When the World Suddenly Changes, a Growth Mindset Can Really Help
by Matt, on 28 Apr 2020
In times of crisis, when events unfold rapidly that weren’t even on our radar screen, we get an unusually clear view of how people think. For some, it seems as though their world has come to a screeching halt. They cling desperately to the hope that the situation will soon blow over and things will revert to normal. For others, however, it’s as though a switch has been flipped, awakening their dormant creative motor. They rapidly jettison the dysfunctional and begin constructing new solutions for the post-crisis world.
In this edition of SPT, we lean on Carol Dweck’s seminal work, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, for insights into what separates these two categories of people. Then we consider how entrepreneurs and leaders of early-stage and growth-stage businesses might (or perhaps, had better) become aware of their mindset and begin practicing more growth-minded approaches in their quest to survive and thrive.
Dweck’s 2007 classic has become required reading for audiences as wide and varied as parents, teachers, those seeking self-improvement, entrepreneurs, CEOs, and middle-of-the-road humans who just don’t seem to find fulfillment in their everyday lives.
Having a growth mindset is more important than ever as many people face unprecedented personal and business uncertainty.
SKILLS CAN BE CULTIVATED THROUGH EFFORT
The key premise on which growth mindset theories are based is that skills can be learned.
Without question, we get where we are through a combination of innate ability and effort. However, except in extremely rare cases, our genes don’t define very much about us. We have incredible influence over our skills and abilities - far more than we think.
The view that you choose to adopt about yourself has a profound effect on the way you go through life and the outcomes that you experience.
MY QUALITIES ARE CARVED IN STONE — THE FIXED MINDSET
The fixed mindset revolves around the phrase “I can’t do it”. It assumes that abilities and understanding are relatively fixed. You either “have it or you don’t”.
Believing that your — and everyone else’s - attributes are fixed leads to a never-ending desire to prove yourself. Burned out athletic prodigies are the poster children for this, never able to reach their lofty potential, always needing to go further to prove (again) their superior ability.
ABILITIES CAN BE DEVELOPED — THE GROWTH MINDSET
A growth mindset revolves around the understanding that abilities can be developed over time. You can get smarter, more intelligent, and more talented through putting in time and effort.
People with a growth mindset thrive on challenges. Their mantra is “I can’t do it — yet”.
Importantly, maintaining a growth mindset allows people to love what they’re doing, even during a crisis because they’re always learning and evolving. They’re not fixated on the status quo.
DIFFERENT MINDSET — DIFFERENT BEHAVIOR
Someone who believes that intelligence and abilities are fixed isn’t disposed to investing effort to change their performance. On the other hand, someone who believes they can change may be willing to put in the extra time and effort to achieve truly ambitious goals.
Fixed mindset people dismiss the value of a growth mindset in adults because they’re not in a structured learning environment like, say, a child would be. Those with a growth mindset, by contrast, see every environment as a learning environment and are constantly finding opportunities to improve their skills and enhance their knowledge.
Leaders with a growth mindset achieve more than others because they are worried more about learning and improving and less about trying to appear competent or talented.
I don’t divide the world into the weak and the strong, or the successes and the failures — I divide the world into the learners and non-learners.
Benjamin Barber, sociologist
YOUR MINDSET CAN CHANGE
While the idea of fixed and adaptable mindsets isn’t inherently new, Dweck’s work is profound because it is based on years of clinical research. She and her students have studied how the mind works to create these mindsets. They’ve identified key drivers that cause people to end up in a fixed mindset. And, importantly, they’ve figured out how they can be reprogrammed.
The first step is to recognize when you exhibit a fixed mindset. This most often happens when you’re faced with a new or particularly intimidating challenge. The voice in your head questions your abilities and your past performance. Do you really think you can do this? Because you haven’t succeeded at the task before, it wants you to give up and do something else.
At this point, you have a choice. You can listen to the fixed mindset voice or you can decide to respond differently to whatever challenge, setback, or criticism you’re facing. Look yourself in the mirror, tell yourself that you’re making a stronger choice, and then stick to your guns.
A fixed mindset doesn’t just evaporate because you’ve chosen to think differently. It will come back to haunt you time and again. A growth mindset requires perseverance. Push back whenever you start to doubt yourself.
You might not be sure whether you can actually succeed — and that’s OK! The most important thing is to cultivate and maintain the belief that you can learn to do whatever it is with time and effort.
Fear of failure is a huge issue for fixed mindset people. Conversely, successful people always have failures along the way. When you suffer a setback — which you inevitably will, at some point — remind yourself that even people with far greater inherent talent need to work hard to succeed.
Over time, taking the growth mindset approach will happen more naturally, more often. You’ll take on challenges more readily and with greater enthusiasm. You’ll learn from the setbacks rather than feeling defeated and giving up. And you’ll be more open to feedback, taking it as constructive input rather than destructive criticism.
