I sometimes think that I will never be a good cook or that I just was not born to be bilingual. Occasionally, I catch my daughter saying that I cannot do it. And I hear people say things such as they are not good at math or not cut out to be in business. These are all examples of a fixed mindset, and we are all guilty of it from time to time. Fortunately, a fixed mindset does not have to be forever.
What is a Fixed Mindset?
Psychologist Carol Dweck is one of the leading experts on mindset and the author of the book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. Early in her career, she identified two mindsets: growth and fixed. These two mindsets explain why some people face challenges head-on while others are crushed by it. People with fixed mindsets think that their skills or abilities are set in stone and determined at birth. If you think you are bad at math, not good at sports, or a born musician, you are demonstrating a fixed mindset. People with a growth mindset think that their skills and abilities can be improved and refined through effort and perseverance. When you take steps to improve yourself and stick with it, you are exhibiting a growth mindset.
False Growth Mindset
Dweck clarified her work by explaining that everyone has a fixed mindset at one time or another about one thing or another.((The Atlantic: How Praise Became a Consolation Prize)) People do not permanently have either a fixed or growth mindset. I might work hard in the gym to get stronger and more flexible while giving up on my piano lessons because I think I am not a musical person. This example shows that I have a growth mindset regarding my fitness but a fixed mindset regarding my piano playing. It is also an oversimplification to say that a growth mindset is just about effort. Dweck explains that effort and strategy are needed for a true growth mindset. It is not enough for me to just keep trying and failing. A true growth mindset involves effort, reflection, reassessment, and then more effort. Self-awareness is a critical component of a growth mindset because you have to accurately assess your current progress to make appropriate changes toward meeting your goals. Just showing up is not going to cut it.
Fixed Mindset Triggers
A fixed mindset trigger is something that shifts your mindset away from thinking that abilities can be improved to thinking they are fixed or predetermined. Think about what might make you raise your hands in defeat and proclaim you are not good at something and never will be. The most obvious fixed mindset trigger is someone telling you that you are not good at something. This can make it seem like your ability is set in stone. Imagine you are trying your hardest in Spanish class, and the teacher offhandedly says, “It is a good thing you are good at math.” That comment can make it seem like you have always been bad at Spanish and always will be, regardless of the effort and determination you bring to the table. Another fixed mindset trigger is people overreacting to failure. When people make a big deal out of your mistakes, it can seem like you’re just not meant to be pursuing whatever it is you failed at. Let’s use our Spanish example. Let’s say you are working on your Spanish project—a film. You show it to a friend who starts laughing and points out how you said the word “Bota” instead of “Barco” over and over as the film zooms in on a boat. Instead of thinking about all the Spanish words you got right, your mind might dwell on that one egregious error, shifting you to a fixed mindset about your Spanish abilities. Finally, people rescuing you from failure can trigger a fixed mindset. Continuing our Spanish language example, if your mom stops letting you do your Spanish homework and starts doing it herself to prevent you from failing, you might start to think that you are not good at Spanish and never have been and never will be.
How Can You Change a Fixed Mindset?
Dweck talks about process praise as the antidote to a fixed mindset. Process praise is when you compliment and encourage someone to put in the effort and use strategies and appropriate resources to learn and improve. While praising someone’s abilities often leads to a fixed mindset, process praise contributes to a growth mindset. So if I want to help someone change from a fixed mindset to a growth mindset, I should say something like, “You worked so hard on this” or “What could you try to do better next time?” instead of “You are so good at this” or “It is so unfair. Your opponent must have cheated.” You can try process praise for yourself, too. If you catch yourself making excuses, blaming someone or something else for your failure, or assuming your abilities are fixed, try process praise. Focus instead on the effort you put in and strategies and resources you used to improve. Dweck recommends being matter-of-fact and not too strong or passive with your process praise. Be direct without being harsh or too accommodating. Here are 8 other ways to shift from a fixed mindset to growth:
1. Do Not Blame
If you catch yourself blaming someone or something else for your failure, stop yourself and refocus on your role in your success or failure.
2. Aim for Self-Awareness
Self-awareness is key to a growth mindset. If you do not give much thought in your role in your success or failure, it is going to be difficult for you to strategize and improve. So, ask yourself questions about your effort, strategy, and resources. Could I have practiced harder? Am I using the best schedule for my rehearsals? Is there a better way for me to study before the next test?
3. Avoid Negative, Fixed Mindset Self-Talk
Try to catch yourself when you think in fixed mindset terms. Stop saying that you were not made to do this or were not born to become that. Instead, start focusing on the effort and strategy you put in.
4. Ask for Feedback (and listen to it)
Feedback goes in one ear and out the other when we have a fixed mindset. When people think their abilities are set in stone, they tend to make excuses, get defensive, and place blame when receiving feedback. Break that cycle and actively seek out feedback. Do not get defensive or make excuses and listen closely to feedback, no matter how harsh. Use feedback to develop a better plan for improving your abilities.
5. Do Not Overreact to Failure (keep it in perspective)
Failure is a natural part of learning and improving, so do not overreact when it happens to you.((Play Your Way Sane: 4 Games To Help You Get Better At Embracing Mistakes)) Try to keep failure in perspective, so you do not fall into a fixed mindset.
6. Reflect and Reassess
Set aside time to reflect on your progress and plan how to improve. Remember that effort is only one part of a true growth mindset. You also need to refine your strategy.
7. Do Not Compare
When you compare yourself to others, it is easy to fall into a fixed mindset. We do not usually see the effort and perseverance others put in, which is why it can lead to a fixed mindset. If someone seems naturally smart, you do not actually know how much effort they put on studying. This is why comparing ourselves to others is a fixed mindset trap.
8. Celebrate Effort (process not product)
Finally, celebrate your effort and perseverance. Compliment yourself on how many piano classes you have taken or how you did not give up when Calculus class got tough. If you get stuck on how good or bad you are, you may find yourself shifting back to that fixed mindset.
Final Thoughts on Changing a Fixed Mindset
It is somehow comforting to know that everyone experiences a fixed mindset from time to time. However, we should not oversimplify shifting from a fixed mindset to a growth mindset. It takes more than focusing on effort. Do your best to notice when you start to compare yourself to others, make excuses, blame others for your mistakes, and disproportionately focus on your shortcomings. These are all fixed mindset traps. Instead, practice focusing on your effort and strategy. How hard did you work? And is it time to switch up your game plan for learning and improving? It is possible to change a fixed mindset as long as we are open and honest about what we need to do and change about ourselves.