You’ve probably heard of this movement before—it’s swept the nation and the world into a newfound appreciation for the potential to be found in hard work.
Of course, working hard has always been valued. We know that working hard (and working smart) is a good way to achieve our goals.
The question is not so much one of how much we appreciate the value of work, but whether we have overemphasized the importance of natural ability. It’s easy to look at the achievements of exceptional people and think that their success comes from their innate gifts. After all, Einstein couldn’t have revolutionized a field with a below-average intelligence, right? Would Michael Jordan have been able to become the phenomenal player that he is without inherent talent for basketball?
The answer to both questions is, of course, almost certainly “No.” The most exceptional people in any area would likely not be at the top without some innate abilities. However, there is an important piece that many people don’t see—you don’t become the greatest by riding on your innate talent alone.
Einstein didn’t simply spend a few afternoons writing a book then kick back and relax. Michael Jordan didn’t skip practices and lounge around in his free time.
It takes an incredible amount of talent AND hard work to become the greatest at anything.
Although the vast majority of us won’t become the greatest at our craft, this simple truth has some important applications for us as well, namely: we get where we are through a combination of innate ability and effort. Except in extremely rare cases of strong genetics, our genes don’t define anything about us. We have incredible influence over our skills and abilities—likely far more influence than we think.
There’s a name for believing in our ability to grow and change what some assume to be fixed or immutable characteristics: having a growth mindset. If you’re interested in finding out what a growth mindset is and how it can be developed, you’ve come to the right place! Read on to learn more about growth mindset vs. fixed.
This article contains:
- What is the Definition of a Growth Mindset?
- What is a Fixed Mindset?
- What is the Main Difference? (Growth Mindset vs. Fixed)
- Examples of a Growth Mindset
- How to Change Your Mindset
- How to Develop a Growth Mindset for Kids
- Mindset Activities for Students and Adults
- Carol Dweck’s Book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success
- Book Summary – Mindset: The New Psychology of Success
- Growth Mindset Posters, Displays & A Bulletin Board (PDF)
- Dweck’s TED Talk (Video)
- A Take Home Message
Before we get much further, let’s take a moment to define some important terms that we’ll be using frequently throughout this piece.
What is the Definition of a Growth Mindset?
A growth mindset is “the understanding that abilities and understanding can be developed” (Mindset Works, n.d.). Those with a growth mindset believe that they can get smarter, more intelligent, and more talented through putting in time and effort.
What is a Fixed Mindset?
On the flipside, a fixed mindset is one that assumes abilities and understanding are relatively fixed. Those with a fixed mindset may not believe that intelligence can be enhanced, or that you either “have it or you don’t” when it comes to abilities and talents.
What is the Main Difference (Growth Mindset vs. Fixed)?
The main difference between the two mindsets is the belief in the permanence of intelligence and ability; one views it as very permanent, with little to no room for change in either direction, while the other views it as more changeable, with opportunities for improvement (or, for that matter, regression).
This difference in mindset may lead to marked differences in behavior as well. If someone believes intelligence and abilities are immutable traits, they are not likely to put in much effort to change their inherent intelligence and abilities. On the other hand, those who believe they can change these traits may be much more willing to put in extra time and effort to achieve more ambitious goals. With a growth mindset, individuals may achieve more than others because they are worrying less about seeming smart or talented and putting more of their energy into learning (Dweck, 2016).
While the benefits of cultivating a growth mindset are clearly desirable, the founder of the growth mindset theory is quick to point out that it’s not just about telling yourself (or others) that you can improve; Carol Dweck points out three common misconceptions she has encountered:
- “I already have it, and I always have.” Dweck warns that a growth mindset is not simply being open-minded or optimistic or practicing flexible thinking; it’s more specific than that.
- “A growth mindset is just about praising and rewarding effort.” Although praising and rewarding effort is generally a good idea, it must be undertaken with an eye on outcomes as well. Effort that is unproductive is not to be rewarded, and learning and progress should also be met with praise.
