Could the conservative side of you be preventing you from taking action? Do you believe that growth is possible or that you’re bound to be a certain way forever? In this article, we’ll unpack a crucial concept for self-mastery: that of the growth mindset and fixed mindset.
These two mentalities are archetypes guiding how we view ourselves and our abilities. Knowledge of them will help you identify when you’re shooting yourself in the foot and enable you to make empowering changes. This concept comes from Carol Dweck, who studied these two mentalities in her classic book Mindset.
The beauty of this simple contrast in mentalities lies in its explanatory power. These opposing dispositions have a clear impact on our results and life trajectory. They lead to predictable differences in our behaviour, actions and life experiences.
People with a growth mindset tend to have better relationships, a higher capacity for learning and an ability to use criticism to their advantage. Fortunately, while we tend towards one or the other, we aren’t inherently growth-minded or fixed-minded, and we can actively adopt behaviours, habits and thought patterns characteristic of the growth mentality.
Make sure to check out my YouTube video on growth mindset v fixed mindset too.
Let’s begin by exploring one side of this coin.
What is The Fixed Mindset?
The backbone of the fixed mentality is the belief that our qualities are fixed.
You hold this belief if you believe that you are either intelligent or not, artistic or not, mathematical or not, or similar. Watch out for this simplistic, black-and-white dichotomising.
The fixed-mindset person gives enormous weight to seeming innate ability and God-given dispositions. If they lack competence in an area, it’s because they were born with the wrong genes, were unlucky or are just inherently inept.
Unfortunately, this is a self-fulfilling prophecy. These disempowering beliefs prevent this person from ever trying to develop competence in areas that attract them, which only reinforces their sense of inferiority. And any signs of weakness or moments of failure, far from being signposts that guide their way towards growth and improvement, are actually indications of their flawed and insufficient nature.
Think about it. If you believe your qualities are fixed, you strongly identify with those qualities and believe they accurately reflect you. And when those qualities are scrutinised, you feel attacked.
Risk, challenge, tinkering and effort are fearsome – the “nothing ventured nothing lost” attitude prevails in their place. When I picture the fixed mentality, the mental image that comes to me is that of a cage, which is exactly what this way of thinking places around us. The more we identify with this way of thinking, the less room for manoeuvre our cage affords us, and the more rigid our thought patterns, behaviours and ways are.
But let’s be balanced, too, and try to understand the fixed mindset. Really, our conservative side is what brings about this mental structure. Without continuity and a sense of solidity, we would be unable to exist as we know it, both biologically, psychologically and culturally. It is a protection mechanism that sometimes inadvertently causes the opposite of what it intends.
Time to look at the growth mindset.
What is The Growth Mindset?
The cornerstone of the growth mentality is the belief that our qualities are malleable and that we can learn, grow and improve.
Some tell-tale signs of this mentality are a keen interest in learning and asking questions, an emphasis on volume of practice and level of dedication over innate talent, and an attitude of exploration and curiosity.
The growth-minded person essentially sees their level of competence to depend on the number of hours spent practicing and honing, rather than on luck, genes or their inherent nature. Whether I am able tomorrow depends on the blood lost, sweat spilled and tears shed today.
Their focus is on practice – hours, days, weeks, months and years spent learning, applying and grafting. They take solace in practice, knowing that it marks their path to glory. And in the best of examples, it is done without expectation or impatience, but with poise, peace and purpose. The master loves the practice – it’s his favourite chair.
Rather than avoiding errors, the growth-minded person treasures them. Every error, if it informs us, is a step in the right direction. So they are willing to get their hands dirty, make mistakes and create failure.
While the mental cage of limitation and inability traps the fixed-mindset person, the growth-mindset person believes their potential is unknowable. They look back at their previous selves, wonder at their own transformation, and look forward with joy and excitement at who they could become.
Let’s look more closely at the pros and cons of the fixed mindset.
Gifts And Gremlins Of The Fixed Mindset
We want to experience the positives of this mentality without its shortcomings blindsiding us. A healthy dose of the fixed mentality is good for us. Here’s why.
There is wisdom here. For one thing, fixed-mindset people are free of the insatiable drive for constant self-improvement. They’re more likely to say: “I’m already enough, I’m happy with my current level.” That points to a certain level of self-acceptance that we should all aspire to cultivate, as long we retain a healthy level of self-esteem.
