Our mindset is made up of the beliefs that guide our understanding and explanation of ourselves and the world around us. Mindsets are essentially the lense through which we see the world and they help us to interpret the situations that we find ourselves in.
Growth v. Fixed Mindset
We can think of growth and fixed mindsets as being two ends of a spectrum. Growth mindset is the belief that our personal characteristics (like intelligence and personality) are able to change and develop over time. For example, someone with a growth mindset who is struggling to execute pushups off their toes might think “this is really difficult, but if I keep working on the steps to build up my strengths, I know I will get there someday.” People who endorse a growth mindset tend to exhibit greater achievement than peers who have a fixed mindset (Sarrasin et al., 2018).
On the other hand, a fixed mindset involves believing that these same personal characteristics are unalterable and, thus, unlikely to change (Yeager & Dweck, 2012). For example, a person with a fixed mindset in the same situation as above might think “this is too difficult and I’ll never get this!” Importantly, growth and fixed mindsets seem to be domain specific, meaning that you can have a growth mindset pertaining to one area of life (for example, pushups) and have a fixed mindset for other areas of life. This fixed mindset tends to reduce motivation and halts any effort at adaptation.
Even just looking at these two thoughts, you can guess that a growth mindset is more beneficial in both the short- and long-term. It makes us feel better in the moment because we see hope for the future and in the long-term keeps us motivated and persisting despite obstacles.
Outcomes of Fixed Mindset
Most of the research on growth mindset has been focused on promoting success in classrooms and found associations with many positive outcomes for students. Namely, people who endorse greater levels of growth mindset tend to be more resilient, have greater educational achievement, are more motivated, find more enjoyment in their activities, show greater attentional capabilities, and even have higher GPAs (Yeager & Dweck, 2012; Sarrasin et al., 2018).
However, growth mindset has been implicated as an important factor in improving individuals health and fitness levels. For example, growth mindsets pertaining to exercise have been shown to increase our self-efficacy for exercise, making us feel more confident in our abilities, and even increases how frequently we exercise (Orvidas, Burnette, & Russell, 2018). Additionally, a growth mindset related to eating behaviors — in which an individual believes their eating habits can change their health status — is linked with better food choices in the long run (Parent & Alquist, 2016).
Common Critiques of Growth Mindset
The critiques surrounding growth mindset are less in the theory itself, but rather in the way that the lessons learned are used or misinterpreted. First, the lessons learned from growth mindset research are often interpreted as “praise effort, not outcomes.” While this isn’t necessarily wrong, it is actually much more complicated than that. Effort is important for attaining success, but is not the sole contributor. Our effort has to also be tied to strategies that are effective for learning and tied to the ability to seek out help when needed. Otherwise, we are rewarding working harder and harder, regardless of whether that hard work is productive and worthwhile for our goals. Often, the intention behind this is to increase self-efficacy in the moment, but we must focus both on short- and long-term goals (Dweck, 2015).
Additionally, many people accept growth mindsets as a dichotomous outcome that you either have or you don’t (interestingly, a fixed mindset in itself). This tends to manifest as victim-blaming and classifying failure as resulting from a fixed mindset. Rather, development of a growth mindset is an ongoing practice that requires significant reflection on our beliefs about ourselves in each domain we find ourselves in (exercise, work, school, relationships, etc.).
Finally, many people develop what has been coined a “false growth mindset.” It seemed like everyone was talking about the growth mindset after Carole Dweck published her book Mindset in 2006. Many people began to adopt “growth mindset” as part of their identity and promoted a simplified version of it in schools and workplaces without truly understanding it. This resulted in people claiming to have or promote a growth mindset, but their behaviors didn’t match this sentiment.
While there are many critiques of the theory pertaining to growth mindset, I wanted to pay significant attention to the nuance of the theory for people of color. Growth mindset suggests that if we have the right mindset, motivation, and put in hard work, then we will be able to continue to grow as a person. However, for many black and brown people, this fails to recognize the systemic racism and oppression that withholds meaningful opportunities and prevents certain mechanisms of growth. Unfortunately, most of the research on growth mindset has been largely conducted within privileged communities. While I am not arguing that a growth mindset is not at all beneficial for people of color, I do think it is important to recognize that we live in a society that is set up to disproportionately allow only certain people to “succeed” (recognizing success is subjectively defined). Therefore, if we are going to buy into the growth mindset and also believe in justice and equity, we need serious changes at the highest levels in order to allow the growth mindset to work for all people in our current society.
Ways to Develop a Growth Mindset
So, what do we do to cultivate a growth mindset? Largely, this is about increasing awareness of the ways you are thinking about a given situation and intentionally shifting toward growth-based thoughts. However, here are a few tips for helping with that process.
- Value the Process: Almost everything we do takes time and many steps to achieve the desired outcome. Rather than focusing all your attention on the outcome itself, begin to identify the steps along the way and find joy and satisfaction in that process. In fact, rather than rewarding yourself when you get to the desired outcome, maybe find ways to incorporate small rewards along the way.
- Take Risks: Many people avoid taking risks because they are afraid of the failure that might come with it. However, this often reinforces the narrative that we are not good at things and can’t change our ability to do them. When we don’t give ourselves opportunities to grow, we are limiting our potential. Take the risks and identify the steps along the way where things went wrong or where mistakes were made and use that to change for next time!
- Reframe Failure: On a related note, when we take risks, “failure” is inevitable. Everyone has a different definition of failure; for some, it is receiving a B on a test rather than an A (perfectionistic thinking) and for others, it means reaching your own lowest point. Regardless of what failure means to you, rather than viewing it as the end of the world, reframe it as an opportunity to do something different and learn. When you think or say “I can’t do this,” add “...yet” to the end.
- Accept Fixed Mindsets: Carol Dweck herself even indicated that we need to accept our fixed mindsets (Dweck, 2015). There are going to be some instances in which we will always have a fixed mindset and it can even be helpful. If we fully “ban” this mindset, this will promote the emergence of false growth mindsets and can be more harmful in the long run.
- Watch for Fixed Mindset Triggers: Fixed mindset triggers are the scenarios that tend to make us respond defensively. For example, receiving negative feedback and critique can often make people feel inadequate and give up. Seeing other people succeed can make some people feel intimidated or inferior and become demotivated. Knowing what these triggers are for you can help you to do something different next time you receive negative feedback.
The lifelong practice of cultivating a growth mindset is difficult, yet rewarding. How have you modified your mindset over time? What strategies do you use to reframe your mindset?
Dweck, C. (2015). Carol Dweck revisits the growth mindset. Education Week, 35(5), 20-24.
Parent, M. C., & Alquist, J. L. (2016). Born fat: The relations between weight changeability beliefs and health behaviors and physical health. Health Education & Behavior, 43(3), 337-346.
Orvidas, K., Burnette, J. L., & Russell, V. M. (2018). Mindsets applied to fitness: Growth beliefs predict exercise efficacy, value and frequency. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 36, 156-161.
Sarrasin, J. B., Nenciovici, L., Foisy, L. B., Allaire-Duquette, G., Riopel, M., & Masson, S. (2018). Effects of teaching the concept of neuroplasticity to induce a growth mindset on motivation, achievement, and brain activity: A meta-analysis. Trends in Neuroscience and Education, 12, 22-31.
Yeager, D. S., & Dweck, C. S. (2012). Mindsets that promote resilience: When students believe that personal characteristics can be developed. Educational Psychologist, 47(4), 302-314.