- “Just espouse a growth mindset, and good things will happen.” Espousing a growth mindset is a positive step that can lead to positive outcomes, but it’s not a guarantee; the mindset needs to be backed up with effort applied to worthwhile activities, and even then success is not inevitable (Dweck, 2016).
Examples of a Growth Mindset
It’s easy to see examples of a growth mindset in students. Those with a growth mindset are apt to see challenges as a natural part of the learning process. They work harder and smarter, helping them to learn and achieve more than students with a fixed mindset.
Students with a growth mindset may display behaviors like:
- Asking the teacher to demonstrate a new way to do a math problem
- Volunteering answers in class even when unsure
- Asking a question even if it might seem basic or “stupid”
- Seeking out problems that will push them instead of problems that keep them safely within their comfort zone (Character Lab, n.d.)
It may seem like a growth mindset is hard to see in adults, since they’re not in a constant learning environment—or are they? That perspective on the environment is a clear-cut example of a growth mindset vs. fixed. Those with a growth mindset are more likely to see every environment as a learning environment and scan for opportunities to improve their skills and enhance their knowledge.
For specific examples, John Rhodes (2015) shares a few scenarios that typify a growth mindset in adults:
Example 1: Running late and missing the bus or carpool
You’ve certainly been here before: your alarm doesn’t go off (or maybe you hit snooze a few too many times) and you oversleep. You jump out of bed and race into your clothes, skipping any part of your morning ritual that isn’t completely necessary before racing outside to catch the bus. As you run to the street, you see the bus pulling away and you know you’re going to be late.
For someone with a fixed mindset, this scenario might just ruin their whole day. They may feel angry with themselves or look for someone or something else to blame.
On the other hand, someone with a growth mindset is more likely to think about the root cause of the mess they’re in and consider how to avoid it next time. They may conclude that they need to go to bed earlier tonight, or set their alarm a little bit louder. The point is, the person with a growth mindset will think about ways to fix the problem because they believe it is fixable.
Example 2: Poor feedback from the boss
Another scenario showcasing a growth mindset: you go in for an evaluation with your boss and you receive negative feedback. Your boss thinks you aren’t putting in enough effort, or you’re making too many mistakes, or that you’re simply not competent enough to handle your current project.
Someone with a fixed mindset may decide that their boss has no idea what she’s talking about and completely ignore the feedback. Alternatively, they might agree with their boss and think “I just can’t do anything right. I don’t have what it takes to be successful.”
A growth mindset response would be to seriously consider this feedback, evaluate it as objectively as possible, and seek out more information and/or another opinion to compare. If your boss has a point, you would come up with possible solutions to improve your performance and do your best to implement them.
Example 3: Praising your child
We’ll get to more examples later, but Rhodes offers a good example of a growth mindset in a parent:
“Kids love praise and parents love giving it. So, when you’re child comes to you with an A on his math paper, you can either go the fixed mindset route and say, ‘You’re so smart’ or you can go the growth mindset way and acknowledge the effort he or she put in, saying, ‘Wow, you really worked hard on that paper!’” (Rhodes, 2015)
Example 4: Handling a new project or task
When you are assigned a daunting new task at work or when you take on a challenging project at home, it can be tempting to think “I’m not good at this kind of stuff. It’s just not my strong suit!”
You might be right that it’s not one of your strengths, but that doesn’t mean you can’t learn it. A fixed mindset will take this self-defeating thought and run with it, concluding that there’s no point in putting all that much effort into something that just isn’t your cup of tea.
On the other hand, a growth mindset will see this new challenge as an opportunity to grow. Someone with this mindset might think, “I can figure this out. What do I need to do to get my skills at the right level? Are there classes I can take? People I can ask for help? Any other resources that might help?”
The growth mindset will lead you to new skills, new knowledge, and new areas of expertise, while the fixed mindset will leave you about where you started—with little skill in the task at hand and little confidence in your abilities.
