We all have a desire to change for the better. More often than not though, it seems our ambitions don’t stick long enough for the change to take place. When that happens, we blame ourselves for not being motivated or that we lack willpower or we’re too stupid and ultimately, we give up because we feel we’re incapable of the change we want to see.
Here’s the issue, we believe the stories we tell ourselves. If we keep seeing ourselves as failures who lack the ability to change, well then, that’s who we’re going to be for the rest of our lives. Inversely, if we see ourselves as capable human beings who can accomplish what we set out to, then we give ourselves a chance to succeed in our pursuits.
Fixed vs. Growth Mindset
The mind is a powerful thing. Scientists such as Carol Dweck, a researcher at Stanford University, have proven that there is a link between our beliefs and our behaviors.
Dweck’s work on “fixed mindset vs. growth mindset” has gained popularity among researchers and the average person who seeks out change. Here is how Dweck defines the two mindsets and correlation it has on overall performance:
In a fixed mindset students believe their basic abilities, their intelligence, their talents, are just fixed traits. They have a certain amount and that's that, and then their goal becomes to look smart all the time and never look dumb. In a growth mindset students understand that their talents and abilities can be developed through effort, good teaching and persistence. They don't necessarily think everyone's the same or anyone can be Einstein, but they believe everyone can get smarter if they work at it.
— Carol Dweck, Stanford University
So why would anyone want to have a fixed mindset? It seems obvious that a growth mindset is the way to go. Well, a lot of times we carry a fixed belief about ourselves because it shields us from the uncomfortable feeling of failure. If you keep telling yourself “I’m not a good runner”, then you will avoid running because it’s the identity you carry with you. Sure you may avoid the thing you’re not good at in the short-term, but in the long run it will stunt your ability to grow.
A person with a growth mindset will ultimately attempt to run, even if the initial start is slow and ugly. This person sees the “slowness and ugliness” as a signal in which they tell themselves, “hey, this is a skill that I need to develop, so I should continue training”, and not, “I’m not good at this sort of thing”.
People with a growth mindset maximize their chance to reach their potential. They take criticism and failure as a learning opportunity rather than avoiding them. They don’t feel threatened by the success of others but rather inspired. Their current shortcomings is just where they are in life but it doesn’t define who they are.
Of course, mindset is not a lightswitch. It’s not like one day we can press the “growth mindset button” and go on our merry way. We need practical tangible ways to train our minds. The best way to get started is with small easy repeatable actions.
Let’s continue with our running example. If we want to build a running habit, our first reaction might be to put on our running shoes and start running outside until we feel like not doing it anymore. This is the wrong approach. When starting anything new, set yourself up for success by doing the easy stuff consistently.
Instead of focusing on running, focus on putting your running shoes in front of the door every morning. After you’ve done that, celebrate the fact that you are one step closer to getting out the door to run. Now clearly putting your shoes in front of the door is not running, but it is the mindset we’re developing first before the act.
After a week of just putting your shoes in front of the door, take the next step of putting your shoes on. Again, celebrate that now you are even closer to accomplishing your goal of becoming a runner.
From here on out, keep adding on the layers. Go outside with your shoes on and walk around the block for 30 minutes. Build your 30 minute walking routine for two weeks and then graduate it to 1 hour of walking. Let that build for another two weeks, which afterwards, you allow yourself to start running for 30 minutes. Later, turn that 30 minutes into 1 hour. And finally, after you accomplish building the foundation of your running habit, set goals for the distance that you want to run rather than the duration.
This may sound like a tedious process but it is grounded in performance science. Jumping straight into running when a habit has not been established is a recipe for failure. That is you wanting to shortcut the process to get to the end result. We need to be patient and believe in the process of daily small wins. These small wins accumulate and provide proof to ourselves that we can change, that we do have the ability to grow.
Marginal Gains, Not Overnight Success
We tend to overvalue one single event, like running a marathon and undervalue the daily accumulation of habits like having our shoes prepared for the next day. When our focus turns to one defining result, we are showing tendencies of a fixed mindset. Our current result should not define us, whether that be our paycheck, our test scores, or our weight, it’s just a position we are currently in. With a growth mindset, we can build habits that change the way we view ourselves, our personal identity, because we have proven repeatedly to ourselves that we can change.
The growth mindset has no final destination because growth is limitless, just like your own potential.