Growth mindset theory is one of the most influential and widespread theories of intelligence in the education system right now. It has taken the wider world by storm – and its popularity seems to be ever-growing – with its presence felt in the world of business, professional development, and even politics.

And there is a good reason why this theory holds the importance that it does. As a theory, it tells us that success can come through a change of attitude – or a change of ‘mind set’ – and a resulting transformation of the ways in which we behave, respond to failure, and engage with problems and challenges.

It holds that children can be educated in such a way so that they can respond to challenges with gusto and enthusiasm – so that, ultimately, nothing will stand in their way.

It sounds cool, no? And, honestly, it absolutely is. That’s why we’re focusing a series on the subject. A series that will help you to understand what a growth mindset is, why you might want it, and what you will want to avoid. And a series too that will help you to develop your own growth mindset – with resources to help you do just that.

So, let’s take a look at all you need to know about the growth mindset. And remember, it’s all about the challenge: the growth mindset starts by recognising that everything is still possible.

classroom for growth mindset
The growth mindset can start in the classroom.

What is Growth Mindset Theory?

So, what is the theory of the growth mindset?

To investigate this, we have to turn to Carol Dweck, a Stanford University psychologist and professor whose primary field of research has been motivation. It was Dweck who propounded the idea of mindsets, some twenty years ago, and it is to her that we owe its popularity.

Dweck’s idea, based on a number of studies that she undertook, was actually quite simple. There are two primary mindsets – ways of thinking and behaving – that humans have and that determine their mental attitude towards their talents and abilities.

These she calls the ‘fixed mindset’ and the growth mindset. And whilst it is easy to put these in total opposition, this is not exactly fair. We all sit on something of a continuum between the two, taking aspects from each.

Find out more about the definition of growth mindset!

What We Believe about Our Abilities.

The fundamental distinction between these two mindsets is in one’s belief in the nature and origin of intelligence.

So, the fixed mindset tells us that intelligence and ability is fixed: we are allotted a certain amount of intelligence at birth and this is pretty much unchangeable. The growth mindset, however, tells us that ability is something which, through learning and growth, can be developed.

Some of us, then, when doing something new, might say ‘oh, but I’m just not good at maths’ or ‘I can’t sing for the life of me’. This would demonstrate a fixed mindset – a belief in the impossibility of growth in a certain field. A growth mindset, on the other hand, would say ‘well, let’s give it a try!’.

How Mindset Affects Our Lives.

Whilst this seems like, really, quite a trivial difference, Dweck argues that this fundamental distinction affects how we behave in the rest of our lives. It affects the way that we deal with setbacks; it informs our passion for learning or our lack of it; it affects the way that we respond to the need to learn new skills – and to the fact of other people’s achievement and success.

And, most importantly perhaps, the ways in which all of these things are affected comes to play an influence on our process of learning and our own success. Whether it be academic achievement or professional growth, our mindset affects it all.

Fixed vs Growth Mindset.

We have seen that the difference between the fixed mindset and the growth mindset affects all aspects of our lives. Yet, let’s give you a few examples to clear up any confusion.

The vast majority of the examples that Dweck herself uses come from the education system. This is where she did her research – and where the influence of her theories is felt the strongest. The difference in mindset is a difference in approaches to learning, to cultivating skills, and to attitudes to perseverance and failure.

road surrounded by trees
Leave your fixed mindset behind!

Acquiring New Skills.

We saw above that one of the differences between the growth mindset and the fixed mindset is in the way we respond to new demands and challenges. And that distinction between ‘oh, I’m not a maths person’ and ‘let’s give it a go!’ remains fundamental.

The fixed mindset is based on the idea of an innate ability: if you are born smart, you stay smart; if you are born not smart, there’s no way you are going to get smart.

This attitude means that people are not willing to try to learn and grow. For someone with a fixed mindset, effort is irrelevant for success because competent people shouldn’t need to make an effort.

As a result, people with a fixed mindset tend to shy away from challenges that might present a setback; they don’t take the risks necessary to persevere through struggle and try harder to achieve. They give up due to a fear of failure.

Meanwhile, according to Dweck, those with a growth mindset recognise the neuroplasticity of the mind, it’s ability to develop like a muscle. These people are much more willing to accommodate new strategies with which to navigate challenge; they are more willing to have the inclination to learn new things.

Relations with Others.

Another crucial difference in the two mindsets is their interaction with other people. By this, we mean the ability of the two mindsets to recognise the success of others, and to receive praise and constructive criticism.

People with a fixed mindset tend to see others a challenge to themselves. Whilst averse to personal growth, they also see the successes of others as a challenge – as something intimidating, threatening, or problematic.

The same applies to advice from others: people with a fixed mindset tend to see advice as an attack – as if they have done something wrong.

Meanwhile, growth mindsets are all about openness. The success of others is not something to resented but to be inspired by. Criticism and advice are less an attack than a means by which to grow further.

How to Develop Your Growth Mindset.

Knowing all this, there are a number of ways that you can develop your own growth mindset – and to change your mindset to remove some of those limiting beliefs.

These are a number of thought experiments that you can do to change your attitude and to begin to move away from that fixed mindset that may well have been holding you and your self-confidence back.

Find more ways to develop your growth mindset!

Rethink Failures as Lessons.

Failures do not need to be fatal events that stop you in your tracks forever – and force you to give up on something. This is the attitude of a fixed mindset.

Your capacity for perseverance in confronting adversity is one of the major elements of a growth mindset. You should begin to see failures as opportunities for further growth, or as lessons to be learned.

The brain develops through making mistakes, so embrace them. Because it will bring you success in the long run.

Reframe What it Means to Be a Genius.

Geniuses are not just extraordinary minds. They are not intelligences that are born out of the void that can perform any task that they need to.

You should stop thinking of genius as simply innate ability. Because it isn’t. Ella Fitzgerald wasn’t just born with a voice like that. Nor did Einstein never make an effort.

Rather, genius comes with work, with effort, with grit.

woman studying
Stay curious about learning with your growth mindset.

Resources to Help You and Your Growth Mindset.

There is a whole load of ways to develop your growth mindset. And there is a huge number of different resources online to help you get there too.

You can see all of the details of these in our article on the resources for growth mindset development, but let’s just take two here as a sample.

Dweck’s TED Talk.

One of the most important resources for understanding the growth mindset is Carol Dweck’s TED Talk, ‘The power of believing that you can improve’.

In the video, Dweck outlines the primary differences between the fixed mindset and the growth mindset – and all of the ramifications of that difference.

Mindset Works.

Mindset Works is one of the largest providers of growth mindset educational resources on the internet. And whilst many are subscription only, it is a hugely impressive collection of resources for any serious about changing their habits of mind.

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