When you think about successful people, how do you think they got there? Were they just innately gifted, talented or intelligent? Or did it take hard work, grit, determination, perseverance – and perhaps many failures along the way? Your answer reveals something about how you think about other people – and yourself. And whether you have a ‘fixed’ or ‘growth’ mindset. One of the ways you can give yourself a better chance of success and happiness in life is to develop a growth mindset. Here’s what it is – and how to go about cultivating one.

What are mindsets?

A mindset is a viewpoint, a way of thinking about yourself and the world. And the way you view the world has implications for your success and happiness. In her classic book Mindset: Changing the way you think to fulfil your potential, Stanford University psychologist Carol S. Dwek draws on her research to talk about two mindsets in particular. These are fixed and growth mindsets.

If you have a fixed mindset, you believe that personal qualities and abilities are fixed – and there’s nothing you can do to change or improve them. Whereas if you have a growth mindset, you believe that skills and abilities can be developed through effort and practise – and that they can change over time.

These two ways of approaching the world can have profound implications for your attitudes, behaviours – and how you approach life’s challenges.

What is a fixed mindset?

Has anyone ever said to you “You’re a natural”, or “You’re gifted”? Or “You’re useless” or “You’re not clever enough to do that”. Either way, these comments aren’t very helpful – because they can contribute to a view of yourself as fixed and unchangeable.

If you have a fixed mindset, you believe talent and ability are things you’re just born with. You either have them or you don’t, and you can’t develop them. You see intelligence and skills as innate, fixed and unchanging. This can make learning, developing and improving seem pointless – even impossible. If you have a fixed mindset, you see success as proof of your natural abilities; and failure as confirmation of your shortcomings.

You may not stretch or challenge yourself, but choose short-term strategies that make you look good now, at the expense of future growth. You might see effort as evidence of a lack of talent. And, in the face of a setback, you might just give up, or blame others.

Do you do any of the following? If so, you might have a fixed mindset:

  • Ignore or avoid challenges
  • Give up easily, especially when you come up against obstacles
  • See effort as pointless, and a sign of lack of ability
  • Ignore or dismiss criticism
  • Feel threatened by the success of others
  • Believe you know everything already.

If you have a fixed mindset, you tend to assume that some people are just good (or bad) at some things. You don’t believe that trial and error, practice, hard work, failure and strategy are important factors in developing talent, skills or intelligence.

What is a growth mindset?

By contrast, if you have a growth mindset, you believe that talent, skill, ability and intelligence are things that you can increase and develop. You believe that success comes from ongoing personal development, and your skills and abilities can grow through effort, learning and practice. Success isn’t just handed to you on a plate with your genetic makeup. And neither is failure an innate trait you can do nothing about. You have agency, and control over your own destiny.

If you have a growth mindset, you might feel most capable when you’re faced with a difficult challenge – rather than when something is easy. You’re more interested in continuously improving your skills and abilities, rather than simply ‘winning’. If you face a setback, or failure, you don’t think it’s because you lack natural ability and give up. You try again, you practise harder, or you try a new approach. You learn and develop.

If you do any of the following, it’s likely you have a growth mindset:

  • Embrace challenges
  • Keep going – despite setbacks and failures
  • See effort as the path to mastery
  • Keen to learn and develop
  • Accept and learn from constructive criticism
  • Inspired and motivated by the success of others.

A growth mindset isn’t the same as a positive mindset. Nor is it all about working harder. It’s also about working smarter – developing new strategies and approaches in the face of setbacks. Importantly, it’s about your attitude to development and failure. You bounce back, pick yourself up, and try again. A growth mindset embraces challenges and views failure not as evidence of innate limitations, but as a springboard for growth and for stretching our existing abilities.

According to Dweck, those who develop a high level of talent are more often than not people with a growth mindset. And it works both ways: those with a growth mindset tend to enjoy greater success! So if you can develop a growth mindset, you’ll do better in life.