How to Change Your Mindset
After reading these examples, you’re probably thinking, “Okay, I’m sold on a growth mindset! But how do I change my mindset?”
If so, you’re right on track! This section is all about what you can to do change your mindset. It may not be easy, but you will likely find that all the effort was worth the advantages of a growth mindset.
There are eight general approaches for developing the foundation for such a mindset:
- Create a new compelling belief: a belief in yourself, in your own skills and abilities, and in your capacity for positive change.
- View failure in a different light: see failure as an opportunity to learn from your experiences and apply what you have learned next time around.
- Cultivate your self-awareness: work on becoming more aware of your talents, strengths, and weaknesses; gather feedback from those who know you best and put it together for a comprehensive view of yourself.
- Be curious and commit to lifelong learning: try to adopt the attitude of a child, looking at the world around you with awe and wonderment; ask questions and truly listen to the answers.
- Get friendly with challenges: know that if you mean to accomplish anything worthwhile, you will face many challenges on your journey; prepare yourself for facing these challenges, and for failing sometimes.
- Do what you love and love what you do: it’s much easier to succeed when you are passionate about what you’re doing; whether you cultivate love for what you already do or focus on doing what you already love, developing passion is important.
- Be tenacious: it takes a lot of hard work to succeed, but it takes even more than working hard—you must be tenacious, weathering obstacles and getting back up after each time you fall.
- Inspire and be inspired by others: it can be tempting to envy others when they succeed, especially if they go farther than you, but it will not help you to succeed; commit to being an inspiration to others and use the success of others to get inspiration as well (Zimmerman, 2016).
Follow these 8 principles and you will find it hard to have anything but a growth mindset!
For more specific techniques you can use to start building a growth mindset now, try these 25 suggestions from Saga Briggs (2015):
- Acknowledge and embrace your imperfections; don’t hide from your weaknesses.
- View challenges as opportunities for self-improvement.
- Try different learning tactics and strategies; don’t consider any strategies one-size-fits-all.
- Keep up on the research on brain plasticity to continually encourage the growth mindset.
- Replace the word “failing” with the word “learning” in your vocabulary.
- Stop seeking approval for others, and prioritize learning over approval.
- Value the learning process over the end result.
- Cultivate a sense of purpose, and keep things in perspective.
- Celebrate your growth with others, and celebrate their growth as well.
- Emphasize learning well over learning quickly.
- Reward actions instead of traits.
- Redefine “genius” as hard work plus talent, rather than talent alone.
- Give constructive criticism, and accept criticism of your own work as constructive.
- Disassociate improvement from failure; “room for improvement” does not mean “failure.”
- Reflect on your learning regularly.
- Reward hard work before talent or inherent ability.
- Emphasize the relationship between learning and “brain training;” like any other muscle, the brain can be trained.
- Cultivate your grit (determination and perseverance).
- Abandon the idea of succeeding on talent alone; recognize that it will always take some work as well.
- Use the phrase “not yet” more often, as in, “I haven’t mastered it yet.”
- Learn from the mistakes that others make.
- Make a new goal for every goal you accomplish; never stop striving towards your goals.
- Take risks and be vulnerable with others.
- Think realistically about how much time and effort your goal will take.
- Take ownership of your own attitude, and take pride in your developing growth mindset.
If you’re still hungry for more tips on building a growth mindset, see the exercises and activities detailed later in this piece.
How to Develop a Growth Mindset for Kids
This mindset theory is especially applicable for students. There are obvious advantages to cultivating a growth mindset in children of any age, and it’s never too early to start!
Teachers have a unique opportunity to influence the mindset of the children they interact with on a daily basis, and there are some simple things they can do to encourage a growth mindset over a fixed one. For example, teachers can:
- Set and publicly share teaching goals (e.g., “I am working on giving feedback to every student every period”)
- Reframe deficits as opportunities for growth
- Ask others for better strategies
- Seek mentorship
- Avoid language that implies a fixed mindset about their own abilities (e.g., “I’ve never been great at math”)
- Share their own mistakes with students and vocally embrace each mistake as a chance to get better (Character Lab, n.d.)
