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Could a ‘growth mindset’ be the real secret to success?

By conventional measures, David Fitter is the picture of success. After almost a decade playing rugby for the Australian Wallabies, he decided to become a doctor. (As you do.)

Now in his second year as a medical resident, he’s taken up skateboarding in his downtime. Not put off by the stares of local kids, he’s just mastered the 180 varial kickflip. But according to Fitter the key to his success is that he’s never naturally been good at anything.

“But because I wasn’t great at anything, I didn’t get caught up in labelling myself, so I wasn’t fearful of failure. I didn’t attach my self-worth to it, I just identified what I wanted to do, looked realistically at where I was, and then figured out how much work I’d need to put in, in what areas, to get there.”

In fact, Fitter epitomises what psychologists call ‘the growth mindset’. According to the researcher who discovered it, Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck, it is an essential component of success.

“We like to think of our champions and idols as superheroes,” says Dweck in her book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success: How We Can Learn to Fulfil Our Potential. “We don’t like to think of them as relatively ordinary people who made themselves extraordinary.”

Dweck’s research found that while those with a ‘fixed’ mindset believe talents and abilities are innate, those with a growth mindset are successful because they’re entirely unafraid to fail.

“We tend to believe that being good at something means it must be effortless,” says Health Psychologist Dr Lauren Hamilton. “Fixed mindsets won’t attempt something unless it can be done perfectly, and see setbacks as a sign that they should give up. People with a growth mindset aren’t wedded to an idea of themselves as good or bad, and so they have nothing to lose by trying.”

Fitter saw the fixed mindset play out in his teammates.

“In rugby, being able to work unemotionally on my deficits often made me better off than those who had natural talent. I saw naturally gifted peers who went to top rugby schools and were given every opportunity to make a great career, but they just didn’t make it.

“Perhaps they didn’t feel like they needed to have the same drive or hunger, and when it got too hard, they left.”

Dweck’s research could have a radical impact on how we teach our children.

Researchers found that students who were praised on their natural ability (‘you must be good at maths!’) were less likely to challenge themselves in future tasks, only staying within the realm of what they knew they could achieve. Whereas those praised on their process (‘I like how you tried to solve that’) enjoyed challenging themselves and tackling more difficult problems.

“This is because a fixed mindset is all about proving that you’re worthy,” says Dr Hamilton. “It creates the belief ‘If I have to put in effort, it means I don’t have the talent or ability.’”

“Parents think they can hand children permanent confidence—like a gift—by praising their brains and talent,” says Dweck. “It doesn’t work, and in fact has the opposite effect. It makes children doubt themselves as soon as anything is hard… the minute they hit a snag, their confidence goes out the window and their motivation hits rock bottom. If parents want to give their children a gift, the best thing they can do is to teach their children to love challenges, be intrigued by mistakes, enjoy effort, and keep on learning. That way [children] will have a lifelong way to build and repair their own confidence.”

Stuck in a cultural ‘fix’

If the growth mindset is key to success, why is the fixed mindset so prevalent?

“We’re a high-achieving culture,” says Dr Hamilton. “Instead of embracing mistakes as part of growth, advertising exploits our anxieties about not being good enough, then sells us the lie that if we buy X, we’ll achieve perfection.”

Dr Hamilton, who runs regular workshops through her business A Tribute to Living says the rise of social media perpetuates that myth of perfection. “So we’ll show the beautiful cake we made on Instagram, but not the three we burnt to get there.”

“The self-esteem movement is also be to blame. It’s all about having a positive sense of self which came from feeling worthy and achieving. It was ‘I’m worthy because of who I am and what I’ve done.’ A growth mindset says ‘I’m worthy because I’m human.”

How to create a growth mindset

  1. Shift your self-talk

“When people block themselves unconsciously you can hear it in their language,” says executive coach Catherine Plano, who uses neuroscience-based techniques “‘I’m bad at technology,’ for example.”

Catherine PLano growth mindset
Catherine Plano: ‘Growth mindsets embrace all outcomes, because their focus is on learning rather than getting the perfect result.’

“People with a growth mindset have a very different self-talk. Instead of beating themselves up for not doing something perfectly, they think ‘If I don’t make mistakes, how can I grow?’ You’ll actually perform better because you’ve finally allowed yourself to take risks and improve.