8 ways to develop a growth mindset

Which of these two mindsets resonate most with you? While we might tend to identify more with one, it’s important to remember that mindsets aren’t an either/or binary concept. Mindsets aren’t fixed (that’s a very ‘fixed mindset’ way of thinking!) Carol Dweck’s own research shows that most of us sit somewhere on a spectrum somewhere in between a fixed and a growth mindset.

But mindsets can change. Here are some things you can do to move towards more of a growth mindset:

  1. Stop judging yourself. Try not to think of yourself as either a winner or a loser. If you achieve something, avoid putting it down to your innate talent and praise your effort and preparation instead. If you have a setback, don’t beat yourself up for being ‘talentless’. Think about how you can do better next time. For example, would more practice or a different approach help?
  2. Change your perspective on failure. Don’t think of failure as confirmation that you’re inherently no good at something. Think of it as part of the learning process. Everyone fails as they learn. When you learnt to walk, you fell over – a lot. But you kept going. Even the world’s most successful athletes, entrepreneurs, artists and writers failed a lot on the way. It’s part of the process.
  3. Use the word “yet”. The language we use affects how we think about ourselves. Instead of saying “I’m not very good at this”, add the word “yet”: “I’m not very good at this yet.” No one is perfect first time. It takes time and effort to improve at something. Athletes train, musicians practise, actors rehearse. Try to see challenges as opportunities for learning and growth – rather than obstacles.
  4. Ask for constructive feedback. People with a growth mindset aren’t afraid of constructive criticism – because they know it helps them grow. Seek out feedback from people you trust to offer honest and constructive criticism. It’s a chance to learn, improve and develop skills that will help you grow and develop.
  5. Stop seeking approval from others. According to Schema Therapy, one unhelpful thinking pattern we can fall into is the approval-seeking ‘schema’ or lifetrap. This is often a result of our childhood experiences – such as love being very conditional. It can mean we excessively seek external approval and ignore our own needs. If you seek the approval of others, you might also pursue goals that are not really your own – or focus entirely on ‘winning’ rather than improving. If you can avoid seeking approval, you’ll become more comfortable with the setbacks and failures that inevitably come with growth. Cultivate self-acceptance and learn to trust yourself.
  6. Take on ‘growth’ challenges. If you have a fixed mindset, you may also struggle with the ‘defectiveness’ schema or lifetrap. This can inhibit us from putting ourselves in situations where we might fail. Learn how to put yourself in situations where realistic achievements are possible, and to challenge the negative thoughts that leave you feeling unworthy and defective. People with a growth mindset embrace challenges. So take them on, and see them as learning opportunities. Make your goals growth goals – but also clear and realistic ones that reflect your passion, purpose and values. Recognise that everyone has limitations, and some goals will take more effort than others. Give yourself enough time to achieve them.
  7. Go step by step. You wouldn’t expect to run a marathon or climb a mountain without training first. So think about what you want to achieve – and what you need to do to get there. Then focus on the steps you need to take, and work towards gradual progress – rather than becoming overwhelmed by the end goal or focusing only on the outcome. Enjoy the journey. This step-by-step approach will help you achieve mastery.
  8. Write down your achievements. Every day, preferably in the evening, write down one thing that you’re proud of having achieved that day. It doesn’t have to be a big thing – a small step is fine. It could be completing a short language lesson on an app, researching a new business idea, going for a run or applying for a job. But it should be something that takes you closer towards your goals, or contributes to your growth and development. This will help you to start focusing on your growth – rather than on your perceived limitations.

A fixed mindset is an unhelpful way of thinking about yourself, which can hold you back from achieving what you want in life. While these tips are a good starting point for changing your thinking, if you tend to slip into unhelpful thinking patterns, therapies such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) can be particularly useful. Or, if your limiting view of yourself and your abilities stems from your early childhood experiences and messages, Schema Therapy may be the right route for you. You can learn more about both of these approaches to therapy from our Self-care courses.

Carol Dweck says: “The hand you are dealt is just the starting point for development”. We’re all dealt a hand in life – but our skills, talents, abilities and intelligence aren’t as fixed as you might think. Even if you currently think you have a fixed mindset, you can develop a growth mindset. Open yourself to the possibility of learning, development and growth, and you could fly higher than you ever imagined.