Making a verbal commitment to building a growth mindset and offering effort-based praise is a great strategy for helping children to develop a growth mindset, but it’s about more than words. Teachers and parents who want to guide their children toward this mindset should also focus on:
- Improving themselves first; it’s extremely difficult, if not impossible, to build a growth mindset in others if it’s not a mindset you are also embracing for yourself.
- Go beyond the “mindset jargon” and inspirational quotes to truly focus on encouraging growth over achievement, and frame failure as opportunities to learn.
- Praise properly, focusing on their efforts rather than any inherent abilities.
- Embrace the word “yet;” as noted earlier in the section on building your own growth mindset, use the word “yet” with children to give them a sense that failure is not inevitable and that their current level of knowledge or skill is not immutable.
- Take advantage of mistakes children make; be ready to praise them for their efforts but also point out any issues in their approach and brainstorm better ways to handle the situation with them.
- Let kids fail; another vital part of building a growth mindset in children is to let them fail instead of showing them how to do everything. Trial and error is an important learning process, and children should be free to use it (Gerstein, n.d.).
If you think you’ve got a good handle on the general principles, but are looking for more specific and hands-on techniques for cultivating a growth mindset in your children or students, read on!
Mindset Activities for Students and Adults
There are many activities and exercises you can try to get yourself or your children or students into more of a growth mindset. Try one of the four activities listed below and see if any of them work for your child, your class, or even yourself!
Crumpled Reminder Activity
This activity from the Project for Education Research that Scales’ (PERTS) official Mindset Kit will guide children through a lesson on the importance of failing and how we can use failure as an opportunity. It should only take about 15 to 20 minutes.
If you’d like to give this activity a try, follow these steps:
- Ask students to write about a mistake they made this week and how it made them feel.
- Give each student a fresh piece of paper, ask them to crumple it up and throw it at the board with the feelings they have when they make a mistake.
- Ask them to retrieve the paper, un-crumple it, and color each line with different colors.
- Ask students what they think those lines represent. Explain that the lines represent all the synaptic activity (or brain activity, for younger children) that happens when a mistake is made.
- Ask students to keep the paper and stick it into a notebook or folder to look at when they make a mistake. This physical reminder prompts students to use mistakes to strengthen their brain every time they open their notebook.
- OPTIONAL – Lead a discussion on mistakes using questions from the Classroom Discussion activity (below) to further students’ understanding about the value of mistakes.
Click here to learn more about this activity.
Classroom Discussion Activity
You can use this to complement the first activity or on its own—either way, it will teach kids a valuable lesson about failure.
Introduce the activity by saying you are going to talk about why mistakes are good, and how you can learn from them. Lead a discussion on mistakes, starting with the following questions:
- How do you feel when you make a mistake? Why?
- How do you think other people see you when you make a mistake?
- Have you ever discovered something new from making a mistake?
- Have you ever felt proud of making a mistake?
- Has a mistake ever made you think more deeply about a problem? (With this question, you can start off with a non-academic situation, then apply the lesson to school.)
If you’d like to learn more about this activity, visit PERTS’ website here.
This exercise from Barbara on the Mindset Kit website is a perfect way for students to get comfortable learning about, making, and keeping an eye out for mistakes.
Begin by assigning students a set of math problems. Each student must complete them individually.
Once each student has finished their set, put the students into small groups (four or five students per group) and assign each group one of the problems to present to the class. The group members should share their individual solutions with the group, then collectively they can choose a solution to share with the class on the whiteboard.
However, there’s a catch—they must make at least one intentional mistake in their solution! The group can choose a mistake made by one of their own members or come up with a new mistake, but there must be at least one mistake present.
When each group has settled on a solution with at least one mistake, the groups will present their solution to the class one at a time. While they present, the class must listen to their process and keep their eyes peeled for the mistake(s). When they believe they’ve found a mistake, they have to phrase it in the form of a question (e.g., “Why did you do it that way?” or “Can you explain how you did that part?”).
