How to Know if You Have a Growth Mindset, and What to Do With That

If you care about fulfilling your aspirations in life, then you need a certain mindset on your side. That mindset that is referred to across personal growth literature as ‘the growth mindset’, and it can be cultivated.

A growth mindset means what it sounds like: you believe abilities and personal qualities can be developed. The mindset carries a person from ‘failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm’, as the (clearly growth-oriented) Winston Churchill famously said.

If you read articles like this, then you probably have more of a growth mindset Click To Tweet

The opposite of a growth mindset is a fixed mindset: the belief that our abilities are static. If we have a fixed mindset, we are unlikely to go all out for something with uncertain outcomes. We also tend to be more concerned with how we are being judged than whether we are learning.

The consequences of each mindset were elaborated on at length by Harvard Professor Carol Dweck in her bestselling book, Mindset: Changing the Way you think about Potential. She wrote “believing that your qualities are carved in stone creates an urgency to prove yourself over and over. If you have only a certain amount of intelligence, a certain personality, and a certain moral character…it simply wouldn’t do to look or feel deficient in these most basic characteristics.”

What Dweck says begins to give you an idea of how a fixed mindset can negatively affect all aspects of your life.

This post aims to improve your awareness of fixed mindset in your own thinking.

How to tell whether you have a fixed or growth mindset

If you read articles like this, then it is safe to say you probably have more of a growth mindset than fixed. Personal growth material tends to attract those who believe it is possible to change themselves.

However, as Carol acknowledges in her book, and as I have observed in my own life, we are unlikely to have a growth mindset in all the life areas. For some areas, you may show traits of having a fixed mindset.

It's possible that you have a growth mindset when it comes to relationships, but fixed mindset with your career Click To Tweet

The simple way to tell whether you have a fixed mindset is to ask whether you see something as in your power to improve. So for your abilities or intelligence, that’s about whether you see yourself as being able to develop your skills. In the area of your relationships, you could ask yourself whether you act like the state of a relationship can be improved with effort.

More generally, you can simply reflect on whether you tend to embrace challenges or resist them. Dweck’s research showed that people with a fixed mindset will reject learning if it means not failing.

How do we end up more one than the other?

The research hasn’t made any firm conclusions about how we end up with either mindset. It is reasonably clear that we are all born loving learning, so a growth or a fixed mindset is a learned behaviour.

Some studies link parents that praise their children on effort over ability as reinforcing a growth mindset. It makes sense: if you were highly praised as a child for your talent, you are going to develop an attitude of ‘you’ve either got it or you haven’t’. It is also likely that you’ll want to protect that perception, because of the association with love, approval and validation.

We may also have simply copied a fixed or growth mindset from our parents. Alternatively, a fixed mindset may have happened through a powerful defeat experience early on in life. You may have developed a fixed mindset as a result of being shamed for failing, for example.

What’s lurking behind a fixed mindset

It is difficult to see a fixed mindset as being anything other than fear under a different name. Specifically, the fear of failure. Growth mindsetters have found a way to not let failure deter them.

If you are really deep down afraid to fail, then it is harder for you to overcome that hardwiring. However, it definitely can be done.

If you have a growth mindset, you're willing to risk looking weak to do something you want to do Click To Tweet

When I think of those among us who are most afraid to fail, Enneagram type three comes to mind. (If you have never heard of the Enneagram, I suggest that you read this article). For that personality type, emotionally, failure just isn’t an option as they equate it with a loss of self worth.

Interestingly, Enneagram type three types are usually quite successful. But a fixed mindset can bear success just as much as a growth mindset can. The difference is in the capacity for the person to take a risk and do something that may expose them as weak. This is something that a person with a fixed mindset would never do. It is also kind of necessary in life sometimes.

The problem with fearing failure

The major problem with fearing failure so much is that it’ll lead us to making compromises.

Having a fixed mindset leads us to make compromises on what we value Click To Tweet

Often, the things we care the most about doing have a high risk of failure. If we play it safe by only doing the things that we know we will be successful at, that keeps life very small.

There might be a lack of authenticity in our relationships and lives. In fact I would say it is extremely likely, given the priority on not failing, over what is the most meaningful for us to do.

How to shift from a fixed to a growth mindset

Carol’s book contains many suggestions for how to transition from a fixed to a growth mindset. If you think you have a mostly fixed mindset, I recommend that you read it.

I believe that it is essential to seek to understand your views on failure. Once you know whether there is any terror associated with failing, you’re in a better position to change things.

Realistically, the only way to overcome your fears of failing is to actually go out and fail at stuff! That teaches your brain not to fear it. Provided you can muster the initial courage, then failing and getting back up again is just a matter of practice.

Finally, we can outweigh our fear of failing with even stronger and more urgent desires to spend our time doing we find to be valuable. I wrote about how to know your values here.

Summary

We can all develop a growth mindset with effort. The key thing is becoming aware of when we are coming from the fixed mindset perspective, and working to value different things than simply looking good. Such things include learning, and the feeling of acting in accordance with our innermost values. 

One of the most important things we can do is change our perception of what it means to be weak at something. For some of us that is more work, but as a growth mindset would say: everyone can.