How do you deal with failure? Do you struggle with setbacks, or get upset about losing?
With the right mindset, it may be possible to handle challenges better and pursue success without getting down on yourself.
Nurturing a growth mindset could help you tackle life’s difficulties much more efficiently – and that applies to adults as well as children. If you want to learn more about mindset theory and how you can achieve a growth mindset yourself, read on.
This article contains:
- What is Mindset Theory?
- Using Mindset Therapy: What is a Mindset Intervention?
- Using Mindset with Kids
- 3 Mindset Tests, Assessments, and Questionnaires
- Exercises and Activities to Help Achieve a Growth Mindset
- Mindset Questions You Should be Asking
- 3 Useful Mindset Worksheets: Skills and Techniques to Apply to Your Mindset
- 5 Ideas to Help Nurture a Growth Mindset
- A Take-Home Message
What is Mindset Theory?
Most positive psychology readers will already be familiar with Mindset Theory, or the idea that our beliefs influence the way we behave in response to life’s situations. If you haven’t heard of it or are looking for a refresher (Murphy & Dweck, 2016: 127),
Mindsets—or implicit theories—are the beliefs people have about the nature of human characteristics.
So, in one general sense, mindset theory premises that the way we view ourselves – our capabilities, talents, and intelligence – impact on our lives and success. At the same time, mindset theory covers how we choose to pursue our goals, whether we give up when faced with failure or respond with more effort and dedication.
Fixed vs. Growth Mindsets
According to Carol Dweck‘s Mindset Theory, we all fall somewhere along a spectrum when it comes to our implicit beliefs. At one end, it’s possible to have a fixed mindset or an entity theory:
A fixed mindset is when people believe their basic qualities, their intelligence, their talents, their abilities, are just fixed traits. They have a certain amount, and that’s that.
If your implicit beliefs fall at the other end of the spectrum, you have a growth mindset – incremental theory:
[You] believe that even basic talents and abilities can be developed over time through experience, mentorship, and so on…and these are the people who go for it. (Dweck, 2012)
A fixed mindset can often be associated with negative feelings when individuals encounter a setback. If we fail to meet goals (say an A+ in a test or a promotion at work), we may feel inadequate – that’s all we’re supposedly capable of after all, innately. Having a growth mindset, on the other hand, means we view our failures as “development points” and can work on them to succeed.
Perhaps for readily apparent reasons, Mindset Theory often gets applied in learning contexts, both in academia for students and in workplace coaching, leadership, or professional development.
Using Mindset Therapy: What is a Mindset Intervention?
As the name suggests, a mindset intervention is a program designed to strengthen growth mindsets in an academic setting. Typically, the motivation for mindset interventions has been to boost students’ academic potential – by encouraging their beliefs that intellectual capabilities can be developed (Yeager et al., 2019).
One excellent example of a mindset intervention is described by researchers Yeager and colleagues who delivered an online intervention to more than 12,000 USA high-schoolers:
At the start of the 9th grade, they delivered a 25-minute online student session which gave an overview of the growth mindset concept – that pupils could improve their intellectual capacities through various means, e.g., enhancing their learning strategies;
Between 1 and 4 weeks later, students went through a second session in which they were invited to learn more about growth mindsets. They were given stories from adult role models and older students, as well as interactive reflection sessions on how they might help others learn about a growth mindset.
At the close of the academic year, researchers measured the students’ grades and chosen courses for next year before analyzing the data on grade improvements and their academic gains.
The authors found this low-cost, easy-to-implement mindset intervention was potentially linked to a few outcomes from the study. The intervention had a positive impact on students’ academic performance, both for low- and high-achieving pupils, and also increased the chances of students taking advanced mathematics courses the next year (by 3%).
Yeager and colleagues’ paper – A national experiment reveals where a growth mindset improves achievement – provides more interesting details on this study, and we’ve included it in the references.
Using Mindset with Kids
One very nice study of pre-school kids demonstrates how a child’s mindset can influence not only their self-image but their learning behaviors and resilience (Pawlina & Stanford, 2011). It suggests that by helping kids develop a sense of self-efficacy and agency, educators can help them tackle challenges with a growth mindset.
