Remember Jane from our last blog? I told you about her journey through college, her challenges and struggles with O chem, jobs, and the GRE. I told you how she ended up in a job in public health that exceeded her expectations. I told you it was because she has resiliency and mental strength. But I didn’t tell you another vital key to her successes and her attitude regarding challenges: Jane has a growth mindset.
In her book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, world-renowned Stanford University psychologist Carol S. Dweck identifies two distinct mindsets that influence how a person will act in everyday situations and how they will respond to challenges. She refers to them as the growth mindset and the fixed mindset. Individuals with a growth mindset approach challenges eagerly and with excitement to expand their knowledge. Individuals with a fixed mindset, however, turn away from challenges and seek out situations that reinforce the knowledge they know they have. This is because:
The fixed mindset is defined by the belief that your qualities (such as your intelligence) are fixed, unchangeable, and set in stone. This “creates an urgency to prove yourself over and over” (Dweck 6).
The growth mindset is based on the belief that your qualities are things that can be changed through hard work and putting yourself in situations that challenge you. People with this mindset believe that “a person’s true potential is unknown (and unknowable); that it’s impossible to foresee what can be accomplished with years of passion, toil, and training” (Dweck 7).
A person operating from the fixed mindset may have experienced the challenges Jane encountered with O chem, the GRE and jobs as major failures and proof that in fact they were not really smart or good enough to pursue their health career dream. I often encounter people with fixed mindsets who allow less than hoped for performance to define them and undermine their belief and continued pursuit of their goals. Jane and others with growth mindset may be disappointed but not defined or derailed by less than desired outcomes. Jane looked at her challenges as learning opportunities, reasons to consider new approaches, and motivation to work harder. She did not identify with them as a measure of her intelligence or potential for success. Rather than quit pursuing her goals, she got a math tutor and ended up with an A in a course she had previously failed and took a GRE preparation course (through a subsidized program) that taught her how to “take the test” and provided structure for studying that enabled her to get a “good enough” score.
Fixed and growth mindsets can also influence how we feel about ourselves and what is possible, our day to day choices, and our happiness. Too often, fixed mindsets may cause us to avoid things that we really want or could have and then feel bad about ourselves because we didn’t go for them. I once had a very talented friend who wanted to be a doctor but had an underlying fixed mindset fear that by going for it she might be proven “not smart enough” and would disappoint herself, her family, and all the people who thought she was promising. She avoided even trying and ended up working in low level health jobs in which her intelligence was not at risk but where she could tell people she was just doing them as she waited for the right time to apply for medical school. The longer she avoided it, the worse she felt, the more she lost confidence and the harder it was to start. She ended up not trying, being depressed, and never pursuing a career that would test her.
The problem: our society is full of and encourages the fixed mindset. We interpret that when a test is given to determine intelligence, it assumes that intelligence is a fixed trait, rather than the actual IQ test intention which was to identify a baseline for learning and growth. Many ideas of success are based on the fixed mindset.
The bigger problem: the fixed mindset does not allow for adaptation and growth. Individuals in the fixed mindset often shy away from new situations and challenges (which help you learn and grow) and when they are inevitably faced with a challenge, they may feel crushed and incapacitated by it. Individuals in the growth mindset crave these challenges and grow their potential by tackling them.
The good news: you can change and choose your mindset.
Everyone tends toward one mindset over the other, and most people actually have both mindsets depending on what character traits you focus on and from which you choose to operate. Learning about the mindsets was very powerful for me. It made me aware that I often operate from more of a fixed mindset that has both positive and negative implications. Since childhood I have felt I had to prove my intelligence, self-worth and abilities. In many areas I feel like I have great abilities but that each situation is a new test or performance that includes risk that I may be proven “not good enough.” This has caused me to avoid certain situations, people, and opportunities, some of which I really wanted or should have encountered to put more pressure on myself to perform. This also drives me to over-prepare and experience more anxiety and less enjoyment in the face of a challenge. I am concerned that the outcome and my performance will define me and reveal in the end that I wasn’t good enough. Fortunately, I also have a strong underlying growth mindset that is determined to constantly improve and progress toward my authentic purpose, values and goals. That along with my mental strength often allow me to push through the limitations of my fixed mindset. They give me hope and drive me to make choices that keep me moving toward my goals.
It is still a challenge overcoming the fixed mindset that comes more naturally to me, but I am empowered by the learning, success, and satisfaction that come from acting out of my growth mindset to operate from it more often and be mindful when I am not. It also fuels me to have hope, faith, and seek the assistance and support I need rather than feeling like I have to hide or do it on my own behind my fixed mindset. From my growth mindset I have also learned that sometimes what you want doesn’t always come when or in the form you had hoped, but if you stay the course and stay aligned with who you are, it will come in due time and in the best form for you.
So, remember that regardless of your natural tendencies, you can actively grow your mindset. To help you get started, you can use Carol Dweck’s simple guidelines:
“People are all born with a love of learning, but the fixed mindset can undo it. Think of a time you were enjoying something--doing a crossword puzzle, playing a sport, learning a new dance. Then it became hard and you wanted out. Maybe you suddenly felt tired, dizzy, bored, or hungry. Next time this happens, don’t fool yourself. It’s the fixed mindset. Put yourself in a growth mindset. Picture your brain forming new connections as you meet the challenge and learn. Keep on going.”
“It’s tempting to create a world in which we’re perfect. We can choose partners, make friends, hire people who make us feel faultless. But think about it--do you never want to grow? Next time you want to surround yourself with worshipers, go to church. In the rest of your life, seek constructive criticism.”
“Is there something in your past that you think measured you? A test score? A dishonest or callous action? Being fired from a job? Being rejected? Focus on that thing. Feel all the emotions that go with it. Now put it in a growth-mindset perspective. Look honestly at your role in it, but understand that it doesn’t define your intelligence or personality. Instead, ask: What did I (or can I) learn from that experience? How can I use it as a basis for growth? Carry that with you instead.”
“How do you act when you feel depressed? Do you work harder at things in your life or do you let them go? Next time you feel low, put yourself in a growth mindset--think about learning, challenge, confronting obstacles. Think about effort as a positive, constructive force, not as a big drag. Try it out.”
“Is there something you’ve always wanted to do but were afraid you weren’t good at? Make a plan to do it.”
It can be easy to get stuck in the fixed mindset, especially if you naturally tend toward it, like me. However, it is heartening to learn that it is more about will and effort than it is about nature. Anyone can change their mindset, and everyone can grow and learn. Intelligence is not a fixed thing. Simply by being consciously aware of the mindsets, you will be more likely to change your own in every situation and challenge you encounter. Ask yourself: from which mindset am I operating or making this decision? Is this mindset serving me well? Would my approach or decision be different if I chose the growth mindset? Which do I choose to operate from?
Having said all this, keep in mind that there are times when something isn’t the best fit. Sometimes, for example, your fixed mindset might tell you that you have to be a doctor to be a success to your self or parents, when maybe this isn’t what will make you truly happy and successful. It is important to be honest and authentic. Use the growth mindset to fuel you towards your authentic path.
As we know from the last blog (and from, I’m sure, personal experience), challenges in your health career path are varied and numerous. Knowing that you can change the way you face and respond to these challenges is one of the most important things you can do to help yourself grow in your authentic health career journey.
Be active. Be courageous. Be someone who goes for what you want. Don’t let your mind limit you. Use your mental strength to help you change your mindset. Grow and choose your mindset.