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Growth Mindset vs. Fixed Mindset

If we have a growth mindset, the whole universe can change.

Source: Fotolia
Source: Fotolia

Our minds have such an ability to influence our lives. It's amazing how powerful our minds and our thoughts can be; how we look at the world shapes our own world.

We're going to look at the power of our mind and how to make it work for us instead of against us. I want to start with an example of looking at our world and how it can affect us, it's about being a student.

Let's call student one Jim. He hasn't been raised in the best environment and his parents tell him that he's not very smart. They don't think he's going to do well in school. He should probably just get out there and get a blue-collar job so he can support himself.

So along the way, he takes some classes and happens to do pretty well in a math class. He actually likes it but he's been told that he's not very smart, so instead of applying himself, he says, “Well, I'm actually not very smart so I’m not going to try very hard.” So he doesn't, and then, of course, his grades are not very good, which reinforces his belief. He has a fixed mindset that he's not very smart.

So in Jim's case, his fixed mindset causes him to fail at something in which he could probably do quite well if he applied himself.

Now let's talk about Lotus. Lotus is told by her parents over and over again that she is smart. She's brilliant, she can be anything she wants in life because she is intelligent, and she's going to go far. And she does. She does well in school. She is encouraged to do well and she's told that she can do it, so she works hard and does well.

She goes to Harvard because she has done so well, but then her grades plummet. Not because she's not smart anymore, but because the competition is so tough that she doesn't cope with it very well and then she goes into a depression. Then she begins to wonder if life is worth living.

Now, this may sound like a silly, extreme example but the Harvard Crimson, which is the main Harvard magazine, reported that 50 percent of the students at Harvard struggle with depression—up to 25 percent being life-threatening depression like Lotus.

So this does happen. Lotus' fixed mindset was that she was smart, and when it was challenged at Harvard and she started getting Cs, it rocked her world. She thought she was smart, but the world was telling her otherwise.

Now, Christie, our third student, is raised by parents who tell her that if she works hard, she can do well. There is no smart Christie or dumb Christie, there's just Christie who, if she works hard, can do well. The parents are very careful not to label Christie. They just tell her that if you work hard, you can do well in life.

So she does do well in life because she works hard. Instead of saying “I’m dumb” after setbacks, or “I’m smart” after successes, she just says “I didn't work hard in this first situation and I worked hard in the second situation.”

So if I want to do well in life, I need to work hard and I need to apply effort. That's a "growth mindset."

The first two (Lotus and Jim) were called "fixed mindsets." Christie has a growth mindset. You can probably guess which of these two is a better mindset.

Now, there's a very important lesson in the difference between fixed mindset versus growth mindset. As parents, it is very important to develop a growth mindset in our kids because if we tell them they're smart or they're stupid and then life changes that, it's going to turn their world upside down.

If we say, “If you work hard, then you're going to do well, and if you don't work hard, you're not,” that encourages a growth mindset. They can choose not to work hard but it's not because they're either stupid or smart.

So when they hit a barrier, they can say to themselves, “I just need to work harder." The same principles apply in our own lives. For example, I do not like labels for people. They often come to me and say, “Dr. Puff, how would you label me? Am I depressed? Am I anxious? Do I have ADHD?”

People love labels. It's easy to give labels to people, but the problem is that we tend to reinforce that label. If we think we have OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder) then we're going to act that way. We’re going to think, “Well, this is just the way I am, so I’m going to act that way.”

If the reverse is true, we say. “The symptoms may be there, but if we change the behavior, the symptoms will change.” That's a growth-oriented person.

Now let's take it to a higher level, say our workplace. There are a lot more people involved, but if we label or have fixed ideas and fixed mindsets, that is going to be reinforced.

In this situation, what is going to influence our mindset? It's not the company because the company is based upon how we see it. So let's say we come to work and focus on the pressure we've built at work because we're in the tech industry and we have to keep developing new products. It’s exhausting and we think, “Wow! I don't know if I can maintain this. I can't wait to retire because this is just utterly exhausting.” That fixed mindset would ensure that we have a hard time at work. In time, we will become get exhausted and probably quit, do something else, or just not be productive.

A growth mindset would look very different. It would say, “OK, we're in a very competitive market in the tech world. So, how do we adapt, how do we make sure this is fun and make the changes so we can keep improving the world, and so that our company can keep growing?”

See the difference there? It's important to understand that how we see our world will affect our world.

Now let's take it one step higher, to the country we live in. Again, a fixed mindset will say, “Well, politicians are all evil, they're corrupt, what's the point, I'm not even going to vote.” A growth mindset would say, “Yes, there are problems in our government and I can make a difference. I'm going to get out there and campaign, write to my people in office, and see if I can really make changes. I believe that if I put in the effort, it may be small in comparison to the government, but I can make a difference.”

Even if we make very little difference, the great thing is that our growth mindset is going to make us happier, and that's what I want to talk about today: applying the growth mindset to happiness.

In terms of happiness, how does the growth mindset work? A fixed mindset about happiness would say, “Well, this is the level of happiness I'm at, whether I'm depressed or whether I'm a pretty OK person. But it's not going to change so why even try? Just live life as best we can. That's life.” That would be a fixed mindset.

A growth mindset would say, “Yes, this is how I am today but I want to improve it. I want to get better and I'm going to work at it. I'm going to do things that make me a happier person because happiness requires work.”

The point to happiness is that unless we do work, it's not going to change. So we're going to have to do specific things to improve our level of happiness. But the great news is we can change it if we have a growth mindset. I know some of you reading this post right now are probably feeling pretty low. Things might not be going very well and there might be a lot of pain, but the great news is that if you don't give up, if you keep working every day, you can get a little bit better. A little bit better, over time, can turn into something truly beautiful.

It takes work, but if we believe, because we're people with a growth mindset, that we can keep improving our lives, that's what will happen. I want to encourage those people that are at that place not to give up. For some of us, life is going pretty well. It's actually pretty good. We want to learn how to get even better and that's where a growth mindset can play a role, too.

We can say, “Yes, life is going well but why not just keep improving it, because is there a limit to happiness? Is there a limit to the peace in our lives? Can we really keep getting better, and is it worth trying?”

If we're growth-oriented, then we will find that we can keep getting our lives better no matter what. That's awesome because often when we think of getting older, we think of negativity; we think life going to get worse. But after taking on a growth mindset orientation, everything around us can be improved. Our relationships can be improved, our work environment can be improved, even our health can be improved.

Our bodies eventually slow down, but with a growth mindset towards happiness, we can say, “OK, now that I'm off and not feeling as well, what can I do to improve this? I'm going to keep working on making my life better until it is better.” It may mean that we have to live with pain, but living with pain is doable if we're focused on many things.

And if we have a fixed mindset, guess what? It’s going to stay. But if we have a growth mindset, then we can change it. Whatever is happening can be improved. The situation itself may not change, but if our attitude changes, then everything can look different.

A growth mindset is powerful, not only for our own lives but for those around us as well. When we change, those around us can change, too.

I want to end with a beautiful saying. I don't know where I heard it but it's one of my favorites. “If I pull a blade of grass, the whole universe shakes.” If we have a growth mindset, the whole universe can change. We can make the world our world, and those around us so much more beautiful. It takes work but it's worth it. Let's develop a growth mindset.

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