It’s a troubling thought.
All that effort, that nagging, yearning drive to succeed. So much mental and physical energy spent trying to reach your goals.
Sabotaged by you.
Success feels out of reach. You don’t quite understand why, or what you need to change. You don’t feel that different from the people that have made it to where you want to be.
So you throw your effort into working harder and longer until you can’t. You wan’t to give up, frustrated, exhausted, burned out.
But you repeat the underlying thought patterns that keep holding you back.
You have a fixed mindset.
“I’m not a numbers guy.” “I’m no good at sport.”
You think successful people have something you don’t. You see them as superheroes who have qualities you lack, by some quirk of genetics, upbringing or circumstances.
You think your abilities are fixed. “That’s my lot in life.” You don’t think you can change these, so you don’t even try.
Stanford psychology professor Carol Dweck calls this view a fixed mindset. In her research, she found people tend to differ in their beliefs about where ability and intelligence come from:
People with a fixed mindset believe that their traits are just givens. They have a certain amount of brains and talent and nothing can change that. If they have a lot, they’re all set, but if they don’t… So people in this mindset worry about their traits and how adequate they are. They have something to prove to themselves and others.”
People with a growth mindset, on the other hand, understand that success, intelligence and ability can be developed through effort, learning and determination.
They understand that it’s rarely the people who start out the best who end up the best.
Dweck’s research has shown that people with a growth mindset are more likely to keep working hard after setbacks, put in more effort overall, and persist longer on difficult problems than people with a fixed mindset.
It makes sense. If you don’t think you can improve, why bother continuing to try?
If you take one lesson from this post, try and cultivate a growth mindset. Look for areas of life where you think with a fixed mindset. For example: “Maybe I just don’t have the talent to do this.” “If I make a mistake, people will think I’m stupid.” Now try thinking with a growth mindset: “I know I can learn to do this with time and effort.” “Everybody makes mistakes. Mistakes are an opportunity to learn.”
Most of us aren’t consciously aware of our mindset, but if we look at our behaviour, it often becomes clear, especially in how we react to failure.
You see failure and success as tied to your self-worth
An unfortunate side effect of approaching life with a fixed mindset is that you will link any outcome, good or bad, to how you see yourself and your abilities.
You dread failure because you see it as showing something negative about your basic abilities. The reason you failed is because you’re just not cut out for it.
My characterisation of a loser is someone who, after making a mistake, doesn’t introspect, doesn’t exploit it, feels embarrassed and defensive rather than enriched with a new piece of information, and tries to explain why he made the mistake rather than moving on.”
Nassim Nicholas Taleb
Taleb’s typical loser here bears the hallmarks of having a fixed mindset. I’ve thought like that ‘loser’. I’m sure you have, too.
When you tie failures to self-worth, you feel like you constantly have to prove yourself. You care too much what people think. You try and justify your mistakes instead of learning from them.
A person with a growth mindset, on the other hand, looks at failure as feedback, as an opportunity to learn and improve.
Even in the growth mindset, failure can be a painful experience. But it doesn’t define you. It’s a problem to be faced, dealt with, and learned from.”
An approach that’s helped me is to think of myself as a scientist, and failure as an experiment that didn’t work out how I expected. When we don’t get the result we expected in an experiment, we still learn something new. We don’t blame the scientist or call them a bad scientist!
Nigel Holmes‘ excellent infographic below outlines the differing consequences of thinking with a fixed or growth mindset.
A fixed mindset is the way of self-sabotage, stagnation and staying in your comfort zone.
A growth mindset is the path to stable self-esteem, personal growth, resilience in the face of setbacks, and believing you can improve the world.
Mindset: The New Psychology of Success – Carol Dweck
Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life – Martin Seligman
Mastery – Robert Greene
The Talent Code: Greatness Isn’t Born, It’s Grown – Daniel Coyle
The Art of Learning – Josh Waitzkin