Their eyes are not on the prize. They focus more on the process rather than the fruits of it, and can celebrate and take a break rather than continually striving for more.
Endless promotions, being number one and perpetual progress take a back seat, and instead the fixed-mindset person just enjoys where they are. How can we ever enjoy life if we always desire more? At what point do we get off the transformation treadmill and just chill out?
Self-acceptance, gratitude and enjoyment of the present are every bit as important as learning and growing, and the fixed mentality can show us how to find those.
Now let’s look at some of the gremlins of this way of thinking.
For me, the standout gremlin of the fixed mentality is that it draws from false premises. The idea that we just are a certain way is blatant BS. And as I mentioned, it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you want to learn a language but also believe that you are inherently incapable of doing so, guess what? You can say adieu to polyglottery.
And while it’s true that in some ways the fixed mentality brings a level of self-acceptance, I usually find it in people who have spent their lives second-guessing their desires and taking zero action towards making their dreams a reality. The cause might be a crippling lack of self-esteem, and the avoidance of criticism points to a deeper lack of self-assurance.
The resistance to failure is fateful. All meaningful learning involves failure. You fall down, and you get back up. You get thrown off the horse, and you climb back on. The fixed-mindset person is so desperate to mask signs of incompetency that they fail to learn. This has the exact opposite effect to that intended, and they consign themselves to being second-rate.
No learning means stagnation. Why bother trying to switch career if it’s impossible? Why devote myself to a musical instrument when I lack innate talent?
And finally, this mentality is fundamentally disempowering. It has us put the cause of our successes and shortcomings outside ourselves. Luck, genes, parents, our country, you name it. Whatever brings about the events in our lives, it’s not us.
Dang, that was heavy. But it’s my duty to be up front about the fixed mindset.
Now let’s look at the good and bad of the growth mindset.
Gifts and Gremlins of the Growth Mindset
This way of thinking is great, but it has its weaknesses. We’ll cover those after the gifts.
Perhaps the greatest advantage of this mentality is that it’s fundamentally empowering. It brings a can-do attitude, even in the face of immense obstacles.
The growth-mindset person is ready to roll up their sleeves and jump in, scoffing at objections and calls for realism. They bypass any apparent blocks by simply working hard. Persistence and patience is the name of the game, regardless of the task at hand. They can go from zero to hero in a number of pursuits, much to the astonishment of reluctant bystanders.
And this way of thinking opens our mental doors and has us shoot for levels of competence and flourishing far beyond our current level. This means our potential excites us rather than scaring us, and we relish the challenge of realising it in the real world.
People automatically assume that this mentality trumps all. But it does have a pernicious side, and when left to its own devices it may become pathological. Let’s see why that is.
Well, an excessive, insatiable thirst for growth may mean that we never feel fulfilled. We see our current self to be in need of constant improvement.
In fact, it could be that we strive for growth precisely because we lack self-esteem. Outwardly, our disposition for growth is fruitful and productive, but beneath it are rotten inner foundations. We work so hard trying to climb the mountain that we forget to look inside and cultivate unconditional self-love. And in the individualistic West, we are apt to venerate this mentality given that the working of our society virtually rests on it.
We may forget to celebrate our victories and appreciate what has come before, instead opting to chase further advancement in an attempt to fill that hole inside of us. You have to wonder, if all that expansion does nothing for your contentment, why even bother with it?
How To Cultivate A Healthy Mentality
The growth mindset is wonderful, but we should recognises the pros of the fixed mindset and incorporate them. Everything in moderation, as my gran would say.
Growth, growth, growth with no inner care and no actual increase in fulfilment is pointless. But the fixed mentality can equally strip us of life force and leave us stuck in a never-ending rut.
So, flexibility is the name of the game, and ultimately our inner dials should allow us to incline towards expansion when required and retain the ability to contract too.
If you’re stuck with an unhealthy belief that says you are fixed, try cultivating the opposite by looking at successful people and imitating their mentality, habits and routines. Also turn inside and ask why you believe you’re fundamentally limited. Perhaps some deep inner work is required to unearth those disempowering assumptions and hardened thought patterns. Check out my article on developing mastery if you find the fixed mindset is holding you back.