- Encourage feelings of confidence and excitement that help children bounce back from failure;
- Help them view effort and hard work as a ‘normal’ part of problem-solving;
- Give them greater confidence in their ideas; and
- Drive kids to seek out and engage with challenges rather than avoid them.
All of this was related to observable improvements in the kids’ persistence, resilience, and openness to “potential outcomes of difficult situations” (Pawlina & Stanford, 2011: 31).
Strategies To Help Kids Develop a Growth Mindset
So, how do we put this into practice?
The authors suggest that teachers and caregivers can help kids in two ways: by providing rationales, and by offering strategies that children can use.
Adults can help children realize that it’s normal to make mistakes. By purposefully reframing errors and slip-ups as part of life, young kids in this study became more accepting of the difficulty at hand.
Grown-ups can also try putting an optimistic spin on perceived failure, engaging kids in things that they find difficult. Use positive reinforcement like: “Now you can do it, and you couldn’t do before!” By making it exciting, and by presenting setbacks as a chance to improve, mistakes become part of the package.
Emphasize practice and progress. Teachers, parents, and caregivers can help kids focus on the learning process rather than the outcome by doing the same themselves.
Role-Modelling is one way to help kids develop resilience. By highlighting your feelings when you make a mistake, then practicing positive self-talk and emphasizing the learning opportunity, children can learn to do the same. For instance: “Oops, I forgot to take my shoes off and left mud everywhere. I’m feeling annoyed at myself. Oh well, next time, I’ll leave myself a reminder.”
Avoid minimalizing the difficulty of problem-solving. By trivializing situations and labeling them “easy” or “quick,” adults can discourage kids from persevering. Try to build enthusiasm without turning children off from trying hard and tackling challenges head-on.
Let children deal with reasonable challenges by themselves. There’s no need to shelter kids from problems that they are capable of solving. As long as a challenge is not beyond their capabilities, they will learn from the ability to develop their problem-solving skills and from their failures. Of course, success in itself is positive reinforcement, so tasks should not be overly complicated.
3 Mindset Tests, Assessments, and Questionnaires
Interested in diagnosing your own or your kids’ mindsets? Here are some scientifically validated, online assessments you can do.
1. Growth Mindset Assessment
Here’s a very, very short quiz – it’s only three questions long. It is called the Growth Mindset Scale and looks at your beliefs about the nature of intelligence and effort.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about this very brief test is that you can view sample results from surveyed pupils. At the time of writing, only 30% had a growth mindset, according to this questionnaire.
This assessment is made available by the Raikes and William and Flora Hewlett Foundations (Dweck 2006; Blackwell et al., 2007; Dweck, 2012).
2. Dweck Mindset Instrument
Here is a copy of Dweck’s original Mindset Instrument (DMI). It includes 16 items on a 6-point Likert Scale, such as:
- Your intelligence is something about you that you can’t change very much;
- No matter how much intelligence you have, you can always change it quite a bit;
- You have a certain amount of talent, and you can’t do much to change it; and
- No matter who you are, you can significantly improve your level of talent.
This test was designed to assess the degree to which they feel or think that intelligence is changeable or fixed (P’Pool, 2012).
3. The Mindset Survey
The Mindset Survey is our very own PositivePsychology.com tool, and it aims to quantify your beliefs about how variable your intelligence is. Use this survey on your clients or yourself to get a good idea of how you view effort, learning, and ideal performance, as well as how you view setbacks and failure.
With eight items in total, this survey is measured on a 4-point Likert Scale and includes questions such as:
- No matter how much intelligence you have, you can always change it quite a bit;
- You can learn new things, but you can’t change how intelligent you are; and
- You can do things differently, but the important parts of who you are can’t be changed.
Here’s a link to The Mindset Survey.
Exercises and Activities to Help Achieve a Growth Mindset
Looking for some actionable ways to achieve a growth mindset? This excellent article by our own Courtney Ackerman includes some practical activities for both students and adults: Growth Mindset vs. Fixed + Key Takeaways From Dweck’s Book.
