What’s so great about growth mindset? A sceptic’s guide to changing how you think

In the first episode of the Wellbeings podcast, ex-US Navy Seal Pat Dossett recounts how, during the Seal recruitment process (during which only 17 graduated out of 220) it wasn’t the most physically jacked types who dominated, but instead the “most unremarkable looking candidates”.

Those who made the cut were the ones who “possessed a mindset that allowed them to push their brains and bodies to places they didn’t think they could go,” Dossett tells Bowden in the podcast.

This psychological advantage is known as a growth mindset, a term popularised by American Psychologist Carol Dweck in her 2006 book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. According to Dweck, a growth mindset is the belief that intelligence, capability and personality can be developed. A fixed mindset views these as “immutably engrained traits”.

People with a growth mindset rise to challenges more easily than those with a fixed mindset; they see criticism as constructive and when or if they fail at something, they look for the lesson and try again. Those with a fixed mindset tend to avoid challenges. They might ignore feedback, or be threatened by the success of others and, in turn, give up more easily. They feel there’s a limit on what they can do, so why bother?

I can immediately see how a growth mindset could be invaluable to elite athletes, high-achieving folk, and people who make 5-, 10- and 15-year plans. That is not me. I gave up learning the violin when my neighbour asked if I was skinning a cat in my bedroom. While my friends were reading The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Teens I was watching Gossip Girl. When I hear Try Again I think of the Aaliyah song, not of bettering myself.

Fearing this means I’m stuck with a fixed mindset and doomed to never achieve anything in my life, I ask Auckland psychologist Sara Chatwin for her help. How can I convince myself to drink the growth kool-aid and reap the benefits?

She assures me changing your mindset is not rocket science. In fact “it’s just two ways of viewing the capabilities of the mind.” Fixed minds like mine can be persuaded to change their outlook. Those with a growth mindset understand that “effort is required to develop new skills and are open to building new skills, they find inspiration in others’ success, they accept criticism and push through, have a desire to learn.”

So is a growth mindset linked to that other wellbeing buzzword, “resilience”? Sure is, says Chatwin.

Someone with a growth mindset can fail, but it doesn’t kill them, she says. “You get back up and get back on the horse.”

“Resilience is just the ability to face something head on – be it good, bad or indifferent – and own it.”

People with a growth mindset often see the silver lining. Their glasses are half full, but warns Chatwin, “don’t mistake that (to mean) everything is easy for people with a growth mindset.”

Chatwin, who describes herself as a positive psychologist, freely admits that as someone who maintains and benefits from a growth mindset, she struggles to see how anyone would want to live differently. “I embrace the notion not only of a growth mindset but of neuroplasticity, that you can change and grow your brain, you can upskill yourself.”

Dossett now has a book about mindset training. “Embracing a resilient mindset changes the way you respond to challenges, that leads to healthier behaviours that help you unlock your full potential.” Like Chatwin, he believes that it’s never too late to ditch a fixed mindset for a cheerier disposition. He assures Bowden that “we are all capable of it, but how do we take it into our lives and actually use it?”

How to transition towards a growth mindset

How then, do you go about changing your mindset? Especially if you’re a fixed person who tends to accept that things are just the way they are, who doesn’t do a lot of self-reflection? How do you get through to sceptics weary of what Bowden calls “the wellness epidemic?”

“Never underestimate the power of the small step,” Dossett tells Bowden.

That first small step, says Chatwin, is acknowledging that like many aspects of life, a mindset is not a dichotomy, it’s more of a continuum. “We all have (a growth mindset), it’s whether we choose to go with it, believe in it, use it and grow it or whether we sit still.” It might take friends or family sharing with a fixed mindset person how they’re perceived to spark a desire for change, says Chatwin. A person might not come to that realisation themselves.

The next step, says Chatwin would be identifying that your mindset is putting limits on yourself – “sitting with that and thinking about it for a while” – before slowly starting to ask those questions.

“Is this it? Is this all I’m going to be? Is this all I’m going to get?” Asking those questions might “spur some forward momentum and some desire to change. That could be the conduit to a growth mindset.”

Dossett recommends reminding yourself that “feeling uncomfortable is a sign not of my inability to be successful but what it feels like to grow”.

Make an intentional step to start – however small – and make a habit of “sitting with the effect”.

I’m thinking of it in terms I understand, Aaliyah lyrics:

If at first you don’t succeed (first you don’t succeed)

Then dust yourself off and try again

You can dust it off and try again, try again

So armed with your sliver linings playbook and your rose-tinted glasses, How do you see the world exactly?

I asked Chatwin to walk me through how The Growth Mindsetters deal with four of life’s common challenges.

A growth mindset in the workplace

Chatwin says that anyone who has taken on a career that involved moving up the ranks, has embraced elements of a growth mindset, be that consciously or subconsciously. “Anyone who has been in any job that progresses must know that they can grow.”

Generally in a work situation a person’s mindset can be characterised by the way they deal with problems and stresses. Those in Team Growth are able to repackage problems as challenges, says Chatwin. “They redefine the bad stuff in a way that’s a little more positive and workable. They’re that person that is up for a challenge, they’re willing to perhaps push the envelope a little bit. They’re probably both a good individual, and team, player. They’re generally embracing of whatever the workplace throws up at them.”

A growth mindset as a parent

Parents with growth mindsets are more willing to roll with the hissy fits.

“In parenting there are lots of things you come across that are unique, new to you, challenging and even frightening,” said Chatwin. A parent with a growth mindset would come across these surprises and say, “let’s deal with this. I can deal with this, even though I’m not used to this, and I don’t necessarily want this, I can deal with it.”

“We’ll work together towards a degree of commonalty and acceptance.” Parents with growth mindsets are authoritative as opposed to authoritarian.

A parent with a fixed mindset is more likely to say, “It’s my way or the highway, this isn’t happening, im not going to accept that.”

Applying a growth mindset to relationships

A growth mindset can be “super helpful” when it comes to relationships, says Chatwin. When you bring together two people with different life experiences and upbringings things crop up. “There’s going to be a bit of push and pull. With a growth mindset, you’re better able to navigate that landscape. You’re more accepting, a little more relaxed when things aren’t as you would like them.”

A growth mindset encourages lateral thinking and flexibility, both invaluable if navigating differences. “Something might happen, and you’ll think ‘wow that really isn’t my thing, I don’t know how I’m even attracted to a person who actually engages in that behaviour. However, I love that person, so I can work with that, we can talk about that’.”

People with a fixed mindset are less able to get over things in a relationship. They “view things as quite black or white,” says Chatwin. “Things become do or die.”

Listen to the episode of WellBeings with Pat Dossett here.

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