This process of sharing and openly discussing mistakes can help diminish the stigma on making errors. It also encourages students to ask thoughtful questions and to be comfortable talking about their own mistakes.
Click here to read about this activity from the source.
Reflection on Mistakes
This is a great activity to use with an individual student or child who has just made a mistake that he or she feels particularly bad about. Remind the child that mistakes an inevitable part of life, and that they can be used as an opportunity to grow and improve.
Encourage them to answer these questions in their journal, diary, or on a sheet of paper:
- What happened when you made the mistake?
- How did you realize you had the wrong answer?
- Describe how you started thinking about the problem.
- How did it feel when you realized you made a mistake?
- What did you learn from making this mistake?
Once they have answered these questions, discuss the mistake with them. Praise them for their effort, acknowledge that they have made progress by completing this reflection, and encourage them to try new strategies in the future.
You can click here to learn about the activity this exercise is based on.
Challenge Your Fixed Mindset Voice
This activity involves four steps that are not all that easy, but that can help you to develop the foundation for a lasting growth mindset.
Step 1: Learn to hear your fixed mindset voice.
Pay attention to the voice that pops up when you face a new or particularly daunting challenge. This is the voice of your fixed mindset, and it likely only has negative things to say about you and your abilities. It might say something like “You really think you can do it?” or “This is not one of your strengths, just give up and do something else!”
Once you’ve identified the voice, move on to the next step.
Step 2: Recognize that you have a choice.
After realizing that you have a fixed mindset voice and that it’s not necessarily your authentic voice, you will realize that you have a choice in whether to listen to this voice or not. It is up to you to decide how you want to interpret and respond to challenges, setbacks, criticism, and failure.
Tell yourself that you have a choice, and do your best to believe it!
Step 3: Talk back to it with your growth mindset voice.
When the fixed mindset voice comes nagging at you, start to talk back to it. Question it, throw doubt on its conclusions, and generally counter it wherever you can.
It may say, “Are you sure you can do it? Maybe you don’t have what it takes.”
You can respond, “I’m not sure I can do it now, but I think I can learn to do it with time and effort.”
If it says, “What if you fail—you’ll be a failure!”, respond with “Most successful people had failures along the way.”
When you hit an inevitable setback at some point, it might say, “This would be so much easier if you only had the talent.” If it does, respond with “That’s wrong. Even those with the greatest inherent talent need to work hard to succeed in their field.”
Do whatever you can to challenge that fixed mindset voice and encourage the growth mindset voice.
Step 4: Take the growth mindset action.
Finally, once you have tons of practice challenging the fixed mindset voice with your growth mindset voice, it will become easier to take the growth mindset action.
Taking the growth mindset action means:
- Taking on the challenge wholeheartedly.
- Learning from your setbacks and trying again.
- Hearing the criticism and taking constructive action.
Continue listening to both voices and acting on the growth mindset voice as often as possible, and you will have an excellent foundation for the right mindset.
Click here to see this exercise at its source.
Carol Dweck’s Book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success
Carol Dweck’s 2007 book on her growth vs. fixed mindset theory is titled Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. In this book, Dweck describes the importance of having the right mindset to maximize our potential and capitalize on our strengths. This theory explains how the way we think about our intelligence, abilities, and talents can have a huge impact on our success in every area of life.
It focuses on both improving your own mindset and on building the right mindset in children, making it an excellent read for parents, teachers, coaches, and managers.
This newest version of the book offers new insights on cultivating a growth mindset, as well as avoiding the false growth mindset. It also includes Dweck’s insights on applying the growth mindset to teams, groups, organizations, and institutions.
The book seems to be beloved by both critics and everyday readers, with an impressive 4.5-star average based on over 2,300 reviews. It is available in paperback, hardcover, and Kindle version. Click here to read more about it or purchase it for yourself.
