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Why a Growth Mindset is Essential for Learning

Have you ever heard anyone say “I can’t draw,” or “I’m not good at sports,” or “I could never do that?”

I used to think I’d never be able to draw. The way I understood the world was that there were artists, and then there were other people.

I was one of those other people. I had my own areas of creativity, but drawing wasn’t one of them. And yet somehow I stumbled into architecture and design school at the age of 21, trying to learn how to draw.

“Genius (or talent) is not enough; we need to get the job done.” — Carol Dweck

Even my graduate school teacher stood behind my desk and shook her head and told me that I wasn’t talented. (In retrospect, that wasn’t a very good example of teaching.) For years, I carried around a belief about my skill meant, in my mind, I’d never be able to do it.

Unfortunately, this is a mindset, and it’s one that we are all taught — but it’s incorrect. We can all learn, and part of this learning is about adopting a new mindset about how we learn at all.

How identifying and adapting your own mindset can help you learn

Interestingly, as children we’ll spend hours and hours learning how to do new things — from learning how to speak, crawl, walk, and go to the bathroom — but as adults, we think that our ability to learn is no longer part of our repertoire.

According to researcher Carol Dweck, the attitude and belief that you can’t learn something is part of a mindset, and it’s something that we can change. When it comes to our mindset, people fall into one of two predictable patterns: they learn to adopt either a growth mindset or a fixed mindset. The good news? These basic beliefs are learned, and we can changed them.

A lot of people seem to carry around fixed beliefs about what they can and cannot do.

Growth mindsets vs fixed mindsets

In a fixed mindset, you come to believe that your skills, traits, and talents are fixed. What you know is unchanging, and therefore, you can’t possibly learn anything new. While this seems extreme at first, you can hear it crop up in conversations when people say things like “I’m a terrible singer,” or “I can’t dance,” or “I’m not a good athlete.” All of these are an example of a fixed mindset.

The misfortune here is that people haven’t taken the time to practice — to work through and puzzle over something until they have acquired a new skill. And thus, they dismiss their ability and say that they simply “can’t” do something.

A growth mindset, however, believes that challenges and learning are opportunities, and that failure is an opportunity for growth. Rather than seeking out evidence that proves we’re not smart, people with a growth mindset focus on process and progress, searching out opportunities to stretch their existing abilities.

This belief that intelligence and personality can be developed has profound consequences on our behavior as adults. “Believing that your qualities are carved in stone (the fixed mindset) creates an urgency to prove yourself over and over.” People will avoid difficult situations, refuse to challenge themselves, and effectively evaluate every situation to see if it will make them look smart or dumb, whether they will success or fail.

In contrast, the growth mindset believes that “the hand you’re dealt is just the starting point for development,” and “that your basic qualities are things you can cultivate through your efforts.” The growth mindset embodies a passion for learning (rather than a hunger for approval).

The growth mindset embodies a passion for learning rather than a hunger for approval.

Why prizing natural ability is bad for learning

When we prize “natural ability” or “talent” over learned ability, describes Dweck, we undermine the process of learning. When we expect ourselves to “just know it” and to be perfect from the first time we start anything, we end up creating a framework that scares us from trying anything new:

‘Mindsets frame the running account that’s taking place in people’s heads. They guide the whole interpretation process. The fixed mindset creates an internal monologue that is focused on judging: ‘This means I’m a loser.’ ‘This means I’m a better person than they are’ ‘This means I’m a bad husband.’ ‘This means my partner is selfish.’”

The reality, however, is that learning is a constant experience of expansion, difficulty, repetition, and mastery. When an toddler first learns to walk, we don’t yell at them for being incompetent with their first 100 or 1,000 tries. They fall down, they get back up. Nothing stops them for very long from eventually wobbling about on two legs.

Yet as we get older, we start to expect ourselves to naturally know how to do something. As a culture, we prize natural endowment over earned ability.

“As much as our culture talks about individual effort and self improvement, deep down, we revere the naturals.”

How many opportunities for learning are we losing if we place our admiration on youth and natural ability?

