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How to Overcome a Fixed Mindset & Develop a Growth Mindset

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“The view you adopt for yourself profoundly affects the way you lead your life. It can determine whether you become the person you want to be and whether you accomplish the things you value.” ~ Carol Dweck

(9-minutes read)

The majority of my clients come to me wanting to shift or change something about themselves. This intrinsic desire to grow is critical to tap into when one decides to invest in themselves through therapy.

One of the keys to the success of our self development goals is enhancing our mindset and beliefs that operate from our conscious and unconscious minds. Sometimes, the story of how we see ourselves and what we are capable of can become fixed. When this happens, the possibilities we see for ourselves become narrow and limited -- impacting everything from work performance, relationships, the goals we set for ourselves, and our overall quality of life.

Human potential is a fascinating subject and when we can truly understand how much of our potential is locked up in our beliefs, only then can we begin to change.

The good news, for those of you who have shied away from challenge for fear of failure, given up easily when frustrated, or generally don’t believe in your ability to learn and grow, is that you can change your mindset from these fixed ways of thinking to more of a growth mindset -- to see failure as an opportunity to grow.

The first decision is simply making the choice to invest in improving your mindset.

The reality is that most of us will swing back and forth between a growth and fixed mindset depending on the challenge we are facing or how we feel about ourselves in the moment. The secret is to set up foundational small habits that support having a growth mindset and tame that pesky critical voice that intensifies a fixed mindset. Let me share with you a story of my client Jim who did just that.

After two sessions it was clear to me that Jim was operating from a fixed mindset, having little belief in himself and his abilities. In order for Jim to feel good about himself as a leader, we needed to first explore his inner psychology - the thoughts he has about himself, his work, and his relationships with others.

By his own definition, Jim was successful. He had a lot of outer success: a good job as a project manager of a large company, happily married with two kids, and had a nice house. Jim shared with me that even with all of his successes, he didn’t feel good about himself as a leader.

Jim identified as a perfectionist and, in many ways, he derived his self-worth from how much he would accomplish. How he felt about himself would fluctuate depending on how many items he could check off from his to do list that day. Jim was particularly struggling with being a first-time manager due to his self expectation that he should be successful in the role right away.

Later on in our sessions, Jim admitted to himself (and to me) that his drive for improvement was not to learn to be a great leader but rather to be seen as a great leader. This is a really important distinction, by expecting greatness and perfection of himself immediately, Jim was not giving himself any room to learn, to fail and to improve. It was an expectation he had developed over the years to be the best and those standards led Jim to be extremely successful in his production, yet rendered him a very rigid and controlling leader. He also had a harsh internal voice that kept him playing small and staying safe, but not growing to his full potential.

Jim had been in his new role for 8 months when he received feedback that he was not relating well to his team and didn’t seem to make the effort to connect with his direct reports.

In his first session, Jim said to me “Ken, I am here because my director wants me to be a people first leader and I guess that is not how I’m showing up.” He had shared with me what his director wanted for him, but I was interested in learning what Jim wanted for himself. I was curious what it felt like for him to receive this feedback and why he seemed to be struggling to accept it. I wanted to help him uncover what learning opportunity he was being presented with and whether or not he wanted to take action on it.

Jim shared that he had always felt less than adequate. He had been raised by strict parents who had very high expectations for him. His parents had always stressed getting good grades would lead to a life of success. Jim was the oldest of 3 boys and was asked to take on a lot of responsibilities in the house with chores and helping out with his two younger brothers. He did exceptionally well in school but was criticized by his parents for being less than exceptional each time he tried something new. He enjoyed playing soccer but he wasn’t the star player. His parents told him he wasn’t talented at soccer and so he quit. The same went for when he tried out for the school drama performance, a summer job working as a painter, and an after school writing program. Jim started to believe his parents that he either had talent at something or he didn’t. This prevented him from trying new things for fear he would not have the innate talent and end up looking like a failure.

To compensate for his fear of failure, for many years Jim creatively avoided situations where he believed he might look silly or unknowledgeable. He would only pursue opportunities he knew he already had the skill set and knowledge to be successful from the very beginning. Jim had taken the promotion to manager confident he already knew how to do the job, yet here he was being told that he needed to improve. This made Jim feel a mixture of shame, inadequacy, and fearful of the possibility that he might fail.

Leadership roles, like Jim’s, have a way of shining a light on both our strengths and our weaknesses. Here we were with the invitation from Jim’s boss to enhance his leadership abilities. Now I know that the only way this becomes a positive story for Jim, is if he sees the value in changing his mindset. So that was our first conversation.

Several years ago Carol Dweck wrote a book called “Mindset: The New Psychology” and it really is a must read for any parents who want to model and teach their kids how to have a mindset that is all about growth and learning. It is easier for kids to adopt this way of thinking and approach to learning, while for many of us adults, we have some ‘unlearning’ to do if we are to adopt this way of being.