“Small shifts in our self-talk has huge results. Thomas Edison didn’t say ‘I failed my first 10,000 attempts to make the lightbulb.’ He said ‘I found 10,000 ways that will not work.’”

  1. Recognise the pay-off

“If someone is stuck in a fixed mindset, it’s always because of a secondary gain,” says Plano. “One of mine is ‘I’m not tech savvy.’ But that’s a self-limiting decisions I’ve made a long time ago, and the secondary gain is I can get someone else to do it.

“To get unstuck, you need to get honest about your secondary gain. ‘I hang onto this limiting belief because if I let go of the idea that I’m bad with money, my partner won’t take responsibility for our finances for us,’ for example.”

  1. Ditch ‘perfect’ to beat procrastination

“People with a growth mindset don’t beat themselves up for not doing something perfectly,” says Plano. “They embrace all outcomes, because their focus is on learning and growth rather than getting the perfect result.”

Procrastination is inextricably linked to a fixed mindset, says Dr Hamilton. “Procrastinating is a fear of not doing it perfectly, so I won’t try.’

“With the growth mindset, you shifting the value from ‘doing it perfectly’, to ‘having a go and getting it done’.”

  1. Don’t be side-tracked by feelings

“Often people believe they need to be confident before taking the action. But they’ve got it backwards. We can’t wait until we’re confident to take action – confidence follows the action,” says Dr Hamilton.

“Rugby taught me to be unemotional about my abilities,” says Fitter. Instead of getting emotional about areas I performed badly in, I just would quarantine each thing and work on it and prove myself wrong.”

Fitter is now a 2nd year medical resident.
Fitter is now a 2nd year medical resident.

This detachment came in handy when undergoing his medical degree. Instead of being put off by the idea that you need to be a genius just to qualify, Fitter just set to work tackling his deficits.

“While you do need a base level of smarts, it’s more your ability to work hard rather than any innate ‘giftedness’ that dictates whether you’re going to be a good doctor. As long as you can study hard over a long period and retain information you can do it.”

  1. Shift from external motivation to internal

“Rugby is an intensely competitive sport. if I compete with yourself you’re always meeting and pushing your own frontiers – so whatever you achieve or not from that point becomes irrelevant.”

Ironically, shifting from an outward measure of success to an internal one made Fitter all the more successful.

“Since I first put footy boots on at 15, my only goal was to keep improving,” says Fitter. “I didn’t care about the result or what others thought of me. Challenging myself was the reward, and long I was improving I was happy. That internally set goal meant that eventually I improved to the point where I was cutting it with the best in the world. That was far more of a reward than external achievements, like getting signed for three years, or flown around the world and staying in top hotels.”

Because the fixed mindset is so embedded in our culture – how we sell, what we value, how we present ourselves, it calls for radically re-framing how we judge our success and measure performance.

“Adopting a growth mindset opens you up to vulnerability,” says Dr Hamilton. “It takes a lot of courage to admit that you’re not good at something.”

It just might make you more successful.

2 Comments

  1. Juliette Norwood

    Yes indeed. My work as a singing teacher makes me see too often the awful effect of telling a child they have a ‘beautiful voice’. In my experience that leads not only to the very self-consciousness that kills the joy of singing, but is also partly responsible for some musically gifted people singing out of tune. Reason being, I think, that when praised for the timbre of their voices (somewhat akin to being praised for the length of their legs or colour of their eyes) they start to try to listen to that instead of listening to the actual tune. It turns them into audiences instead of performers. The results? Performance anxiety, pitchiness and a loss of joy.
    I always say to parents to tell their kids “you sang that so well!” It also made me remember advice long ago from a wise man: tell your own truth. So that can liberate a parent or teacher to say “I felt so happy/moved/thrilled/proud to hear you sing that song. You really sang it so accurately/clearly/meaningfully.” Not beautifully. They’re all beautiful. A teacher or a parent should help them grow, in reality, tackling the nuts and bolts of the singer’s true task, which is to sing the right notes in the right place in their own healthy voice. That said, a pitchy little kid singing for their own delight is one of the sweetest things you will see. Their pitch will come in if we don’t make them self-consciously listen to something no-one can ever hear: their own timbre.
    I think this might have applications in other parts of life too, as your article shows.

    • Oh Juliette – your comment reminded me of that Meryl Streep movie about the opera singer! Famous for having a terrible voice, but no one could tell her.

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