these parts you may have noticed that I read a lot. One way that I find new books is by seeing who the authors that I like are reading.

Turns out, a lot of them have read Mindset by Dr. Carol Dweck.

Because the book (and the theory) had been referenced in other books that I’ve read, I already knew the basics. A fixed mindset is where you believe that your qualities and attributes are set in stone. Either you are smart or you aren’t. Either you are creative or you aren’t. Either you are an organized person or you aren’t.

A growth mindset is where you believe that you can build and improve and develop. You may currently have certain traits and abilities, but if you want to change those, you can work towards that goal and eventually do so.

I figured it might be an interesting read, although it probably wouldn’t apply much to my life. Obviously I’m a growth-minded person. I am constantly learning new things and working to better myself. This whole fixed mindset thing can’t really be relevant to me.

But it isn’t quite that simple.

Does Failure Make You a Failure?

It is easy to declare yourself an adherent to one particular mindset in the abstract. The real test comes in how you actually respond to problems.

Dweck presented college students with a hypothetical bad day. They got a C+ on the midterm for their favorite class. They got a parking ticket. They got brushed off by their best friend when they called to vent.

The fixed mindset people reacted with thoughts like “I’m a total failure.” “I’m an idiot.” “I’d feel like a reject.” “The world is out to get me.” The coping mechanisms for these folks included things like “Stay in bed.” “Get drunk.” “Eat chocolate.” “Break something.”

The growth mindset reaction was closer to “I need to try harder in class, be more careful when parking the car, and wonder if my friend had a bad day.” Their coping included thinking through a more effective way to study, talking to the teacher about where they went wrong, deciding whether to pay or contest the ticket, and reaching out to their friend to smooth things over.

In the fixed mindset, a failure of any sort is a knock on your abilities. It reflects on you as a person. It defines you. And so it makes sense for you to cope by wallowing. If, on the other hand, failure reflects on a specific situation, rather than you as a person, you can get right to work on improving and avoiding that same failure in the future.

Growth vs. Identity Protection

Your mindset also changes the way that you interact with challenges and opportunities.

One study gave students a short IQ test. Half of the students were told upon completion, “That’s a really good score. You must be smart at this.” The other half were told, “That’s a really good score. You must have worked really hard.” This gets the first group into the fixed mindset of innate abilities and the second into the growth mindset.

Next, they were offered the chance to complete a harder test or to repeat one at a similar level. The fixed mindset group chose to stay at the same level, while the growth mindset group wanted a new challenge. The researchers then had both groups complete a third test at a similar difficulty level to the first.

Pretty sure this is what a brain workout looks like

Both groups had similar scores on the first test. As you might expect, though, the growth mindset group improved. They took the harder test and pushed themselves and learned. They gave their brain an extra workout. When they came back to the easier test, they scored better than the fixed mindset students who had plateaued when they decided not to challenge themselves.

This same mindset split is even present in children. Dweck did a similar study with four-year-olds and jigsaw puzzles. The fixed mindset kids wanted to do the same puzzle over again after they successfully completed it, while the growth mindset kids wanted a tougher one. The fixed mindset kids said that smart kids “don’t do mistakes,” and so they stuck with the puzzle that they knew they could complete.

Ever at four, we are already hesitant to challenge our label as a smart kid.

This hit me particularly hard. I half-assed school. High school, college, and even law school. I put in enough work to get good enough grades, but I never put my full effort behind anything.

I had excuses for bad papers or test scores. That paper got a B instead of an A because I didn’t start it until the night before it was due. It wasn’t because I wasn’t smart enough to get an A. I didn’t do as well as I could have on that test because I didn’t spend the time studying that others spent.

This wasn’t the conscious intention of my procrastination and lack of effort, but it lines up pretty perfectly with a fixed mindset approach. It could very well have been my subconscious pushing me in that direction as a protection mechanism.

Changing Minds

It is important to recognize that everyone has tendencies towards both mindsets in different areas of their lives. Maybe you have a growth mindset towards intelligence, but you think that creativity is fixed. Maybe you think you don’t have the capacity to become more organized but you know you’ll become better at cooking with more practice.

On top of that, the studies have shown that people can get pushed temporarily into one mindset or the other. The IQ test study didn’t start with fixed mindset students and growth mindset students. It pushed them in one direction or the other based on a single line of praise.

Our mindsets are flexible. If we want to work our way out of fixed mindsets, we can! But it isn’t easy and it will be an ongoing process.