Some of the activities include:
The Crumpled Reminder Activity – this brief exercise invites you or your client to write down a recent setback you’ve experienced, then reassess your understanding of failure;
A Classroom Discussion Task – some prompts to encourage a discussion of the opportunities that arise from failure;
The Mistake Game – designed to help students talk about mistakes in an open way, helping them to embrace them and use them for learning.
Mindset Questions You Should Be Asking
Changing your mindset means challenging your perspectives. Our thoughts, opinions, values, and beliefs are often so deeply ingrained that it’s difficult or even uncomfortable to start that process.
Imagine an iceberg.
The iceberg metaphor is very commonplace when we’re discussing our thoughts, behaviors, and their impact. If you bear with me, we can take this analogy and use it to understand how questioning helps us change our mindset.
At the tip of the iceberg – the 10% floating above the surface – we have visible results. These might be successful results, or they might be failures. You might have landed the job of your dreams, or you might have flunked an exam.
Below the surface – we have the remaining 90% of the iceberg. This represents everything that the world doesn’t see. Here, we have everything that goes into that outcome. We have either hard work, positive self-talk, and so forth. Or, we might have deeply set beliefs that unconsciously shape our behaviors. Think: “What’s the point in studying anymore, I can’t do any better,” or think about hard work, repeated effort, and telling yourself: “I’ve got it in me. Let’s try again, but smarter.”
By confronting these hidden beliefs and schema with questions, we stand a much better chance of developing a growth mindset.
Great Mindset Questions To Ask Yourself
Let’s consider some of the most common things we tell ourselves, and look at some questions we can ask in their place to change our mindsets.
|“I tried; I failed. It’s just beyond me.”||Could I try a different strategy or approach?|
|“I didn’t achieve what I set out to do; I failed.”||Isn’t learning a process, and isn’t failure just part of that process?|
|“I just wasn’t born clever.”||Haven’t others tried, and succeeded through hard work?|
|“I can’t do it; I’ll never be able to do it.”||Aren’t I giving up on myself too soon? Isn’t it a matter of time?|
|“Do you think you can do it?”||Can’t I do it with repeated effort?|
|“I don’t know how or if I’ll get there…ever.”||What plan can I make to get there? How can I motivate myself to follow that plan? What’s my first step?|
3 Useful Mindset Worksheets: Skills and Techniques to Apply to Your Mindset
At PositivePsychology.com, a whole comprehensive section of our toolkit is dedicated exclusively to mindset. Here are some of the worksheets that we recommend if you’re trying to cultivate a growth mindset in yourself or a client.
1. Increasing a Growth Mindset Through Writing
Reflective writing can help you develop a growth mindset by inviting you to evaluate your experiences so that you learn and improve your approach. By recounting an experience in hindsight, you can consider how the approaches and skills you used were helpful or otherwise – the idea is to grow from your experience and continue on toward success.
Increasing a Growth Mindset Through Writing gives you or your client a framework for this writing, encouraging you to take a mindful and purposeful approach to your learning experiences. You’ll identify the shortcomings of a particular process, and develop an idea of how to amend them in the future.
Find this worksheet here in our toolkit.
2. Adopting a Growth Mindset to Criticism
Sometimes, it’s hard to receive feedback without feeling hurt or discouraged. Nonetheless, some people “take it on the chin,” if you will, and use it adaptively to work for results that they want. People with a growth mindset don’t allow themselves to become overwhelmed or upset with negative feedback; instead, they see it as a way to improve.
In this worksheet, you’re invited to reflect on a particular incident or event that made you feel negative – for instance, being told that you didn’t speak clearly in a presentation.
You’ll analyze this to a reasonable extent, then reframe the situation and create some self-affirming statements that help you handle the situation better next time. Through this exercise, you can develop your strategies for handling criticism and using it as encouragement instead.
Access the worksheet here.
3. Adopting a Growth Mindset to Criticism
Failure sometimes feels like a loss – especially if you’re used to thinking with a fixed mindset. You missed an opportunity, pushed someone away, or disappointed a friend, and things seem pretty dismal.
Having the right mindset means being optimistic: learning to recognize and focus on the opportunities that have arisen from that failure, rather than fixating on the ‘closed door.’
