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The Unlimited Potential of a Growth Mindset

Imagine a class of fourth-grade students all working intently on age-appropriate puzzles. When they’re done, the teacher asks those who would like to tackle a harder puzzle to move to the right of the class, and those who would like another of the same-level puzzle to move to the left. The class quickly divides into two halves. Why did some students relish a challenge while others shrink from it and chose to stay in their comfort zone?

That’s the question Stanford psychology professor Carol Dweck set out to answer, ultimately producing a body of work that challenged prevailing views of intelligence and took the “nature-versus-nurture” argument to a whole new level. Dweck identified two main systems of thought, or mindsets, that govern our views of our own intelligence and capabilities, as well as our perceptions of others’ abilities. She called these the “fixed mindset” and the “growth mindset.”

Both are discussed in her wildly popular TED talk, “The power of believing that you can improve,” and in detail in her bestselling book “Mindset: The New Psychology of Success.”

A fixed mindset views intelligence and ability as existing in “fixed,” strictly limited, amounts. A person is either naturally intelligent, artistic, or athletic, or they’re not, and no amount of effort or intervention can change that. With this view, serious challenges or setbacks throw an individual’s inherent talents and abilities into question, and cast a negative judgment on them. In an attempt at self-preservation, fixed-mindset people put more effort into looking and feeling “smart” than into actually learning from mistakes.

“When people with the fixed mindset opt for success over growth, what are they really trying to prove? That they’re special. Even superior. The scariest thought … [is] the possibility of being ordinary,” Dweck writes.

A growth mindset, on the other hand, is the belief that a person’s intelligence and abilities are capable of great growth and development, and that the natural abilities one has are only a starting point. That doesn’t mean that anyone can become an Einstein or a Van Gogh, but that each person’s potential is unknown and possibly far beyond what they might believe for themselves or others might believe for them.

A fixed mindset, with its view of finite ability, makes people protective of their perceived talents and very conscious of managing how those talents are perceived by others. Their intelligence and ability are always up for judgment. After all, if you excelled in school or at work and were once labeled as “brilliant,” what happens when you meet failure? Doesn’t that mean you’re really not that special? Fixed-mindset people have a hard time coping with setbacks and failures and often shy away from challenges, because instead of “I failed,” a setback becomes “I’m a failure.” Criticism isn’t received well because it threatens to unmask deficiencies.

In an interview with Google, Dweck described how the self-esteem movement of the 1990s contributed to an explosion of fixed-mindset thinking.

“We were told to tell everyone how fabulous, brilliant, talented, special they were all the time. This was going to motivate them and boost their achievement,” she said. “Instead … it was a complete disaster. It led to the acceptance of mediocrity. It didn’t challenge people to fulfill their potential. And, our research shows telling people they’re smart actually backfires. It makes them afraid of challenges, it makes them fold in the face of obstacles, because they’re worried, ‘Oh, does this not look smart?’ The whole currency is built around ‘smart.’”

Dweck recommends not using words such as smart, brilliant, or talented when praising successes. For a student, being repeatedly labeled as “brilliant” when they get As poses an identity problem when a tough assignment brings home a C-plus. For a coach to tell her athlete or a manager to tell his employee that he or she is a genius may be flattering, but it’s probably not helpful. Instead, praise effort, perseverance, focus, strategizing, and learning.

The fixed mindset is common all around us. As you might have guessed, the challenge-averse fourth-graders described above demonstrated a fixed mindset. Superwoman, Spiderman, and so many pop culture superheroes reinforce the fixed-mindset notion that you either have “it” or you don’t. Media coverage of famous artists and athletes often focuses on their inherent talent rather than the extreme effort they put in.

A growth mindset, though, encourages a person to focus on “becoming” instead of just “being”—focusing on the hard work, experimentation, and at times extra help that are all a part of the process of learning and growing. Mistakes and disappointments are viewed as opportunities for learning and growth, not as identity-defining moments.

When growth-mindset principles, such as the idea that tackling a tough challenge actually grows your brain, were taught to students in low-achieving classrooms, the improvements in educational outcomes were remarkable.

Dweck, in her TED talk, explains: “This happened because the meaning of effort and difficulty were transformed. Before, effort and difficulty made them feel dumb, made them feel like giving up. But now, effort and difficulty—that’s when their neurons are making new connections, stronger connections—that’s when they’re getting smarter.”

In the classroom, a growth mindset emphasis on the process of learning and development can help reignite a love of learning and has been shown to improve educational outcomes.

In business, a growth mindset can help inspire innovation, collaboration, and growth.

In parenting and relationships, it can help foster mutual growth and willingness to admit mistakes, and in all circumstances, it can help transform negative situations—setbacks and difficulties—into opportunities for learning. Dweck sums it up in her book, saying, “The passion for stretching yourself and sticking to it, even (or especially) when it’s not going well, is the hallmark of the growth mindset.”

The notion of a growth mindset isn’t just a clever idea designed to trick students and employees into working harder. Developments in neuroscience support the idea. Scientists used to think that the brain developed rapidly in the early years of life to build neural connections, then leveled out for a few decades until it finally began to decline. But, according to Harvard Health, they now know that the reality is a bit more complicated. The brain can actually continue to change and develop steadily throughout life and even improve in some areas with age.

Nurturing a Growth Mindset

Everyone holds some mixture of the two mindsets. But how do you know which one dominates your thinking? And how can a person develop more of a growth mindset? The following questions, taken from Dweck’s book, can help tease out some answers.

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. Ask yourself: What did I (or can I) learn from that experience? How can I use it as a basis for growth?

Do you want to grow? It’s tempting to create a world in which we’re perfect. We can choose partners, make friends, or hire people who make us feel faultless. But think about it—do you want to never grow? Instead of looking for people to flatter you, seek constructive criticism.

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 confronting and learning from obstacles. Think about effort as a positive, constructive force, not as a big drag. Is there something you’ve always wanted to do but were afraid you wouldn’t be good at? Make a plan to do it.

Embracing a growth mindset is about becoming unstuck from patterns of thinking that hinder growth and development, allowing a person to move toward fulfilling his or her potential.

The Unlimited Potential of a Growth Mindset


Zrinka Peters is a freelance writer focussing on health, wellness, and education topics. She has a BA in English Literature from Simon Fraser University and has been published in a wide variety of print and online publications including Health Digest,, Today’s Catholic Teacher, and

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" Conservative News Daily does not always share or support the views and opinions expressed here; they are just those of the writer."

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