Cultivate a Growth Mindset for Lifelong Learning
Your brain is constantly changing. Referred to as neuroplasticity, the human brain has an amazing ability to reorganize itself by forming new connections between brain cells. This (thankfully) gives you the ability to learn and adapt throughout life.
But sometimes your thought patterns can get the better of you. After decades of research, psychologist Carol Dweck, PhD, developed a theory that your mindset is a powerful tool for achieving behavior change. She identified two main types of mindset: growth mindset and fixed mindset.1
Growth mindset is the belief that you can grow your abilities through hard work, a willingness to learn, and being open to feedback. The flip side of the coin is a fixed mindset. An individual with a fixed mindset tends to think, "My talents are what they are – I'm very strong in this area, not so strong in that area, and that's the way it is." The fixed mindset is less open to learning and more resistant to feedback.1,2
If you have a fixed mindset, then you find it’s more difficult to try something new or make a necessary change to reach a goal. In contrast, a growth mindset drives achievement and behavior change.1,2
According to Dr. Dweck, most people are a blend of both mindsets. However, the mindset you use the most tends to become embedded in your brain. However, with know-how and practice, you can train your brain to use the growth mindset each time you face a life challenge.
How a Fixed Mindset and a Growth Mindset Approach A Challenge
Utilizing a growth mindset doesn't mean you'll achieve your goal. A growth mindset is a viewpoint that says, "I can do this, I can learn more." Here's an example of how a fixed and growth mindset can manifest in real life.
When you take on a challenging project at home or work, you might think, "This is just not my strong suit." And you could be right. But that doesn't mean you can't learn or improve your skills.
A fixed mindset will conclude there is little benefit in putting effort into something you are just not good at. On the other hand, a growth mindset will see this challenge as an opportunity to learn and grow. Someone who practices a growth mindset might think, "I can figure this out. What do I need to do to improve my skills? What resources are available that can help?"
What Science Says about Mindset
Researchers are exploring mindset and how a person can change a fixed mindset to a growth mindset. In one study, educators who wanted to close the learning gap between high- and low-achieving students experimented with an intervention. Students were conditioned for a growth mindset by completing a short online program that delivered the message that their intellectual abilities weren't fixed – that they could grow and improve. It worked. Those students made substantial gains in their math grades when compared to students who didn't complete the program.3
In another study of recent college graduates, researchers found that it was easier to change behavior in heavy drinkers who had stronger growth mindsets. The individuals who tended to have a growth mindset were more open to interventions that would reduce alcohol consumption.4
Challenge Your Fixed Mindset
Ready to change a fixed mindset that could be holding you back? Start with these steps. Although not always easy, this process can help you develop the foundation for a lasting growth mindset.1
1. Learn to hear your fixed mindset voice
Sometimes you don’t realize you're in a fixed mindset – where criticism, feedback, and failure are seen as threats, rather than opportunities for learning. Pay attention to the voice in your head when you face a new or daunting challenge. It might say something like, "You're not good at this" or "You know you're going to fail, why bother?" This is the voice of your fixed mindset. It usually only says negative things about you and your abilities.
2. Recognize that you have a choice
The fixed mindset is only one voice and it could be telling you not to try something to protect you from failure. You have a choice to listen to this voice or not. It's up to you to decide how you want to respond to challenges, setbacks, criticism, and failure.
3. Talk back with a growth mindset voice
When fixed-mindset thoughts begin to emerge, talk back to them in the voice of the growth mindset. Generating alternative replies is a great way to exercise flexibility in your thinking.
Fixed mindset thought: "You probably can't do that."
Growth mindset response: "I might not know how to do it now, but I think I can learn to do it with time and effort."
Fixed mindset thought: "If you don't succeed, you'll be a failure."
Growth mindset response: "That's not true. Most successful people fail."
4. Take action
As you practice talking to yourself with a growth-mindset voice, follow through on the actions for the task at hand. Keep in mind that you might not succeed. But that’s okay. You’ll develop a growth mindset over time, and it will become easier to try new things or change direction. Taking the growth-mindset action means:
- Taking on a challenge wholeheartedly
- Learning from your setbacks and trying again
- Hearing criticism and taking constructive action
Develop a Growth Mindset
You can cultivate a growth mindset with practice – it's just like developing a habit. And there are many different strategies to help you. Once you begin recognizing the fixed-mindset voice and talking back to it, apply some of these tactics the next time you face a challenge.1,5
Welcome feedback, criticism, and suggestions for improvement
Criticism can feel threatening or demeaning, which can trigger insecurity and defensiveness. But criticism can also be very helpful. Stay open to the possibility that feedback can help you think of different ideas and build new paths forward.
Replace the world "failing" with "learning"
Think of failure as an opportunity to gain knowledge from an experience and apply what you've learned for the next time. When you come to see failing as a new way of learning, you’ll stop being afraid of it.
Build a support network
Working with a health and wellness coach can shift your perspective, but you can also turn to like-minded friends for motivation and support. Your network can remind you there are opportunities inside every disappointment.
Stop seeking approval from others
Hiding failures and comparing yourself to others gets in the way of developing a growth mindset. Focus on how you are growing instead of worrying if others are negatively evaluating your progress.
While seeing a challenge with a growth mindset can lead to new skills and new knowledge, approaching a challenge with a fixed mindset tends to keep you where you’re at and limit your skills. When trying something new or aiming to achieve a goal, remind yourself that with time and effort you can grow and improve. This one thought will plant the seed for cultivating a growth mindset and lifelong learning.
- Dweck C. Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. Ballantine Books. 2016.
- Ng B. The neuroscience of growth mindset and intrinsic motivation. Brain Sci 2018;8(2):20.
- Yeager D, Hanselman P, Walton G, et al. A national experiment reveals where a growth mindset improves achievement. Nature 2019; 573:364-369.
- Lindgren K, Burnette J, Hoyt C, et al. Growth mindsets of alcoholism buffer against deleterious effects of drinking identity on problem drinking over time. Alcohol Clin Exp Res 2020;44(1):233-243.
- Guerton N. (expert opinion) Mayo Clinic. April 30, 2019.