Growth Mindset: What You Need to Know to Overcome the Tough Stuff


"Becoming is better than being." -- Carol Dweck


Ponder for a moment how you respond to intense change. For some people, just the word “change” causes them to tense up, break out in a sweat and spend the night staring at the ceiling. But, some people actually look forward to it and welcome the challenge. One thing's for sure: all of us encounter it. I've spend a good chunk of my career trying to understand why some people get stuck and some thrive when times get tough. Some get burned out and some fired up. If you've been feeling a bit overwhelmed, read on. I have some good news for you.

Adam Rafferty is the best acoustic guitarist on the planet. When I hear him play I can't help but to conclude that the man is gifted! He is in a league by himself. I suspect that I'm not the only one that does this. Have you ever caught yourself declaring someone as gifted? A musician, athlete, actor, author? Here's the rub: when I label Adam Rafferty as "gifted" I excuse myself from playing as well as he does. He has the "gift" and I don't. My brain refuses to consider the notion that he is as good as he is because he has spent thousands of hours practicing. Rafferty has what Angela Duckworth calls "Grit", a combination of passion and perseverance.

I am fascinated by Carol Dweck’s game changing research on the topic of fixed vs growth mindset. The folks in the fixed mindset camp believe that our IQ, for example, is set in stone. You either have it or you don't. You’re either good at math or you’re not. You can either spell or you can’t. These beliefs label, define and... trap us.

In contrast, those that believe in the growth mindset believe that people’s intelligence can change over time. They would say, “I’m not good at math or spelling YET.”

Not only are the consequences profound when looking at the educational system, they are also profound when we consider adult resilience, learning, and performance. When people find out that I’m a professional speaker they often remark that they can’t speak in public. I gently remind them that they can’t speak in public “yet”. If they were willing to make the investment in learning, practicing and performing, they could learn to speak well in public. (I understand that there is a fairly good chance that by using this example I just made the hair stand up on the back of your neck since most people fear public speaking more than they fear death itself.)

However, sometimes when I’m thinking about how I think (metacognition) I don’t find myself clearly in one camp or the other. There is a place between the two where I’ve found myself lingering from time to time. I find it helpful to split growth mindset into two types: passive and active.

  • People with a fixed mindset think to themselves, “I can’t” so they say to others, “I’m out” and they don’t even try.
  • People with a passive growth mindset think to themselves, “I could” so they say to others, “I’ll try”. Unfortunately they only try once.
  • People that choose the active growth mindset think to themselves “I will” so they say to others, “I’m in”. They continue to try until they succeed or have exhausted their ability to try.

What separates the passive from the active growth mindset is knowing how to fail. Those with the passive growth mindset consider failure a terminating step. Plagued with negative self-talk that mumbles, “You really don’t have a clue what you’re doing”, they slump back down on the bench with their heads hanging down in defeat.

Those with the active growth mindset interpret failure as merely feedback. They adjust their sights and try again and again until they hit the target.

Carol Dweck gives us the following advice:

  • Step 1: Learn to hear your fixed mindset “voice.”
  • Step 2: Recognize that you have a choice.
  • Step 3: Talk back to it with a growth mindset voice
  • Step 4: Take the growth mindset action.

When we are deployed to major disasters, I teach people to use Disaster-Improv™:

  • See with open eyes to understand the issues.
  • Sort out the priorities.
  • Solve the problem by taking action with an eagerness to learn and adapt.
  • Repeat and remember: "There is no such thing as failure; it’s only feedback."

Is it possible that I could play guitar like Adam Rafferty?

What type of mindset do you use? How do you think? What do you say to others? What do you actually do? What do you say to yourself when you fail?