Growth mindsets prioritize learning:

People with a growth mindset learn that:

  • Trying and failing is part of the process
  • Learning requires stumbling, correcting, and growing
  • You don’t have to know everything in advance
  • Practice and skill-building are more important than embedded talent
  • You’re always a beginner
  • Life is about life-long learning

Three ways a growth mindset shows up in learning:

Once you know the difference between a growth mindset and a fixed mindset, you can start to notice how it shows up in your everyday habits and in your learning. Here are three ways that a growth mindset stands out:

#1: “Those with a growth mindset found success in doing their best, in learning, and improving.”

People with a growth mindset derive just as much happiness from the process as the results. They look for challenges and opportunities to engage with material, rather than deriving all of their satisfaction from mastery. Rather than focus exclusively on the outcome or the goal, they focus equally on the process.

Rather than desiring a finished book, written and perfected, they are motivated by the process of showing up every day to write and edit. Master athletic champions will continue to find ways to improve their personal best rather than sitting on the bench and buffing their nails.

#2: “Those with a growth mindset found setbacks motivating. They’re informative. They’re a wake-up call.”

“In the fixed mindset, setbacks label you,” explains Dweck. “You’re terrified of losing and performing badly, because to you, you are your performance. When you perform badly, you’re devastated, because you, by association, are now no longer valuable or special.”

Whereas a fixed mindset affixes their identity to the outcome, a growth mindset knows that their performance is not the only indicator of who they are. “Wow, that performance wasn’t as good,” the growth mindset might say. “I wonder what I could do differently to get a different outcome? How can I change and grow here to improve my game?”

#3 “People with the growth mindset in sports (as in pre-med chemistry) took charge of the processes that bring success — and that maintain it.

When you believe you are fixed, “you are not a work in process, you’re a finished product,” Dweck says. When you believe that you already have all of the ability you’ll ever have, there’s little reason to invest in processes that will help you grow your skills — that wouldn’t matter. “In the fixed mindset, you don’t take control of your abilities and your motivation.”

In contrast, the growth mindset knows that we are each responsible for our own learning and growth, and are therefore responsible for setting up systems for continuing our own learning. If we want to become a doctor, we’ll set out to learn everything about pre-med chemistry. If there are particular areas that are challenging or cause struggle, we’ll ask for extra help and spend more time on the puzzles until we figure out a way to do it.

Some of the best hip-hop dancers, for example, don’t just naturally begin with their talent. (And talent is a tricky word and often not a helpful word.) While talent might be what you begin with, where you end up depends on your desire to learn, practice, and improve. Many of my favorite performers have spent hundreds of thousands of hours practicing, falling, tripping, and stumbling over routines until they mastered their moves.

How to adopt the growth mindset in your own life:

  • Reward yourself for the process of working and learning, not the outcome…. such as working on challenging problems. Say to yourself “That was great — I really pushed myself and struggled with that for a while,” not “I’m such an idiot for not knowing this.”
  • When you successfully complete something, try out phrases that reward your ability to learn and grow, not your inherent success.
  • Search for and look for things that challenge you, and find ways to enjoy the challenge.
  • Don’t attribute your success or failure to inherent skills; instead, notice the hard work and effort involved in both.
  • Record the entire process (struggle and all) and begin to link the struggle with the adventure of learning.

Learn how to learn by training your own growth mindset:

Luckily, the growth mindset can be learned, says Dweck. People with the growth mindset are constantly trying to improve. “They surround themselves with the most able people they can find, they look squarely at their own mistakes and deficiencies, and they ask frankly what skills they and the company will need in the future.”

As for me, back in graduate school, I was surrounded by people who were drawing every day, and I had to complete drawing assignments every day for several semesters. Over time, the gap between my skill and my taste began to close, and my drawings improved, bit by bit. (For the first year and a half, I thought I wouldn’t actually be able to master the skills to further my design career.)

Then, about a year and a half in, I pinned a drawing up to the wall — a graphite still-life sketch. The teacher paused and said, “This one is not so bad — in fact, it has great linework in here, and we can work on the perspective over here…”

Today, a decade later, I still smile when people watch me draw and they tell me that I’m a natural. I think about the years it took for me to overcome my own beliefs and push my abilities, and how now I believe that anyone can learn anything. When people cough and say “I can’t draw,” I know for certain that yes, they too can learn to draw.

It might not be easy.

But everyone can learn.