First, we need to recognize where we have a fixed mindset and what triggers that mindset. When do you have those thoughts of “I’m a failure” or “I’m an idiot” like the fixed mindset college students? What are the situations that lead your mind down that path?

We need to flag these areas and recognize that they are weaknesses for us. We need to work extra hard to push the growth mindset approach in these situations. Catch yourself thinking those thoughts and then push yourself to try the growth mindset coping mechanisms.

Instead of instinctively eating chocolate or getting drunk, force yourself to think about what you can learn. Okay, maybe this was a failure. But why was it a failure? What went wrong? And how can you avoid a similar failure in the future? As we’ve seen in the studies, the growth mindset allows you to use failure to get better.

While the fixed mindset people are staying in bed, the growth mindset people are improving. Which would you rather be?

19 thoughts on “How to Grow Your Mind”

  1. Good synopsis of the book Matt. I’m still not quite finished reading it but have found great value in it so far. I’ve always considered myself to have a growth mindset, but like you, I can now recall times when I was stuck with a fixed one. So much better with the growth mindset.

  2. I can definitely relate to the two mindsets. I find that if I face any obstacles with a negative attitude, I don’t have any energy or motivation to overcome the obstacles. On the other hand, when I face any challenges with positivity and optimism, I have more energy and drive to power through the obstacles and overcome it. I also noticed that I gave more effort when I had a positive attitude.
    Leo T. Ly @ recently posted…Financial Literacy For CanadiansMy Profile

  3. I just picked up Mindset per your recommendation. I’m going to dive into it by the end of the month.

    I look to growth every day. I want to say “I don’t know” to things and then go find the answer. I tried taking a cold shower today… that was tough – but I read that cold showers are amazing for health – get outside of your comfort zone and grow!!
    Erik @ The Mastermind Within recently posted…New! The Mastermind Within Debt Destruction Tool!My Profile

    1. I am the same way. My wife makes fun of me because pretty much every time I saw “I don’t know,” it is followed by either googling or making a note to myself to research later. I think there’s something to be said for approaching life with an endless curiosity.

      Thanks for stopping by, Erik!
      Matt recently posted…The Things We Cannot ChangeMy Profile

  4. Wow, Matt…you keep adding to my list of books! 🙂 I like to think I have a growth mindset all the time, but after reading through your post, I realize I’ve fallen victim to the fixed mindset too. Just having an awareness of the difference could enable me to recognize that fixed mindset and change it up. Love it.
    Amanda @ centsiblyrich recently posted…Act like a millionaireMy Profile

    1. Just trying to push my book struggle onto everyone else. Since creating a Goodreads account, the list of books that I want to read has continued to grow faster than the list of books that I have read. I can’t keep up with the things I want to learn!

      I think awareness is key. We all practice both mindsets to some extent, and the more we can be aware, the more we can catch and correct ourselves.

      Thanks, Amanda!
      Matt recently posted…The Things We Cannot ChangeMy Profile

  5. I’m definitely way more growth oriented, and I believe almost anyone is possible if we apply ourselves, but I’ve fallen prey to the fixed mindset. I actually had to start up and manage some programs that required a lot of ‘change management’ because the organization was filled with ‘fixed mindset’ employees. It was both a thrilling challenge and an agonizing frustration at the same time. 🙂
    Primal Prosperity recently posted…Why You Need a Balance Sheet for Your SoulMy Profile

  6. I would definitely rather be in the growth mindset but like you I didn’t try hard in school. I did enough to get decent grades but didn’t do any more than I needed to. I kinda skated by which is unfortunate as I wonder how much further along if I had developed a growth mindset in life.
    Mustard Seed Money recently posted…Are You Afraid To Retire Early?My Profile

  7. I noticed I have different mindsets, depending on the area of development. Getting knocked back in some areas is a challenge, in others it’s a setback. And I notice the same thing with my kid, though I try really hard to encourage with “Try something a little bit different next time,” “Keep working hard and you’ll get it,” or “Ask for help if you don’t understand.”
    Emily @ JohnJaneDoe recently posted…Taming The Want ListMy Profile

  8. I’ve been trying to catch myself whenever I have limiting beliefs about myself because I know that those are my fixed mindset moments. I came up with a little system that’s helping me make incremental changes: encounter a limiting or fixed belief, try some gratitude (even for something unrelated), and then remind myself I can learn anything (YouTube!). I feel more confident and am increasingly likely to push myself outside of my comfort zone!

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