What Is Growth Mindset and 3 Ways You Can Cultivate It, According to Science

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Having a growth mindset means you believe your skills can be honed and developed. How to cultivate this way of thinking to reach success?

The road to success is paved with failure. There’s more than a kernel of truth to this old adage and it is closely linked to the growth mindset.

Consider the following: Walter, an optimistic 22-year old man was fired from his first newspaper writing gig. His boss felt he lacked imagination and that he didn’t have any good, new ideas. For many people, this would have been the end of a short-lived creative career. Why keep trying if you don’t have the raw talent, right?

Well, Walter disagreed. He believed, quite rightly, that persistence and grit make all the difference for long-term success. So, he pushed on, and it paid off. Five years after being fired, Walter (Disney was his last name) created the iconic character Mickey Mouse, and the rest is history.

This is one of the many success stories of people thriving through a growth mindset. Having this type of mindset means you believe your skills can be honed and developed. The opposite, a fixed mindset, is the tendency to think that skills are based on some innate ability. With a growth mindset, failures are temporary; with a fixed mindset, they’re forever.

People with a growth mindset focus on the process of learning rather than the objective outcomes. As a result, they don’t get hung up on whether they failed or achieved something, but on the capacity to grow and get better over time.

The benefits of having a growth mindset are crystal clear. People with a growth mindset: believe they can develop their intelligence over time, persist longer in the face of adversity, show greater resilience, have better educational outcomes, and feel more empowered in their work.

Cultivating a growth mindset should, therefore, be top of mind for any top performer. Here are 3 tips for cultivating it.

1. Focus on the future (the power of yet vs. the tyranny of now)

In the new age of instant messaging and overnight Amazon shipping, the desire for instant gratification has never been stronger. When you don’t get what you want right away– like an outcome on some performance – it can be tempting to give up.

Psychologists have suggested that the solution to this problem is to be more future-oriented. Studies show that future-oriented people outperform their more present-minded counterparts in grades, optimism, financial success, and the like. A future outlook promotes a growth mindset because a person understands that improvement happens in that future that they hold in their mind.

The danger of having a present-focused bias is that failures seem much worse than they really are. We are wired by evolution to see such failures as immediate threats to the self. These threats bring about an onslaught of negative emotions, which narrow the brain’s attentional processes that then lead to a hyperfocus of surviving the present (and ignoring the future).

Breaking out of this negative trap means developing more positive emotions for the opposite effect. You should broaden time horizons that allow you to build adaptive resilience resources for the future.

2. Praise the process (focus on the journey, not the destination)

The second way to cultivate a growth mindset is to focus on the process of learning rather than the final outcome. A study tested the strength of praising the process on fifth graders. After correctly solving a puzzle, each student was either praised for their innate intelligence or their effort. Praising students for their effort led to more positive challenge seeking behavior, more persistence, more enjoyment, and enhanced performance in future tasks.

It’s so effective a strategy that companies such as Microsoft have introduced initiatives that foster an all-encompassing workplace culture of growth mindset. Microsoft rewards its employees for taking smart risks, regardless of whether they are successful or not. Hence, employees are encouraged to go outside their comfort zone and explore the unknown without fear of reprisal or punishment.

You don’t need to be a Microsoft employee to benefit from this experience. A simple exercise can be done. Start by writing out all the tasks you have performed in your role, over the last month. Then for each task write out the steps that were involved, from end-to-end. Next, for each task, indicate what type of outcomes you saw. Did you get a positive or negative outcome?

Then in a third column write out the emotional reaction to i) the processes/steps and ii) the outcome. In the last column, draw a final conclusion in asking yourself: “Where did the (emotional) reaction come from – the process or the outcome?” This acts as a first-step exercise that will help you see if and where you are emotionally invested in your day-to-day behaviors, and to readjust your thinking if need be.

3. Exercise self-control (shift to want-to motivations)

Sometimes, having a growth mindset can be hard to maintain. When you set a goal for yourself that seems out of reach, the temptation to give up can be strong. This is failure in self-control. Luckily, researchers have uncovered tactics that can help improve your self-control, which in turn, will promote a stronger growth mindset.

One study found that self-control increases when participants perform activities with their non-dominant hand. This simple habit forces participants to stop and think before they perform any mundane task. Doing this convinces the brain that all behaviors and solutions are malleable and amenable to change.

Another innovative study approached self-control from a different angle. The researchers proposed that when you do things because you want to, you are less likely to give into temptation. Its opposing factor, doing things because you have to, is a growth mindset killer.

With this in mind, try out the following: think about all the things you have to do in the upcoming weeks and write them all down. Now try to reappraise the things on your list. Think of enjoyable aspects that would make you want to complete these task. If this isn’t possible, then try limiting your have-to’s.

For each item, stop and think: Is there any way you can erase it from your list without it negatively impacting your life? If so, do it. Once you develop your ability to resist temptations, maintaining a growth mindset should be much easier to attain.

Bringing it together

Having a growth mindset is the key to progressing in life. It gives you an advantage by motivating you to seek improvement. By understanding that success does not involve an innate component, you will be miles ahead of the competition.

And if you’re concerned your natural disposition is to be a more fixed mindset, less growth – not to worry. The 3 tactics covered here can (and do) lead to meaningful personal change. Growth mindsets can indeed be trained and cultivated in a short period of time. So go ahead. Start growing.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Nick holds a Ph.D. in psychology and neuroscience from the University of Toronto in Canada. He is a leading research expert and practitioner in behavioral change and learning improvement. He coaches people on reaching their peak mental performance by using science-backed insights. You can find him at PsychologyCompass.com.

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One Comment

  1. Gary Hynous May 30, 2018 at 10:09 pm - Reply

    Hello Nick, I always find it interesting and somewhat dismaying that a blog such as yours has not yet encouraged any comments so I’ll be the first and hopefully not the last. Your comments regarding mindset are informative and enlightening. My understanding of human consciousness is based on two general aspects of the mind.The first is our intellectual mind which is, of coarse, valuable in that it allows us to earn a living, read a book, drive a car and understand an article like yours. There is, however a second aspect of the mind which is much more difficult to control and deal with and I would call that part of our mind the ego driven part. I have found meditation and the writings of Eknath Easwaran to be invaluable in gleaning an understanding of the mind. Easwaran is/was a professor of English at U.C. Berkeley ans is East Indian by birth. Thanks for your informative contribution.

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