Growth versus fixed mindset
Do you struggle to recover after a major setback, such as low grades or a broken-off relationship? Or do you bounce back fairly quickly, taking lessons from the experience and moving forward?
If you recognize yourself in the first scenario, you’re not alone. Many of us have even dipped into despair after certain perceived failures. We’ve talked with students who have left college without a degree and feel like they are defined by that disappointment. Some of us obsess endlessly until we’ve transformed a single defeat into utter catastrophe, such as interpreting a job rejection as a sign of impending personal ruin.
But what success stories have in common is that they feature people who can look at disappointment as a chance to learn, grow, and seek new opportunities. This attitude is called a growth mindset, a concept coined and researched extensively by Stanford psychologist Carol S. Dweck, author of Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. A growth mindset is founded in the belief that your knowledge, abilities, and personality can be developed through hard work and learning from feedback. The opposite of a growth mindset is a fixed mindset, in which one believes that intelligence, skills, and moral character are innate and cannot be changed.
Growth mindset: the belief that your knowledge, abilities, and personality can be developed through hard work and learning from feedback.
Employers look for a growth mindset in job candidates. Individuals who practice it in their personal lives tend to have healthier friendships and relationships. Students who focus on progress instead of results deepen their learning—and, ironically, tend to earn higher grades.
So how do you adopt or enhance a growth mindset? Here are some ways to adapt your thinking and recover after a setback.
Progress, not perfection
Whenever you don’t achieve a goal, don’t beat yourself up. Instead, try thinking, I’m in progress. Then, consider what barriers prevented you from reaching your objective. Ask people for help. Finally, try different ways of reaching your goal. Testing out new strategies is a great way to learn and grow while practicing valuable problem-solving skills.
For example, when preparing for an exam or writing a paper for class, focus on how you studied or how you approached the essay, not the grade. Remember that you can control a process like studying or writing; you cannot always guarantee a particular grade because other factors might affect your end result.
Challenge zones, not comfort zones
If you find every task you take on a bit too easy, then you’re stuck in your comfort zone. But that’s not where growth and learning take place. Breezing through things demonstrates that you’ve already learned what you need to know and that it’s time to master new skills or material. You have to take some risks and accept challenges if you want to move forward.
So go ahead: make mistakes! Then, think through those errors: what went wrong, and why? Use any constructive feedback you can get to improve. Then, try again, taking a different approach. When trying to learn difficult skills, such as managing your time or studying, you may have to do this again and again. With every attempt, you’ll learn, innovate, and improve. And that’s the journey that actually matters.
Falling as a way to get back up
In a fixed mindset, we have a tendency to think in binaries: we’re either smart or dumb, a success or a failure, and we can never change. But such static binaries are discouraging. They’re also not accurate. Moreover, they can put us on the hamster wheel of constantly trying to prove ourselves to professors, to bosses, or even to loved ones. The worst part is that we might be doing all that work while feeling terribly insecure, like an impostor, on the inside.
The thing to remember is that success is not a set-it-and-forget-it achievement. Reaching goals requires courage, challenge, hard work, time, creative thinking, learning—and yes, it even requires what we might perceive as failure.
Try focusing on the lifelong lessons you’ll learn from a setback instead of your (temporary!) feelings of disappointment.
So when you don’t place first (or second or third) in a competition or are really struggling to understand something in a class, don’t fall into the trap of “I’m a failure,” “I’m just bad with technology,” or “I’m too old to learn this.” After all, failure only occurs if you never move forward, and you can always improve—at any age. Reframe that experience as a growth opportunity. Try focusing on the lifelong lessons you’ll learn from a setback instead of your (temporary!) feelings of disappointment. You might even discover that a momentary defeat can actually be a powerful motivator to change your approach and do better.
Self-compassion and celebration
When you experience a disappointing outcome, treat yourself with the kindness and compassion that you would offer a friend or loved one in a similar situation. We are all human beings, after all, so imperfection is inevitable.
On the flip side, reward yourself when you recognize that you’ve learned something and grown! If you’ve demonstrated courage, taken on a risk, put in your best effort, worked hard, asked for help, or persisted through a challenge, celebrate! Acknowledging your strength and growth will not only help you bounce back after hard times; it will motivate you as you continue to evolve and develop new ideas, habits, and skills.
The benefits of a growth mindset
Although every human being possesses both fixed and growth mindsets, leaning into the latter will build your resilience and perseverance as you confront challenges. We often use the metaphors of pathways and destinations when we talk about success, but remember that it’s actually the journey that matters.
In other words, success isn’t achieved by speeding through a task and getting the right answer or the most points. It’s not about making all As and scoring the highest grade on every exam. It’s not about gliding effortlessly to the top of the career ladder. And it’s not about winning every argument with your partner.
Instead, it’s about making a valiant effort, trying multiple strategies, and achieving progress. With a growth mindset, learning becomes more immersive, more effective, and more meaningful. And when your goal is not achievement but rather success-as-growth, you don’t have to worry about impressing or disappointing anybody. You can focus on doing your best work and becoming the person you ultimately want to be.
So give this powerful approach a try. And don’t be surprised if you have to practice a growth mindset in order to achieve a growth mindset. That, too, is a lifelong journey in progress. But it’s a wonderful path that can improve how you think of yourself, how you respond to difficult situations, and how you’ll find purpose and meaning in each facet of your life.
Want to shift to a growth mindset?
ReUp Success Coaches can help you focus on the lessons you’ve learned from past setbacks so you can embrace change and cultivate success with confidence. Your support team is available by phone, text, or email. Ready to get started?