By: Sherika Tenaya
To be a human in this world is to bear a heavy burden indeed: will my life be a success or a failure? Inherent in the so-called “American Dream” itself is the knowledge that some people make it and some people don’t. In constant competition with each other, we all strive to gain our idea of success; be it money, beauty, fine possessions, fame, early retirement, vacations, children who are themselves successful, or all these things.
From the first day we spend in school, having tasks put before us that we either pass or fail, gold stars earned or detracted, detention or honor roll - we are trained to see our successes and failures in a linear, absolute way.
We all have ways of responding to and interpreting these messages we receive and develop beliefs, perceptions and mindsets that do a great deal in determining the way we make choices and lead our lives.
In her seminal book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, Carol Dweck, Ph.D., calls upon 20 years of research to describe two mindsets that she says greatly impact each individual’s ability to meet success or flounder in failure.
She calls these two mindsets the fixed mindset and the growth mindset. The fixed mindset is characterized by the belief that our qualities are inherent, carved in stone, immutable - the notion of natural born talent or gifts that simply are. You are born with the hand you are dealt: a certain amount of intelligence, artistic ability, a certain personality. Therefore, you must strive to prove yourself over and over - asserting to others that you were born with an impressive quantity of each.
The growth mindset, on the other hand, is the belief that our qualities are things we can cultivate through our efforts. “The passion for stretching yourself and sticking to it,” she imparts. “even (or especially) when it’s not going well, is the hallmark of the growth mindset.”
Both mindsets have a distinct relationship with success and failure. For the fixed mindset, in which natural ability is the cornerstone of one’s success, a sense of superiority or entitlement abounds when things are going well. If you are born with it and others are not, you are inherently better. Unfortunately, this concept has a paralyzing flip side: when the fixed mindset experiences failure, it becomes entwined in the person’s identity. That person’s entire sense of self is thrown into chaos - they move from being something special to being just like everyone else. Those who are accustomed to being extraordinary in some way, cannot handle the identity crisis that ensues when they find themselves in the realm of the ordinary.
Dweck says that when someone in the fixed mindset experiences failure, they generally respond in one of three ways. In order to preserve their self-esteem, they will often go look for people who are worse off than themselves. They may also blame others or make excuses. They are also known to completely quit trying when something goes awry or not engage in activities they aren’t immediately good at.
For a person in the growth mindset, success is not so much relished as the journey or process of getting there. Failure, rather than being an identity crushing catastrophe to be denied and avoided, serves as a motivation to try harder. Acknowledgment and careful evaluation of mistakes as well as a continued curiosity in how to overcome the obstacles is the hallmark of the growth mindset.
Dweck elaborates, “When people believe their basic qualities can be developed, failures may still hurt, but failures don’t define them. And if abilities can be expanded - if change and growth are possible - then there are still many paths to success.”
Dweck clarifies that a person may not be wholly in one mindset or the other all the time, that in some avenues of their life, they may exhibit the fixed mindset - say in their perception of their artistic ability - but in their intellectual skills they may exhibit the growth mindset. We are all of us complex creatures and there are simple things we can do, or be aware of, to better determine which mindset we are acting out of and move into the mindset that serves our needs.
Know Your Mind(set)
“Just by knowing about the two mindsets, you can start thinking and reacting in new ways.” Dweck explains. “People tell me they start to catch themselves when they are in the throes of the fixed mindset - passing up a chance for learning, feeling labeled by a failure, or getting discouraged when something requires a lot of effort. And then they switch themselves into the growth mindset - making sure they take the challenge, learn from the failure, or continue their effort.”
Just being aware of which mindset is predominating, you can alter your actions to reflect which mindset you feel will better serve you. Saying yes to challenging things that require effort, things you aren’t sure you can do, will encourage and kindle your growth in ways you never thought possible.
Accept Imperfections while Learning and Reject Critical Self-Talk
Pay attention to your inner dialogue in times of challenge when you feel inept, out of your element, ungraceful or hopelessly inadequate. Is your self-talk judgmental and cuttingly critical? Is it discouraging you from asking multiple questions so as not to be seen as stupid? Is it constantly comparing your performance to those around you? Learn to recognize that voice and give it a name, perhaps it’s the voice of a hard-to-please parent or cruel teacher from your past. Simply noticing when this aspect of your mind is bombarding you with unhelpful judgments and sneering condemnations in the fledgling stages of learning allows you to distance yourself from its growth-killing dialogue.
Seek out Constructive Criticism
Notice the people who surround you. Do they only ever flatter and praise you? Seek out those who challenge your growth in positive, healthy ways; who are honest in their assessment of your abilities and can articulate useful reflections. Ensure you are receptive to honest, constructive feedback by distancing your ego from your ability.
Make Effort your Friend
The next time you are doing something that is difficult for you, notice if your immediate reaction is to let it go. Do you suddenly find yourself feeling tired, dizzy, bored or hungry? Rather than succumbing to the desire to stick with only those things that come easy, stay with the challenge and picture your brain forming new connections as you effort and learn.
Make a Point to do Things that Scare You or Intimidate You
We get so accustomed to the security our lives afford, thoughtlessly pursuing that which is comfortable and avoiding the things that scare us. It is easier to never try a thing then to do something intimidating and potentially fail. And yet, it is only when we try and fail and then try again, that we learn the true innermost content of our character. It is then that we come to understand the vast resourcefulness we never knew we possessed. Think of something you have always wanted to do but have been too scared to try. Make a plan and do it.
Success and failure, it turns out, aren’t such polar opposites. One tends to bleed into the other. Only when we can be distanced from both can we meet our true potential and find a deeper well of true contentment in our lives. When we forgive ourselves for our deficiencies and flaws, accept our shortcomings, and face our imperfections during the learning process, then can we grow to our fullest potential.