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more about Mindset

| February 23, 2016

by Jim Bruce

Two weeks ago, the Tuesday Reading focused on Mindset – a habit of thinking that determines how we interpret and respond to situations.  There we introduced the concept of “fixed” and “growth” mindsets and how a child’s mindset impacts her or his approach to learning.  (Carol Dweck’s RSI ANNIMATE presentation on the subject is listed in the references below.)  Toward the end of the essay, I noted that recent research also suggests that our mindset affects our work and life as adults and argued that we should seek to have more of a growth mindset.
Two recent experiences made me more aware of the possibilities.  First, during last week’s 2016 Grammy Awards, the cast of “Hamilton” performed its opening number, which presents Alexander Hamilton’s abbreviated biography.  You can get the impact from just the first lines:
“How does a bastard, orphan, son of a whore and a 
Scotsman, dropped in the middle of a
Forgotten spot in the Caribbean by providence
Impoverished, in squalor
Grow up to be a hero and a scholar?”  (You can find the full text here.) 
Hamilton went on to be one of the most influential interpreters and promoters of the U.S. Constitution, the founder of our country’s financial system, and the first Secretary of the Treasury.  And, clearly to be a person we would agree had a “growth” mindset.
A second eye-popping experience last week was the story of Eddie George.  George won the Heisman trophy and then went on to a successful pro football career for nine years.  And, he has gone on from there to the Broadway stage, not just as a name that draws crowds, but as a legitimate performer.  How did he do it?  He started from the ground up.  He took drama classes, voice lessons, and studied Shakespeare.  He showed up with the intention to get better and better.  And, he too has a growth mindset.
Professor Dweck sums up having a growth mindset by saying:  “Individuals who believe their talents can be developed (through hard work, good strategies, and input from others) have a growth mindset.  They tend to achieve more than those with a more fixed mindset. … This is because they worry less about looking smart and put more energy into learning.  When entire companies embrace a growth mindset, their employees report feeling far more empowered and committed, they also receive far greater organizational support for collaboration and innovation.”
So, what would you do if you wanted to move to having more of a growth mindset?  Here’s a plan:
1.  Believe that your brain can change, that it works like a muscle.  Every time you work hard to learn, you stretch yourself and learn something new, your brain forms new connections.  As you use what you’ve learned, the connections become stronger.  What you strive for and what you see as success changes.  By changing the definition, significance, and impact of failure, you change the deepest meaning of effort.
2.  Learn to hear your “fixed mindset” voice.  As you approach a challenge or a new opportunity, this voice may ask whether you’re sure you can do it, whether you have the necessary skills, or what if you fail, as well as note that if you don’t try you can protect yourself and keep your dignity.  And, if you do fail, the voice might say, “I told you so, you don’t have what it takes.”  You may even try to point out, to yourself or to others, that it was something or someone else’s fault.
3.  Recognize you have a choice.  How you interpret what you hear – challenges, setbacks, criticism – is a choice.  You can listen to and interpret what you hear with a fixed mindset frame of reference, a framework that says your fixed talents and abilities are lacking.  Or, you can hear and interpret with a growth mindset point of view, observing signs that you need to step up, strengthen your strategies and effort, stretch yourself, and extend your abilities.  It’s up to you.
4.  Talk back in a growth mindset voice.  Respond to the “Are you sure you can do it?” with “I’m not sure I can yet, but I believe I can learn with time and effort.”  To “What if you fail, what will people think?” with “Most successful people are failures along the way.”  Learn this word “yet.”  This simple, very powerful, word reminds us that though we are not there yet, we are on the way, moving and growing, making sure progress.
5.  Take the growth mindset option.  Step up, take on the opportunity or challenge, learn from setbacks, act on the feedback you hear.
6.  Persist.  Make persistence and working to overcome setbacks a practice.  Many successful people have developed this skill.  Early research on “grit, which is long-term perseverance and passion towards a singular goal, has linked this characteristic to success in learning and life.
From all I know, there’s no downside to a true growth mindset.  It’s something that we all should strive for.  Both personally, and for our organizations.  So, in the coming week, watch and listen to what your mind is saying back to you when those new opportunities arise.  And, if what you’re hearing is from a fixed mindset point of view, stop, explore carefully what is being said, and then move forward, hopefully is a growth mindset way.
Make it a great week.  .  .  .     jim

Jim Bruce is a Senior Fellow and Executive Coach at MOR Associates, and Professor of Electrical Engineering, Emeritus, and CIO, Emeritus, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA.
Carol Dweck, RSI ANNIMATE: How to Help Every Child Fulfill Their Potential
Lin-Manuel Miranda, Hamilton
Wikipedia, Alexander Hamilton
CBS News, From Football to Broadway, Eddie George Knows a Good Play
Carol Dweck,  What Having A “Growth Mindset” Actually Means, HBR
How you you change from a fixed mindset to a growth mindset?, MINDSET website
How Do You Actually Develop Mindset, INNERDRIVE Blog