APPLYING A GROWTH MINDSET TO LEADERSHIP
So how might this new mojo prove beneficial as you strive to lead your team through the present-day crisis and on to great things in the “new normal” beyond?
Here are half a dozen tips for developing and leveraging a growth mindset approach:
- Rise to the challenge. If you want to accomplish something great, you’re going to face many challenges during your journey. Actively seek them out! Prepare yourself for them and for failing a few times before you succeed. The world might have just been turned on its head, but now’s not the time to run and hide. Find something you’re passionate about and go tackle it.
- Take stock and accept what you find. Spend some time assessing your strengths and weaknesses, and those of your team. Identify things that you need or want to become and find ways to start learning them.
- Skate to where the puck is going. Don’t get hung up on trying to preserve the past. It’s not coming back. If your vision, or value proposition, or skills, or people, or product aren’t valid when you update your assumptions with data about the new reality, roll up your sleeves and get to work. This is an opportunity to adapt, reinvent, learn, and become what you need to be to succeed as the world regains consciousness.
- Create a vision for yourself. Start believing in yourself, not because you were bestowed with some gift from birth but because you have developed some skills and abilities already and you have a tremendous capacity to learn more. Adopt the attitude of a child. Ask many, many more questions and truly listen to the answers.
- Do what you love and love what you do. This sounds like self-help guru mumbo jumbo, but there’s no escaping the fact that it’s much easier to succeed when you are passionate about what you’re doing. Revisit your company purpose and be sure that it’s on point. Then get behind it with renewed passion. If there’s anyone on your team who isn’t there because they share your passion, look for someone else to do their work who does.
- Feed off others’ successes. Avoid becoming envious of other people’s success, especially when they go farther than you. Envy won’t help you to succeed; taking inspiration from others and using it to refuel your own determination might. And by extension, when you do succeed, take the opportunity to inspire others. Tell them about your failures. Encourage them to persevere. As the adage goes, don't compare your chapter 1 to someone else's chapter 20!
CAUTION: POTENTIAL PITFALLS AHEAD
Dweck herself is quick to point out that simply telling yourself — and others — that you can improve doesn’t mean you have developed a growth mindset.
Beware those who say they “already have” (or even “always have had”) a growth mindset. This isn’t just about being open-minded or optimistic. Maintaining a growth mindset requires constant application.
Another misconception is that a growth mindset is all about praising and rewarding effort. We see this all around us in the “everyone gets a trophy just for showing up” world. Rewarding effort should also be tied to the outcome. Don’t reward unproductive effort, but definitely recognize learning and progress.
Finally, Dweck cautions that espousing a growth mindset is a positive step that can lead to positive outcomes, but it’s not a magical guarantee. The mindset you say you have (or want) needs to be backed up with effort applied to worthwhile activities. Even then, success is not inevitable.
There are myriad articles to be found online summarizing mindset and offering tips on how to start, how to maintain, how to maximize, and how to apply a growth mindset. We’ve browsed several of them, jotting down our favorite ideas, and compiled them with some tips of our own.
- Abandon the idea of succeeding on talent alone; recognize that it will always take work as well.
- Develop and maintain a clear sense of purpose. This will help you to keep things in perspective.
- In your vocabulary, replace the words “fail” and “failing” with “learn” and “learning”.
- Use the word “yet” more often, as in: “I haven’t quite mastered it yet”.
- Stop seeking approval from others. Prioritize learning over feeling validated.
- Accept feedback on your work as constructive criticism and give the same to others.
- Try to learn something thoroughly (and be able to apply it) rather than learning it quickly.
- Every time you accomplish a goal (or abandon it after trying everything possible), create a new goal to replace it. You should never stop striving towards your goals.
- Take ownership of your attitude and take pride in developing your growth mindset.
- Redefine “genius” as hard work plus talent, rather than talent alone. Always reward hard work before talent or inherent ability.
If you haven’t yet read Mindset, get yourself a copy and bump it up your reading list. Even those who already practice many of the skills mentioned in this blog will learn something from the book.
As you react to the changes that COVID-19 and other global trends are bringing to your world, take a deep breath and listen carefully for your fixed mindset voice. Give yourself a long, hard stare in the mirror and resolve not to give in to internal doubts, even if the crisis is truly existential for your business.
Having a growth mindset isn’t an “easy button” for solving every problem, but it will make the process easier and more enjoyable as you work toward your goals. Over time, it will help you develop the confidence to set ever more ambitious goals for yourself and your team.
Dweck cites a poll of 143 creativity researchers who identified the number one trait underpinning creative achievement as the resilience and fail-forward perseverance attributed to a growth mindset. Sounds like it should come in very handy as we figure out how to redeploy ourselves and our ideas to solve the world’s reconfigured laundry list of pressing problems.