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Failing Forward: The Difference Between a Fixed and Growth Mindset

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The hallmark of the growth mindset is bouncing back from failure with an even stronger determination to win. Click To Tweet

What makes some people great achievers? In a bid to answer this question, Dr Carol S. Dweck, a renowned researcher in personality, social psychology, and developmental psychology, conducted research for over 20 years studying the lives of famous athletes, teachers, coaches, and business leaders. Dweck concluded that how we perceive our personality, talent, and intelligence determines whether we succeed or not.

In her book Mindset- Updated Edition: Changing the Way You Think to Fulfill Your Potential, Dweck reveals that the belief we have about our abilities permeates every aspect of our life. Consciously or unconsciously, these beliefs hinder us from reaching our full potential.

The two mindsets that come in play throughout her research findings are fixed and growth mindset. People with a fixed mindset believe that they are either intelligent or not. Their traits and abilities are fixed, and therefore they cannot change or improve. On the other hand, a growth mindset is exhibited by people who believe their abilities can be developed.

This theory seems simple on the surface. However, it dictates how we cope with everyday challenges. To elaborate on this concept, Dweck gives an example where she asked students one simple question:

 “One day, you go to a class that is really important to you and that you like a lot. The professor returns the midterm papers to the class. You got a C+. You’re very disappointed. That evening on the way back to your home, you find that you’ve gotten a parking ticket. Being really frustrated, you call your best friend to share your experience but are sort of brushed off.  What would you think? What would you feel? What would you do?”

The students with a fixed mindset perceived what happened as a measure of their intelligence. It was simple; they had failed on an important test because they are stupid. It seems like their friend doesn’t care about them anymore, and of course, the universe is conspiring against them. To a fixed minded individual, failure is an attack on their personality. It’s a judgment of their competence and worth. According to Dweck, fixed minded people believe that they are either smart or not, and failure is a clear sign that they are not.

The growth-minded students perceived the situation as a setback, something to learn from, not a judgment of their abilities or intelligence level. Their responses were, “I didn’t perform well, but I’ll review the paper, see where I went wrong, and prepare for the next exam.” “Next time, I’ll pay the parking ticket.”  “Perhaps, I should call my friend later and see if he/she was having a bad day too.”

It is normal to feel bad when faced with the above situation, whether you have a fixed or growth mindset. However, what sets the two mindsets apart is the reaction when faced with failure, setback, or challenges.

Let’s bring this concept home, shall we?

Back in school, we sat in class depending on our performance. The best students sat on the first rows, and poor performers, famously known as backbenchers, sat at the back. Teachers would sometimes go ahead and create discussion groups based on students’ grades.

Let me jog your memory further, when you sat for your final exams in primary or secondary school, which room were you in? Was it room one, where the crème de la crème of your class was? Can you even remember? What did the grading make you feel about yourself?

It probably confirmed that you were intelligent, a pacesetter used as an example for others to emulate. Perhaps, you were on the other side of the sea saw, long before you sat for the exams, the society had graded you. It was clear that even getting a D would be a miracle.

The illustration above doesn’t explain a fixed vs. growth mindset, but it shows how we’ve clung to the idea that there are naturals; people born with the intellectual capacity and talent. There is also another group that would barely make it in life. We’ve worked so hard to segregate them and reinforce our perception of their abilities.

The growth mindset

The growth mindset, which I also love to call the winning mindset, gives us room to give everyone an equal chance. Dweck puts it clearly, “a person’s true potential is unknown (and unknowable); it’s impossible to foresee what can be accomplished with years of passion, toil, and training.”

Challenges are opportunities for growth

The hallmark of the growth mindset is bouncing back from failure with an even stronger determination to win. It is the belief that struggles and mistakes are part of learning.

Now, if you are one of the people with a strong desire to be right, a consuming drive to prove yourself, chances are you are always worried about how you’ll be perceived. And therefore, every situation is a battle to confirm your character, intelligence, or personality. This mindset is a recipe for stagnation.

The good news is, you can adopt a growth mindset. If you have a burning desire for success, you can learn from every challenge. So, be open to criticism, learn from others’ successes, and stay the course. With a changed attitude, you’ll soar above the dark clouds of challenges just like an eagle during a storm. You’ll ultimately explore your full potential.

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4 responses to “Failing Forward: The Difference Between a Fixed and Growth Mindset”

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