by Janet Choi
It’s a feeling I know all too well, from going through the mental marathon that is law school into the crashing legal job market and then embarking on a new path in the startup world. I was constantly frustrated, feeling like I never had a handle on what I was doing, always standing at the bottom of a mountain looking up at a depressingly steep learning curve.
It turns out that’s exactly the type of attitude that keeps you from climbing the mountain. According to social psychologist Carol Dweck, it’s much more constructive to adopt what’s called a “growth mindset” and embrace struggle as part of the path toward improvement.
The Powerful Difference A Growth Mindset Makes
Whenever I beat myself up at the end of a fruitless day, thinking “well maybe this just means I suck,” I know I've fallen into the unproductive “fixed mindset”, the view that ability is fixed or limited in quantity.
This kind of thinking creates a world in which you have that special something or you’re don’t. You’re either a creative genius, an amazing athlete, a great writer, an inspirational leader — or you’re not. The fixed mindset subscribes to the not uncommon view that superstars are simply born, not made, as if successful people don’t struggle and fight to reach their heights.
Believing in that myth makes it much more difficult to develop and improve your abilities, because it feeds all sorts of unhealthy emotions such as insecurity, anxiety, and jealousy. In turn, these feelings steal focus, motivation, and energy from your own improvement.
In contrast, the growth mindset frames your skills on a continuum, so that even if you’re just starting out or aren't that good yet, you can always get better if you put in the work and look to learn. It’s so much more empowering and encouraging to think, I can do better tomorrow.
Process is Progress
Setbacks have the unfortunate capacity to overwhelm and derail. In fact, they can have three times as powerful an impact on your motivation than making progress. When you have a fixed mindset, mistakes are terrible because they appear to you as signals of unworthiness, sap your motivation to try, and hold you back from taking risks.
With a growth mindset, your focus isn’t on some fairytale happily-ever-after ending where you’re the smartest, best, most talented person in all the land. Instead, the focus is on the story and the process, because the goal isn’t an external status or measure but improvement itself.
Bumps in the road become part of your journey that you’re bound to encounter if you want to get anywhere. Instead of being debilitated by failures and mistakes, you become better informed and equipped to do better next time. The growth mindset simply helps make you stronger, more resilient, and tenacious — even when the going gets tough.
How to Evolve Your Mindset
Changing how you think about success and failure doesn't happen quickly and takes a bit of practice itself. Whenever you notice yourself slipping into discouraging fixed-mindset ways, use these three strategies to harness the power of the growth mindset instead:
Tell yourself it’s okay to mess up. Consider success a continuous process and learn from both your setbacks and wins. Instead of praising or getting down on yourself for qualities like “I’m so smart” or “Maybe I’m just not good at this”, turn your attention on the process of what worked, what didn’t, and how you can build on that.
Focus on yourself. lnstead of measuring yourself against the people who seem effortlessly amazing, compare yourself to the you of yesterday, of the week, month, and year before. It’s important to recognize how far you’ve come to boost your efforts moving forward.
Add the word “yet”. When you face a challenge, experience a setback, or just feel discouraged that you haven’t “made it” — turn to the word “yet”. It magically transforms the outlook from bleakness and disappointment into hope and possibility. As Dweck explains, by using the word “yet”: "We give people a time perspective. It creates the idea of learning over time. It puts the other person on that learning curve and says, “Well, maybe you’re not at the finish line but you’re on that learning curve and let’s go further.”
How do you usually view your success and failures? I’d love to hear about your mindset.
Janet Choi is the Chief Creative Officer atiDoneThis, the easiest progress management tool around that helps you track, share, and celebrate your accomplishments. She writes about productivity, creativity, fulfillment, and the way people work. Follow her on Twitter @lethargarian.