How to Shift to a Growth Mindset

Mindset is the established set of attitudes we hold, and according to world-renowned Stanford University psychologist Carol S. Dweck, Ph.D., it’s a powerful tool that profoundly affects how we live our lives. Dweck’s research shows that adopting a specific type of mindset – a growth mindset – will lead us to healthier, more productive, and more personally and professionally rewarding lives.

So what exactly is a growth mindset?

The Fixed versus Growth Mindset

To understand the difference between a fixed versus growth mindset, it’s best to see how we use it in our own lives by completing the following assessment from Dweck’s book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. For each question, circle the answer that most resonates with you.

1.  Your intelligence is something very basic about you that you can’t change very much.AgreeDisagree
2.  You can learn new things, but you can’t really change how intelligent you are.AgreeDisagree
3.  No matter how much intelligence you have, you can change it quite a bit.AgreeDisagree
4.  You can always substantially change how intelligent you are.AgreeDisagree
5.  You are a certain type of person, and there is not much that can be done to really change that.AgreeDisagree
6.  No matter what kind of person you are, you can always change substantially.AgreeDisagree
7.  You can do things differently, but the important part of who you are can’t really be changed.AgreeDisagree
8.  You can always change basic things about the kind of person you are.AgreeDisagree
From Carol S. Dweck, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success

If you answered “Agree” for questions 1, 2, 5 & 7, you likely have a more fixed mindset. If you answered  “Agree” for questions 3, 4, 6, & 8, you likely have a more growth mindset. Most of us have some combination of both, but this quick assessment will give you a sense of where you fall on the spectrum.

So what did you learn? Do you generally have a more fixed mindset or a growth mindset?

If you have a more fixed mindset, you generally believe that our abilities are set in stone; that everyone is dealt a hand of cards at birth and that’s the hand from which they have to work. Some of those cards are good, and some of them are bad. And for some people, their good cards outnumber ours. Because abilities are determined at birth, expending effort on strengthening them is fruitless. When we view the world through a fixed mindset, we tend to over-exaggerate our strengths and hide our weaknesses so we can be seen as successful.

A fixed mindset also focuses on outcomes. And because only good outcomes are acceptable, we tend to avoid or abandon challenges when they get difficult because we fear being seen as a failure. Through the lens of a fixed mindset, failure is a defining event and the worst kind of F-bomb.

On the other side of the spectrum, if you identify more with a growth mindset, you view the world differently. You believe abilities aren’t set in stone but can be cultivated with effort. You focus on the journey as opposed to outcomes and, instead of avoiding challenges, you tend to embrace them. Failure to someone with a growth mindset is something to celebrate because it’s an opportunity to grow.

Those of us with a growth mindset also believe anything can be learned and achieved. We don’t respond to a challenge saying, “I don’t know how to do this”, or, “I don’t know the answer.” Instead, our response is “I don’t know how to do this . . . yet” or “I don’t know the answer . . . yet.” While making such a small change might seem insignificant, the resulting impact is substantial.

Embracing Failure

Let’s talk more about failure. Traditionally, the legal profession has viewed failure as a (very) bad thing. Losing a case is bad. Failing to bill a million hours a year is bad. Not immediately knowing the answer to a question is bad. Not attending a Top 25 law school is bad. These events – and many others we can think of – are often not only seen as bad but as defining of the person experiencing them.

As we now understand thanks to Ms. Dweck, viewing these events as bad is simply the effect of a fixed mindset. And why is that so great? Because to live our happiest, healthiest, and most productive lives, all we need to do is change the lens through which we see these events. By embracing a growth mindset instead, we rid ourselves of limiting and harmful beliefs and instead see these events as opportunities.

How much less stress would we feel and how much more would we learn if we saw the case we lost not as a ‘loss’ but an outcome we can learn from? What if we focused on how much better our wellbeing is if we missed the billable hours requirement. Even better, what if we realized the billable hour metric itself threatens our wellbeing. What if we simply accepted the fact that none of us know the answer to every question and our abilities can be cultivated not limited by where we went to law school. Learning to celebrate failure is critical for us in both our personal and professional development and wellbeing.

Insight to Action

If you are like many of us and realize you’ve been approaching the world with a fixed mindset but are ready to change it, that’s great! The first step may feel a little odd, but it’s important: Embrace your current mindset. Where are you on the spectrum today? There is no wrong answer here, but understanding and embracing where you are currently is needed to change. Fun fact, according to Dweck, everyone has a little bit of both mindsets!

The second step is to become aware of your fixed mindset triggers. For example, perhaps when you start preparing for trial, that voice in your head whispers that you don’t have what it takes to convince the jury or judge to rule in your client’s favor. Or maybe every time you sit down to work on budgeting for your firm, that voice enters says you aren’t smart enough to figure it out. Or maybe when you failed to raise the amount of money your organization needs to hire an additional domestic violence advocate, that voice tells you you’re not well-liked enough and that’s why you failed to reach your goal. Whatever those triggering events are, recognize them when they happen so you can be ready the next time.

Finally, once you’ve identified the triggers, develop a plan to respond when the event happens in the future. For example, the next time you start preparing for trial, perhaps you remind yourself you’ve successfully represented clients at trial “x” number of times.  Or when you are working on budgeting, you tell that voice you aren’t great with numbers yet, but you’ll take steps to learn best budgeting practices. And when you don’t meet a goal you’ve been working towards, instead of focusing on the negative outcome, identify what you learned from the experience.

Shifting from a fixed to growth mindset isn’t easy, especially when we’ve practiced it for so many years. Making the change, however, has profound effects and is worth the effort. Go slow and know that you will fail, but that’s ok! That’s the whole point! Failing means your trying and you’re already on your way to growing.

Where do you fall on the mindset spectrum? What’s one thing you can do today to shift to a growth mindset?