What is it that separates super-achievers from their peers?
You may think it’s talent or luck, but it probably has more to do with their mindset than anything else, according to research. People who embrace a growth mindset are often more successful because they see opportunities in setbacks and believe in building talent and skills as opposed to just working with what they have.
“People who believe in the power of talent tend not to fulfill their potential because they’re so concerned with looking smart and not making mistakes. But people who believe that talent can be developed are the ones who really push, stretch, confront their own mistakes and learn from them,” Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck told the New York Times.
Dweck is a leading expert on mindset, and has researched the topic extensively.
Early in her career, she performed one study that gave children a game that was a little too tough for them to solve. She was surprised to find that some of the participants were delighted in the challenge. They knew that they could develop the necessary skills, even if it wasn’t right away. But others, Dweck said in a TedTalk speech, were devastated that they didn’t have the skills to solve the problem.
They were caught up in “the tyranny of now,” she said. They had a “fixed mindset” and couldn’t see beyond their failure in solving the problem.
You may have experienced that feeling at one time or another, even if you like a challenge. Running from a problem or rejecting an unwanted outcome — even quitting — is a natural response, but confronting and embracing it can usher in a lot of positives and help you exceed your own expectations.
One way to make the switch is to look beyond the setback. Maybe you had an interview for a job that didn’t result in you getting the position. A fixed mindset would say you failed, but a growth mindset would say you haven’t gotten the job yet. Dweck likes the word “yet” because it signals that there’s more to the story. In this scenario, a growth mindset would go back to the drawing board and think about the ways the next interview could be improved.
Like most things in life, a growth mindset isn’t something that some people have and others don’t. It’s something we must all work on regularly and if we neglect it, we’re likely to see the fixed mindset creep back in.
“Everyone is actually a mixture of fixed and growth mindsets, and that mixture continually evolves with experience. A ‘pure’ growth mindset doesn’t exist, which we have to acknowledge in order to attain the benefits we seek,” she said in a Harvard Business Review article.
It’s also a common misconception that having a growth mindset is a magic pill for success or that making a bit of effort is enough to flip the switch.
It takes hard work to achieve and maintain a growth mindset, the reason being that rejection and criticism are hard! It's not that people who can tackle a setback head on are just thick-skinned or predisposed to not feel those negative emotions; there are a lot of contributing factors to our responses to challenges.
“When we face challenges, receive criticism, or fare poorly compared with others, we can easily fall into insecurity or defensiveness, a response that inhibits growth. Our work environments, too, can be full of fixed-mindset triggers,” Dweck says. “A company that plays the talent game makes it harder for people to practice growth-mindset thinking and behavior, such as sharing information, collaborating, innovating, seeking feedback, or admitting errors.”
Harboring fixed mindsets can lead to burnout and hinder innovation in the workplace, but flipping the script can help foster really great teams.
So how do you get into a growth mindset?
Start by embracing the process!
We tend to think about only giving or receiving praise when it’s coupled with an accomplishment, but it’s important to give a little bit of credit for even embarking on a challenge.
In the example of the job interview not resulting in a hire, find the little wins and praise what went right. Taking a risk, knowing that it may result in rejection, is worth praise. So is knowing that you did the best you could with the resources you had. This praise serves double duty and also helps you pick out where you can improve for next time.
Next, focus on strategy.
How often are you strictly focused on the outcome? It’s easy to fall into a routine of only working toward goals, but to think through the process and reward strategy can result in growing beyond the desired outcome.
It’s like learning multiplication. As a student you may have known that 9 x 8 = 72 because you memorized it, but to understand why and how 9 x 8 = 72 prepares you to solve any other multiplication problem.
Dweck’s research has shown that, especially in students, the desire to understand and learn over the desire to score well on a test or earn a high grade almost results in a favorable outcome, even if it takes a little longer.
These exercises can cross over into all areas of life where we set goals or want to grow. Setbacks are a part of life, but they don’t have to be the end-all-be-all.
“Why hide deficiencies instead of overcoming them? Why look for friends or partners who will just shore up your self-esteem instead of ones who will also challenge you to grow? And why seek out the tried and true, instead of experiences that will stretch you? The passion for stretching yourself and sticking to it, even (or especially) when it’s not going well, is the hallmark of the growth mindset,” Dweck writes in her book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. “This is the mindset that allows people to thrive during some of the most challenging times in their lives.”