What is a Growth Mindset and how do we develop one?


Do you ever think about the version of yourself you would like to be, the future you? Does is stay as just a dream or are you actively trying to pursue that version of yourself? If it stays as just a dream, is it because you don’t believe you can change? Research has shown that if we believe that we aren’t capable of change, the less able we are to change.  It can be beneficial to adopt a growth mindset to actively pursue the best versions of ourselves. And the good news is – we can all develop a growth mindset.

What is Mindset

A mindset is a set of expectations about ourselves and our world that help us make sense of our experiences. Like a worldview or what is known in psychology as a schema, they offer a sort of shortcut that allows us to respond to a situation quickly, easily, and – most of the time – appropriately. For example, imagine you walk into a friend’s house, and their dog starts running toward you as you walk in the front door. If you’ve had good experiences with dogs, you will likely expect the dog to be friendly, interpret the behaviour as being really happy to see you and then bend down to greet it, give it a fuss and talk to it like you were talking to a child and like it is the best part of your day(or is that just me)?

But if you’ve had negative experiences with dogs, you might interpret the dog running at you as a threat and then go into protective mode and move to try to get away. You have designed a schema for what to expect from dogs, and you select what action to take that’s consistent with your expectations.

Mindsets are similar to schemas but more applicable to our general experiences rather than specific to particular people, places, or events. For example, when we have a positive mindset, we might move through the world with the assumption that people are nice, and we are safe. We develop mindsets over time through personal experience and the influence of other people. If we have negative experiences with others or are consistently taught that people are untrustworthy, we are likely to develop a mindset in which we generally anticipate the worst from others. Mindsets can be really useful in that they help us interpret our behaviour and the behaviour of others, and react in an appropriate way; however, our mindsets don’t always work closely with reality and can sometimes work against us, especially when we get what we expect. 

Research has shown that our expectations of ourselves are often self-fulfilling. For example, studies investigating a phenomenon called stereotype threat, have shown that by putting people in a context in which they doubt themselves or feel as though they don’t belong, they will perform worse than when they are in a context where they feel capable (Spencer et al., 2016). Similarly, studies have also shown that you perform better when you expect to perform better.

 What Is Growth Mindset?

 A growth mindset is a set of expectations that reflect a belief in your ability to intentionally develop yourself intellectually, physically, emotionally, spiritually, etc. It is essentially believing that you are capable of more.

A growth mindset is a concept that was first developed by psychologist Carol Dweck. It emerged from her observation that school-aged children who believed in their ability to grow were more likely to succeed academically than children with a fixed mindset, who believed that their abilities were fixed and couldn’t be developed (Dweck, 2006).

 What Are the Benefits of a Growth Mindset?

Dweck (2006) has outlined a number of benefits to having a growth mindset in her book, Mindset. If you haven’t read that book, I can highly recommend that you read it for some motivation. After reading that book, you really do come away with the sense that you can do anything. The benefits she outlines are:

  • Enhanced creativity and problem-solving ability
  • Greater self-esteem
  • Resilience
  • Improved relationships
  • Academic and career success
  • Courage to try new things
  • Improved health, well-being, and life satisfaction
  • Ability to receive criticism
  • Increased motivation
  • Greater overall enjoyment of life
  • Lower risk of depression

The Neuroscience of Growth Mindset

Our capacity to develop cognitive abilities, such as intelligence, emotional regulation, and self-control, is supported by the neuroscientific principle of plasticity. Plasticity is essentially the ability of your brain cells to rewire themselves to support new or different functions. The extent of plasticity observed in the human brain is pretty impressive. Any time you gain a new skill or learn something new, your brain changes.

Neuroscience studies specifically focused on growth mindset also support the notion that our mindset can affect our brain activity. Studies using a technique called functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), which allows you to see changes in activity in particular brain regions, have shown that a growth mindset is associated with greater activity in regions that are important for emotional regulation, learning, self-control, identification of errors, and behavioural adaptation (Ng, 2018).

Can Mindsets Change?

Research by Carol Dweck, demonstrates that following interventions in which children were taught about growth mindset, their capacity to improve, mathematical ability and reading comprehension spared (Dweck, 2006). These results demonstrate that mindsets can be changed and that a mindset has a powerful effect on performance. There are lots of other studies that corroborate these findings.

 How to develop a growth mindset

 Here are five ways you can develop a growth mindset.