Book Summary – Mindset: The New Psychology of Success
There’s no substitute for reading the book itself (and it’s not exactly a monster of a book at 304 pages!), but if you’re in a hurry and looking to get the most salient points out of it quickly, there are a few summaries of Mindset that are available for purchase.
Check the following links for succinct summaries of the book:
Growth Mindset Posters, Displays & A Bulletin Board (PDF)
If you’re a teacher, tutor, or simply a parent that likes those inspirational or motivational posters, these posters, displays, and bulletin board ideas are perfect for you.
This group of 13 posters, each in 4 different themes, are highly rated by over 2,000 reviewers. At $6.25 for a digital download, these posters are an excellent value!
If you want your child or students to have a more hands-on experience, try these 9 color-in mindset posters. Coloring the posters will encourage children to take an active role in thinking about their mindset. At $4.99 for a digital download, you’ll find this a great use of precious resources.
This set is another great value; it includes 22 growth mindset affirmations, in full-color poster, full black and white poster, full-color trading cards, and black and white trading cards format. In addition, there are two printables that offer suggestions on utilizing the affirmations in the classroom and 8 pages of bulletin board letters in case you’d like to create a bulletin board. It’s only $6.75 for a digital download, making it an excellent buy.
This example growth mindset bulletin board shows how you can create a helpful and inspiring display that will encourage students to develop a growth mindset. This one is titled “Change Your Words – Change Your Mindset!” and includes 9 fixed mindset thoughts or statements and a corresponding growth mindset thought. Keeping this board in a highly-trafficked area will ensure that kids see these statements and are constantly reminded that they can choose to change their perspective on their problems.
Dweck’s TED Talk (Video)
If you’re interested in hearing more about this theory, check out Carol Dweck’s TED Talk on it below. She describes what prompted her to think about mindset, what the research on this subject has found, and the power of “yet.”
A Take Home Message
If you leave this piece with only one takeaway, I hope that it is a belief in yourself and your abilities to grow, to develop, and to thrive beyond what you currently perceive as your limits. Having a growth mindset isn’t an “easy button” solution to any problem, and it will not automatically cause good things to happen to you; however, it will likely make it easier and more enjoyable to work hard toward your goals, and give you the confidence you need to set ever more ambitious goals.
I hope this piece has satisfied some of your curiosity about the growth mindset theory, but if you’re still curious, know that this is merely scratching the surface—there are tons of studies, articles, and books out there about the importance of cultivating a growth mindset and tips and tricks on how to do it.
What are your thoughts on this theory? Do you find it plausible, or do you think inherent abilities are more important than this theory assumes? Have you tried any growth mindset activities? Let us know in the comments!
Thanks for reading, and good luck with building a growth mindset!
- Briggs, S. (2015). 25 ways to develop a growth mindset. InformED. Retrieved from https://www.opencolleges.edu.au/informed/features/develop-a-growth-mindset/
- Character Lab. (n.d.). Growth mindset. Character LAB. Retrieved from https://www.characterlab.org/growth-mindset/
- Dweck, C. (2016). What having a “growth mindset” actually means. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved from https://hbr.org/2016/01/what-having-a-growth-mindset-actually-means
- Gerstein, J. (n.d.). Cultivate a growth mindset with these 6 strategies. Noodle. Retrieved from https://www.noodle.com/articles/these-6-strategies-will-promote-a-growth-mindset-in-your-kid
- Mindset Works. (n.d.). Decades of scientific research that started a growth mindset revolution. Mindset Works. Retrieved from https://www.mindsetworks.com/Science/Default
- Rhodes, J. (2015, August 24). Growth mindset examples: How everyday situations create opportunity for learning and progress. LinkedIn. Retrieved from https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/growth-mindset-examples-how-everyday-situations-create-john-rhodes/
- Zimmerman, A. (2016). Shift to a growth mindset with these 8 powerful strategies. Inc. Retrieved from https://www.inc.com/angelina-zimmerman/the-8-tremendous-ways-for-developing-a-growth-mindset.html