This is a very simple, yet powerful exercise that asks you to recollect a time when you felt like you missed out on or lost something through failure. It gives you prompts to help you reappraise that situation and consider the positives, along with your potential opportunities for growth.
Adopting a Growth Mindset to Criticism is available here.
5 Ideas to Help Nurture a Growth Mindset
As we’ve seen, mindset is something that can be developed. So what can we do to cultivate a growth mindset? Here are some ideas.
1. Embrace More Challenges
Failing can be tough when you have a fixed mindset. When we feel like our failures represent our limits, we avoid situations that might could highlight those limitations. Develop your staying power and psychological flexibility by taking on new situations where failure is a definite possibility. If and when you fail, try again.
By changing your approach and learning from your setback, success will follow at some point. You’ll learn a valuable lesson about perseverance and your capabilities.
2. View Growth as a Process
Our accomplishments or failures don’t define our experiences. When you can embrace the whole journey – with all its obstacles and hitches – you’ll become more comfortable with being uncomfortable.
We, as a society, are very focused on end results, which sometimes blinkers us to the baby steps that even pros take to get there.
3. Set Your Own Pace
Try engaging with learning experiences, and accepting them for what they are. Everyone learns, fails, and grows at their own pace, and you are your own person. Whether it’s mastering a new skill or conquering a long-standing fear, you’ll get there; remind yourself of that.
What works for one person won’t work for another – with hard work and dedication, you’ll find a pathway that works for you.
4. Everyone Fails
Everyone makes mistakes. To nurture a growth mindset, you can start by acknowledging this, then accepting it. You’re not the first one to slip up, and it doesn’t define who you are: others have been there before you. Keep going, trust in yourself, and look within yourself for validation, not outside. Be realistic.
5. Develop Resilience
This one is closely related to the above: to fail and keep trying requires resilience. To keep going in the face of adversity, it’s important to practice self-compassion, mental toughness, and be your own best friend. When we take failure as a given, we grant ourselves the freedom and space to try again. This theory of resilience training is a useful way to develop your capacity to deal with difficulties.
A Take-Home Message
So, can you develop a growth mindset? Have you tried one of the online assessments we’ve linked to? Or perhaps, you’re an educator, and you’re interested in helping your students become more resilient when dealing with problems. Wherever your interest lies, Dweck’s mindset theory gives us a lot to think about.
Research suggests that with the right attitude, we can improve the way we deal with life’s difficulties. If you’ve found any of this material useful for yourself or your practice, let us know. Leave your comments below and share your thoughts with us!
- Blackwell, L. S., Trzesniewski, K. H., & Dweck, C. S. (2007). Implicit theories of intelligence predict achievement across an adolescent transition: A longitudinal study and an intervention. Child Development, 78(1), 246-263.
- Dweck, C. S. (2006). Mindset: The new psychology of success. New York, NY: Random House Publishing Group.
- Dweck, C. S. (2012). Mindsets and human nature: Promoting change in the Middle East, the schoolyard, the racial divide, and willpower. American Psychologist, 67(8), 614-622.
- Dweck, C. S., Walton, G. M., & Cohen, G. L. (2014). Academic Tenacity: Mindsets and Skills that Promote Long-Term Learning. Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
- Murphy, M. C., & Dweck, C. S. (2016). Mindsets shape consumer behavior. Journal of Consumer Psychology, 26(1), 127-136.
- P’Pool, K. (2012). Using Dweck’s Theory of Motivation to Determine How a Student’s View of Intelligence Affects Their Overall Academic Achievement. Masters Thesis, Western Kentucky University. Retrieved from https://digitalcommons.wku.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=2217&context=theses.
- Pawlina, S., & Stanford, C. (2011). Preschoolers grow their brains: Shifting mindsets for greater resiliency and better problem solving. YC Young Children, 66(5), 30-36.
- Yeager, D. S., Hanselman, P., Walton, G. M., Murray, J. S., Crosnoe, R., Muller, C., … & Paunesku, D. (2019). A national experiment reveals where a growth mindset improves achievement. Nature, 573(7774), 364-369.