  1. Know what your long term goals are

Creating quality plans is critical to growing and sustaining a growth mindset. Sometimes when we fail to reach goals, we use that failure as evidence to support the foundational belief of a fixed mindset – that we are incapable of change. However, the much more likely reality is that we failed because we weren’t using effective goal-setting strategies. Understanding the best methods for setting and working toward long-term goals will give us a better chance at reaching our goals and ultimately proving to ourselves that we are capable of anything.

One of the first steps toward reaching a goal is to be able to clearly define it. Often, our life goals are vague. For example, we might desire to be happier, what would it look like to be happier? Happier than what? How would we know when we’ve reached our desired amount of happiness? We need to get specific, what areas of our life are we dissatisfied with? What contributes to that dissatisfaction? For instance, perhaps we are dissatisfied with our job and it’s this stress and dissatisfaction that is impeding our ability to enjoy our life. In this case, we might redefine our happiness goal as finding meaningful and enjoyable work (at least most of the time).

  1. Believe in your ability to grow

 Believing in yourself is arguably the most important aspect of a growth mindset. Without the belief that you have control over your actions and the belief that your actions can have an impact, you’re unlikely to try anything.

Theoretical models of behavioural change suggest that change occurs over 4 stages:

  1. Pre-contemplation – This is the stage before any intention to change. In the pre-contemplation phase, you might notice that you aren’t drinking enough water but you don’t consider doing anything about it.
  2. Contemplation – This stage is characterised by developing an intention to change behaviour. This is the stage where you’d say, “I should try to drink more water every day.”
  3. Action – The action stage is where you take action to change your behaviour. This is the point at which you might set an alarm on your phone to remind you to drink water or get a water bottle that encourages your daily intake.
  4. Maintenance – The maintenance stage is often the hardest stage. This is where you sustain your behaviour until you’ve reached your goal.

Research suggests that self-efficacy is the driving factor that helps you progress through these stages. Self-efficacy is your belief in your capacity to execute the plan and behaviour necessary. You must believe you can.

  1. Find out what motivates you

Motivation is generally defined as the process by which we are energised to initiate and sustain goal-directed activities (Ryan, 2012). Current theories of motivation suggest that feeling motivated is closely linked with your thoughts, beliefs, and emotions. Specifically, it’s suggested that people tend to pursue goals that align with their values, interests, and beliefs about their capabilities and the expected outcomes of their actions (Ryan, 2012). In other words, you are most likely to feel motivated when the task is something you think is important or interesting, when you feel like you are capable of completing the task, and when the outcome of the task is something desirable.

  1. Commit to Action

 For most, following through on our goals is the hardest part. We may enthusiastically set our goals, but eventually, we encounter obstacles or our motivation wanes. We cement ourselves into a fixed mindset by using this as proof that we are simply incapable of the change we want. Research has shown that goal commitment—defined as a determination to achieve your goals—is essential (Klein et al., 1999). That’s why it’s useful to commit ourselves to our goals at the outset. We can solidify our goal commitment by using strategies that we know are effective in promoting our personal growth, such as

  • Cultivating and exercising discipline
  • Leveraging our strengths to shore up our weaknesses
  • Learning to use our mistakes as fuel
  • Taking time to reflect on all our achievements and improvements

Each of these strategies will foster a growth mindset and support our ambitions.

  1. Continue to Grow

 The benefits of a growth mindset extend well beyond reaching our goals. Having a growth mindset also means we treat ourselves with love, respect, and understanding and that we are flexible enough to adjust our plans when needed without concluding that we are failures.

One way we can continue growing is by stepping outside our comfort zone. Recent research has shown that engaging in activities that are outside our comfort zone can improve our self-perception and overall well-being. For example, one study demonstrated that people who were encouraged to engage in activities outside their comfort zone reported greater happiness and life satisfaction than people who did not venture outside their comfort zone (Russo-Netzer & Cohen, 2022). The authors suggest that this effect is partly due to the courage it takes to do something unfamiliar. By engaging in uncomfortable activities, you are demonstrating this courage, which can boost your confidence in your ability to thrive in new and challenging circumstances. Venturing outside your comfort zone also supports a growth mindset for the same reason. That is, you improve your self-efficacy by overcoming feelings of anxiety and self-doubt and proving to yourself that you are capable of things you never thought you could do.

Do you have a fixed mindset or a growth mindset?

If you are struggling with mindset, have you considered a coach? I am able to help you shift your perspective. Get in touch today for a free chat  to discuss how I can help  

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