Cultivating a Growth Mindset

Cultivating a Growth Mindset

Whenever I hear myself saying “I can’t do this!” I’ve made it a practice to immediately say, “but I am doing this.  I may not be doing it well.  I may not be finished doing it, but “I am doing it” shifts my entire mindset.  “I am doing it” shifts my attitude, my behaviors, and creates the possibility that I really will do it.

Carol Dweck’s book Mindset [see May 2016 e-newsletter] shifted the paradigm about mindsets altogether.  Her pioneering research on a growth mindset versus a fixed mindset illuminated how people’s attitudes impacted their responses to setbacks and disappointments, leading further to their view of themselves as a success or a failure.

Fixed mindset:  a system of beliefs that talents, aptitudes, temperaments, personality traits and preferences are fixed; either you have the smarts or the good looks or the talents, or you don’t. And that success or failure is a true measure of one’s intelligence, competence, self-worth.

Hence, folks with a fixed mindset are supersensitive to being judged and very vulnerable to feeling “rejected, a failure, an idiot, a loser, worthless, nobody loves me, pitiful.”  And the response to failure or a setback is to fear challenge, devalue effort, and avoid risk, to stop trying, to give up, retreat, withdraw, veg out.  The fixed mindset robs people of capacities to cope.

Growth mindset: a system of beliefs that talents, aptitudes, temperaments, personality traits and preferences are simply a starting point for development.  The growth mindset fosters curiosity and a passion for learning through effort and experience.  People with growth mindsets respond especially well when things are not going well; they tend to stretch themselves, confront obstacles, embrace risk, and stick through the hard times.  Rather than being embarrassed or blocked by a sense of deficiency, they can acknowledge what skill or capacity is missing and set to work to cultivate it. They take direct, wise, and compassionate action. “Love of challenge, belief in effort, resilience in the face of setbacks, greater creativity and success” are hallmarks of the growth mindset.

Clearly, cultivating a growth mindset helps people become more resilient.

When challenges become difficult, folks with fixed mindsets tend to give up and miss out on learning.

When challenges become difficult, folks with growth mindsets then to roll up their sleeves and dive in.

In the fixed mindset, everything is about the outcome.  If you fail – or if you’re not the best – it’s all been wasted.  The growth mindset allows people to value what they’re doing regardless of the outcome.  They’re tackling problems, charting new courses, working on important issues.  Maybe they haven’t found the cure for cancer, but the search was deeply meaningful.

Carol Dweck, Mindset

What’s important about distinguishing these two mindsets is that we can intentionally choose to cultivate a growth mindset. That would be characteristic of the growth mindset right there; our mindsets are not fixed; we can put in the effort to shift our orientation to life events from fixed to growth.  We can shift how we filter our perceptions of ourselves and our experiences.  That is part of our deepening reflective intelligence.

That means we live our lives not about avoiding failure but about grabbing a hold of failure as an opportunity to learn, to improve, to master.  Choosing to cultivate a growth mindset changes everything.

Exercise: Cultivating a Growth Mindset

1. Reflect on situations where you faced a challenge or simply encountered something unfamiliar. Reflect on your own thought process and your own behaviors. Recall times when you did operate from a fixed mindset, hanging back, hesitating, or refusing to attempt something you perceived a bit beyond your capacities. Recall times also when you approached a challenge with a growth mindset, with interest, curiosity, and some confidence, or at least a willingness to give it a go. Most of us have had both kinds of experiences.

2. For one of the times when you acted from a growth mindset, reflect on what made possible your decision to try and your perseverance in trying. Identify both internal and external resources.

3. For one of the times when you were caught in a fixed mindset, imagine how you could have behaved differently, finding inner courage and encouragement from others to go ahead and try, engage, and persevere until you experienced some success, or at least a healthy pride in your effort.

4. Identify a situation now where you could try acting from a growth mindset rather a fixed mindset. Choose a situation where you might realistically have a chance of success. Focus on shifting your mindset from fixed to growth. You can use tools you have learned, like changing every should to a could, changing thoughts from negative to positive, rewiring entire mental patterns. Reflect on any difference this choice makes on your behavior.

As we learn how to change these mindsets, we are more likely to trust that we can.  We create choices.  Expressed beautifully in:

Autobiography in Five Short Chapters

– by Portia Nelson


I walk down the street.

There is a deep hole in the sidewalk

I fall in.

I am lost…I am helpless

It isn’t my fault.

It takes me forever to find a way out.


I walk down the same street.

There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.

I pretend I don’t see it.

I fall in again.

I can’t believe I’m in the same place

But, it isn’t my fault.

It still takes a long time to get out.


I walk down the same street.

There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.

I see it is there.

I still fall in…it’s a habit

My eyes are open,

I know where I am.

It is my fault.

I get out immediately.


I walk down the same street

There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.

I walk around it.


I walk down another street.

(You will find this practice and similar exercises in Resilience: Powerful Practices for Bouncing Back from Disappointment, Difficulty, and Even Disaster forthcoming in October 2, 2018.)

Wisdom & inspiration direct to your inbox