A concept that comes up often in my work as an organisational psychologist and career development coach is that of the ‘growth mindset’ - a term originally coined by Stanford psychologist Dr Carol Dweck in her research on the psychology of success. This research found that we either have a ‘fixed mindset’ or a ‘growth mindset’. People with a ‘fixed mindset’ operate under the belief that we all have a set level of intelligence, character, and ability that we can’t do much to change or improve. Those with a ‘growth mindset’ believe that although we may have different starting points, we can all acquire new skills, develop and grow within the areas that we decide to work on. These people don’t see failure as confirmation that they’re not good at something, but as an experience to learn from and an opportunity to stretch their existing abilities for the future. Many people also have a mixed mindset - a fixed mindset about some things and a growth mindset about others.
A growth mindset is hugely important in today’s world, both in a professional and a personal context. It is a key aspect of resilience, overcoming challenges, and navigating change and uncertainty, all things that can have a big impact on our professional success and even on our happiness. Those that have a natural talent for something or who are already experts in their field also benefit from a growth mindset. It’s easy to fall into a talent trap if we find something comes naturally to us, but relying on talent alone isn’t always enough - a thirst for learning and continuously striving to improve ourselves puts us in a better place to reach our goals and unlock our full potential.
Like many other things, our mindset is something that we can work on if it’s not where we want it to be. Here are 3 tips to understand how to develop a growth mindset:
1. Be curious
It’s really valuable to cultivate an interest in learning new things, whether it’s in your area of expertise or in ones you know nothing about.
In a work context, this means learning more about what you do - this could be talking to other experts, taking courses, reading books relevant to your industry or field, and keeping on top of new ways of doing things. You should be practicing this even if you feel like you’re at the top of your game because the world around us is constantly changing. New technologies emerge, new research comes out, even pandemics happen and what we’ve always known might no longer be as relevant.
This applies to all areas of life. If you’re interested in a particular sport, you may be curious about different ways of training or types of equipment available. You may be surprised to read this as I talk about a growth mindset in my work, but the key point for me is to use a growth mindset where it makes sense and matters to me. I’m not great at any kind of sport, it’s never been my forte or of interest to me. So, I don’t put my energy into stretching my sporting abilities. In the gym, however, I put huge amounts of effort into getting better and learning more, and that’s because it’s an activity that I enjoy and that’s important to me, so that’s where I place my energy when it comes to stretching my physical abilities.
No matter how much experience or knowledge we have in a certain area, we can always broaden our perspective or pick up something new. It’s also good to be curious in the broader sense. Reading things just because they seem interesting or taking a course in a subject you know nothing about simply because it’s fun will flex your curiosity muscles and train your growth mindset.
2. Embrace failure
A growth mindset is all about trying new things as a way to learn, even when we’re not sure of the outcome. This requires getting comfortable with the idea that things won’t always pan out. At some point, we all experience failure but it’s important to remember that this doesn’t mean we are failures, and being afraid will only hold us back.
If you’re putting off doing something because you’re worried that it won’t go well, that you’ll make a mistake, or about what people will think or say, my advice is to turn it into an experiment. Set a specific timeframe for your trial and decide to only review its results at the end. Thinking about it as a process for which you’ll later assess impact takes the emotion out and eases the pressure around succeeding. Committing to a timeframe also stops you from quitting too early at the sign of any negative feedback.
If you do find yourself in a situation where you’ve made a mistake or something hasn’t gone the way you wanted it to, take a step back and consider what you can take away from the experience. This won’t necessarily make it any easier going through it, but it can positively change how you respond to events, think about situations, manage relationships, and do things in the future.
3. Switch up your perspective
Many of our beliefs are very deep rooted - how we respond to things is based on our life experience, how we view the world, and our values. These are a core part of us and don’t change much over our lifetime, but if we want to keep growing and developing, we sometimes need to challenge ourselves to view things from different points of view.
When you come across an obstacle or a new situation, even if you know exactly how you’d like to proceed, stop for a second and jot down all the possible ways you could respond, both good and bad. Think about what other people would do, be it your partner, friends, parents, children, boss, colleagues. You could also ask those around you for their perspective. You don’t have to go with any of these options - it might simply make you more confident in your initial response. However, it will get you into the habit of thinking through different courses of action and considering potential ways of tackling challenges. Sometimes, it may make you realise that there’s a better way of doing things.
Gemma Leigh Roberts is a Chartered Psychologist, the founder of coaching platform The Resilience Edge, and author of Mindset Matters: Developing Mental Agility and Resilience to Thrive in Uncertainty, published by Kogan Page, priced at £12.99.