Sunday 8 December 2019

Believing in better - how to cultivate a 'growth mindset'

Cultivating a 'growth mindset' can help you step out of your comfort zone

Give it a go: A ‘growth mindset’ makes you happier
Give it a go: A ‘growth mindset’ makes you happier

It takes a long time for the seeds of an idea to be scattered and sown.

Just look at Stanford University psychologist and researcher, Carol Dweck, who introduced us to the 'growth mindset' concept.

Dweck's book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, was published to much fanfare in 2006, yet it is only in recent years that the central idea has gathered momentum and achieved mainstream adoption in schools.

You're probably familiar with Dweck's landmark study which found that children who are praised for their intelligence are more likely to choose future tasks that validate their perceived intelligence and make them look smart. Conversely, children who are praised for their effort are more likely to choose tasks that help them learn new things.

The first group have what Dweck calls a 'fixed mindset': they avoid challenges because they don't want to jeopardise their reputation and, thus, their intellectual development stalls. The second group have a 'growth mindset': they thrive on challenges and they aren't afraid to fail because they know they can try again, fail again and fail better.

"Why waste time proving over and over how great you are, when you could be getting better?" writes Dweck in Mindset. "Why hide deficiencies instead of overcoming them? Why look for friends or partners who will just shore up your self-esteem instead of ones who will also challenge you to grow? And why seek out the tried and true, instead of experiences that will stretch you?" It's easy to look at Dweck's theory and conclude that you of course have a growth mindset. You have a five-year-plan, a gym membership and a Tony Robbins book. You've got this one.

Yet dig a little deeper and you may discover that your mindset isn't as dynamic as you previously thought. People with a growth mindset constantly challenge their self-limiting beliefs and personal bests. They take criticism without taking it personally. Crucially, they know when they're in their comfort zone, just as they know that personal growth isn't always comfortable.

To use a music analogy, it's the difference between playing and practising. A person with a fixed mindset, who is trying to master the piano, will play Debussy's La fille aux cheveux de lin over and over again because it sounds pleasing to their ear and, most importantly, to anyone within hearing distance. A person who has cultivated the growth mindset will move on to another, more challenging, composition. Sure, it might sound laboured and clunky but they know they'll get there in the end.

In business, fixed mindset managers never want to be seen to be practising. Because they are in a position of authority, they don't like to own up to mistakes or concede that they haven't got the answer. This of course leads to groupthink and a corporate culture in which jurisdiction strangles innovation.

In relationships, fixed mindset types tend to choose partners that bolster their egos. They don't think of relationships as learning curves because they believe in the myth of 'happily ever after'. Hence, when conflict arises - as it naturally does - the fixed mindset person doesn't see the opportunity for growth and instead dwells on what they consider to be a fundamental flaw in the relationship.

Clinical psychologist Jordan Peterson, whose latest book is currently the best-selling title on Amazon, shares an interesting take on this in his YouTube video, 'You need a partner who is a challenge'.

"You're looking for someone who you can contend with - who is going to push you beyond what you already are and who is going to judge you - harshly, often - for you limitations," he says to the students assembled in front of him. "You don't want someone who thinks you're perfect in your current form - partly because why would you want to go out with someone that deluded?"

If you want to cultivate a growth mindset, start looking at areas where you habitually opt out. Do you avoid public speaking at all costs? Do you pass maps to your partner, muttering something about your lack of spatial reasoning? Ask yourself why you haven't given yourself a chance to overcome these challenges, and start embracing what Dweck calls the "power of yet". You haven't mastered public speaking... yet.

Likewise, do you think of opinions as fluid or fixed? People with a growth mindset are less likely to identify with their opinions because they are always open to exploring new ideas and concepts. People with a fixed mindset are more likely to remain entrenched in their, to quote Brené Brown, "ideological bunkers".

It's important to note that while Dweck is now seeing the green shoots of her growth mindset theory emerge in schools around the world, she worries that some educators have missed the point. Writing in Education Week, she pointed out that some schools think growth mindset is cultivated simply by giving students an 'A for Effort'. "Teachers can appreciate their work so far," she suggests, "but add: 'Let's talk about what you've tried, and what you can try next'."

It's much the same with adults, who are no less likely to develop what Dweck calls "false growth mindset". If you feel like you're taking one step forward and two steps back, remember that an authentic growth mindset never confuses motion with action - and it always has a clear goal in sight.

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