Let’s review the difference between a fixed mindset and growth mindset as defined by Carol Dweck:

Fixed Mindset: “In a fixed mindset, people believe their basic qualities, like their intelligence or talent, are simply fixed traits. They spend their time documenting their intelligence or talent instead of developing them. They also believe that talent alone creates success—without effort.” (Dweck, 2015)

Growth Mindset: “In a growth mindset, people believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work—brains and talent are just the starting point. This view creates a love of learning and a resilience that is essential for great accomplishment.” (Dweck, 2015)

It wasn’t until our fourth session that Jim began to see, and more importantly feel, the impact of his internal expectations of himself. “I lie awake at night thinking about tomorrow, dreaming up ideas of what I will say, and how I will respond to co-workers and clients. The whole time I lay there, I feel a current of anxiety running through my body.”

“That sounds like an incredible amount of energy to invest into the next day when your body is laying there trying to recharge,” I replied.

“It is and I don’t seem to have any control over it. I’ve tried the whole self-hypnosis, meditation thing before sleep and it does not help.”

I leaned in at this point, something I often do when I have important feedback. “Jim, I think you're addicted to getting it right,” I said with a smile.

“Huh. Maybe.” My feedback didn’t seem to resonate with him.

“What’s the payoff of being so prepared for the next day?” I asked.

He smiled, “Oh I see. Yeah. I win.” Jim went on to talk about his competitiveness and how much he likes to win and be seen as the best at things.

Jim is like so many high performing professionals I work with. He has learned to be effective through the idea of winning and losing, getting praise and avoiding negative feedback.

In a much later session, Jim asked me, “So, when do I get to graduate this course?”

“You tell me?” I said with a laugh.

“If I’m being honest with myself, I’m not sure this is the type of course I will ever graduate from. Life seems to continue to throw me new challenges, or rather new lessons. And the biggest lesson I am learning right now is that I need to find a way to be comfortable with failing at things. Because what I’ve been doing -- avoiding new opportunities out of fear that I’ll fail has only led me to feeling less and less meaning in my life. Fear of failing has stunted my own growth.” Jim’s eyes turned toward my desk as he pondered further, “It’s something I see clearly when I interact with my kids now.”

“What’s that”? I inquired.

“Growth” He paused, “It’s all that matters. I was the one attaching labels of right and wrong, or good or bad to everything. If I stopped my kids every moment I thought they were going to fall, or slip up, or look silly, I’d be holding them back from exploring, testing and learning to overcome their own limits. I don’t think I’d ever let them leave the house! And they’d be miserable with me for holding them back, just like I was with myself - I just didn’t know it at the time.”

Jim is an example of what we are all capable of, putting our energy and intention into developing a growth mindset.

Five tools to improve your Growth Mindset

1. Observe the voice of your inner critic

What does it say? In what tone does it speak? How does what it says hold you back or keep you from dreaming big for yourself? Rather quickly, you will come to see the patterns of thinking that drive the belief systems prevalent in a fixed mindset -- the beliefs that keep you from growing.

2. Develop a fail forward attitude

If you fail or struggle, you will undoubtedly be learning something very valuable. The concept of progress in the face of failure is essential for growth. Keep trying, failing, learning, and you will be literally rewiring your brain for learning in a new way.

3. Set learning goals

Focusing on what you are learning vs what you are accomplishing can help to build a growth mindset. Many of my clients opt to focus on how they are showing up. For example:

4. Morning Routines

Journal everyday about what you are learning, how you are challenging yourself and why this is such an important step for you, OR

Listen to audio books on Mindset in the morning to help remind and prime yourself for the day, OR

Develop a first thought of the day to help your mindset. Something like: Don’t worry about failure. Worry about the chances you’ll miss if you don’t even try; Just because you haven’t found your talent, doesn’t mean you don’t have one; All new things are difficult before they are easy.”

5. Challenge yourself

Develop a list of things you want for yourself that you often avoid out of fear. Organize them from least scary to most scary and commit to completing the list within the next 3 months, or year. In writing the list, be honest about what will help you grow. Don’t spend time thinking about whether you should or you shouldn’t or what others might think of you. Commit to challenging yourself to grow, just for yourself.

For more information on Growth Mindset, check out Carol Dweck’s Ted Talk: The Power of Believing You Can Grow.

If you are curious about developing your growth mindset or building the habits that enhance belief in yourself and your abilities, the Psychologists and Psychotherapists at One Life Counselling & Coaching are here to help you work on your internal psychology. Contact us for more information or a recommendation on who might be the best fit for supporting you in your goals.

Author: Ken Fierheller, Registered Psychotherapist

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