The Importance of Mindset
Why is it that some people seem to shine in any sphere in which they choose to exert themselves, and others cannot manage even a glimmer despite obvious talent?
Research shows that it’s the way that they think about their ability that really counts.
Most of those who have achieved greatness, to use Shakespeare’s phrase, have worked extremely hard to get there. Many were told that they would never amount to anything. But they believed that they could achieve, and worked hard to do so.
Fixed or Growth Mindset?
There are two ways to view intelligence or ability:
- Ability it is fixed or ingrained – in other words, we are born with a certain level of ability and we cannot change that. This is called a fixed mindset.
- We can develop our ability through hard work and effort. This is called a growth mindset.
These two different beliefs lead to different behaviour, and also to different results. For example, students with a growth mindset were shown to increase their grades over time. Those who believed that their intelligence was ingrained did not; in fact, their grades got worse.
Having a growth mindset (the belief that you are in control of your own ability, and can learn and improve) is the key to success.
Yes, hard work, effort, and persistence are all important, but not as important as having that underlying belief that you are in control of your own destiny.
This is why you should never praise children by talking about their ability, but instead describe the effort that they put in, and how much they have learned and developed their ability through the activity.
Don’t say: “Well done. You’re really good at maths.”
Do say: “That’s great. You tried really hard, and look how well you’ve done.”
It is important to praise the process, not the talent or ability.
Mindset in Practice
People with these two mindsets actually think differently and also react to information differently.
In particular, they respond differently to information about performance.
- In people with a fixed mindset, the brain is most active when they are being given information about how well they have done, for example, test results or grades.
- In people with a growth mindset, the brain is most active when they are being told what they could do to improve.
It’s a very different approach: from ‘How did I do?’ to ‘What can I do better next time?’
One is about how they are perceived, and one is about how they can learn. You can see which one is likely to lead to better results in future.
Mindsets in action: The Tortoise and the Hare
Remember the story of the tortoise and the hare?
The hare was so certain that he would win that he sat down and went to sleep during the race.
The tortoise just plodded on and kept going, always thinking that he had a chance of winning. When the hare woke, he started running as fast as he could, but he was just too late: the tortoise had won.
The hare had a fixed mindset. He believed that his innate ability would always mean that he would win whatever he did.
The tortoise had a growth mindset. He believed that he needed to work hard and keep going if he was to win. He was also not afraid of failure or he would never have agreed to race the hare.
Dealing with Setbacks
These mindsets also cause people to deal with setbacks differently.
- People with a fixed mindset are very discouraged by setbacks, because a setback dents their belief in their ability. They tend to become uninterested and give up.
- People with a growth mindset view a setback as an opportunity to learn. They tend to try harder in an effort to overcome the problem.
“The moment that we believe that success is determined by an ingrained level of ability, we will be brittle in the face of adversity”
Josh Waitzkin - Chess Grandmaster and Martial Artist
Did you know your brain can change?
The good news is that you can change your mindset.
Neuroscience shows that our brains continue to develop and change even as adults. Old dogs really can learn new tricks.
The brain is actually quite like plastic, and can be reshaped over time, forming new neural pathways. This has led neuroscientists to call this tendency neuroplasticity.
These neural pathways are developed by doing or thinking particular things. The things that we do or say more often become hard-wired into our brains as habits. These form defined ‘routes’ in our brain, which become easier to use.
But you can still change them. The first step is to realise that you need to, then to train your brain in the new skill. It may help to think about this learning as a cycle, and the competence cycle is described further on our page What is Coaching?.
There are three key things that you can do to develop a growth mindset:
- You need to recognise that a growth mindset is not just good, but is also supported by science. In other words, you need to be committed to developing a growth mindset.
- You can learn and teach others about how to develop and improve their abilities through adopting a growth mindset. This will help you to take control of your life, which is hugely empowering. Research shows that people who feel in control tend to perform better. It’s a virtuous cycle.
- Listen out for your fixed mindset voice. When you hear that little critical voice in your head telling you that you can’t do something, reply with a growth mindset approach and tell it that you can learn.
Mindsets in Life
Mindsets are not just important for learning new skills. They can affect the way that we think about everything.
For example, a growth mindset can help you recover from illness because you believe that you can do something about the illness. They can help you achieve in sport, at work and can also help you grow and develop in relationships.
Cultivating a growth mindset could be the single most important thing you ever do to help you achieve success.