In a previous post found here, I outlined some recent criticisms of Carol Dweck’s research on the effects of fixed versus growth mindset. Some of her latest work in the journal Nature emphasizes how mindset effects are larger when the environment supports curiosity and academic success.
As mindset theory becomes more nuanced, I’ve been reflecting on how it has impacted me. My resume reveals a clear pattern of before and after. This distinction isn’t marked by a graduation, a new job, or even when I decided to have children. It’s marked by when I actively worked to foster a growth mindset.
When I finished graduate school, I had little confidence in my writing ability. Despite that I had just successfully earned a Ph.D. in psychology, I didn’t believe I was a writer. When my dissertation was initially rejected for publication, it confirmed my belief that writing wasn't for me.
I began teaching college courses and one subject that frequently came up was Dweck’s fixed versus growth mindset. After digging into the research and hearing of my students’ experiences with it, I decided it was time for me to apply it to my writing skills.
To test the theory myself, I made the following goals:
View feedback as coaching, not an evaluation of ability. I used to dread the idea of others exposing my weaknesses. I didn't want to look inadequate but slowly learned that feedback is essential to progress. I worked to remind myself that criticisms say nothing of my potential—they give a roadmap of where to go. I sought mentors who would be honest while helpful and optimistic.
Allow for mistakes. To get past the paralyzing fear of making mistakes, I reminded myself that there are a finite number of gaffes I'm going to make before I die. I would envision a giant bucket, full to the brim of all the errors I would make in my life. In my mind, I would pull one out every time I messed up. Each blunder was just one less mistake weighing down my big bucket.
Recognize effort as an essential part of growth. I was initially held back by the belief that immediately being good at something meant I was smart. I would interpret my writing struggles as a sign that I wasn't capable of that skill. Researcher Brené Brown discussed the importance of recognizing the uncomfortable feeling of doing something for the first time in her new podcast Unlocking Us. She said,
Naming the FFT [f***ing first time] leads to three steps. One, we can normalize it, “Oh, this is exactly how new is supposed to feel. This is uncomfortable because brave is uncomfortable.” Two, we can put it in perspective, “This feeling is not permanent, and it doesn’t mean I suck at everything. It means I’m in the middle of an FFT around this one thing.” Three, I can reality-check my expectations, “This is going to suck for a while. I’m not going to crush this right away.”
Use self-comparison, not social-comparison. After finishing graduate school, I would compare my research articles to those who had been in the field for decades. Their expertise seemed so out of reach that the efforts I did make seemed pointless. It was only when I started competing with myself that my writing improved. I focused on making gradual improvements that added up over time.
Meet negative self-talk with self-compassion. At the beginning of this effort, I felt paralyzed to begin a new project. My mind swirled with potential mistakes, criticisms, and rejections. My fingers could hardly move due to the negativity in my head. Fortunately, Dweck’s message would remind me to be kind to myself.
Since that pivotal moment when I decided to change the way I viewed ability, my writing output has substantially increased. While the quality and impact of my writing have varied, one of the greatest outcomes has been finding pleasure in it. Writing is no longer a chore, but something that brings meaning and fulfillment.
As mindset theory continues to expand and refine, I’m grateful Dweck’s research made an impact in my life. Although shifting the way I view ability hasn’t led to dramatic changes, it has given me just the boost I need to keep going.
In the words of my friend Daniel Tiger, “Keep trying, you’ll get better.”