Reading: Is Your Mindset Sabotaging Your Success?

Mind Health

Is Your Mindset Sabotaging Your Success?

Opening your mind to both challenge and failure can lead to more wins

By Erin Olivo, Ph.D.

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Photo by Julien McRoberts

Imagine this scenario:

Your boss gives you a difficult assignment that is outside the scope of anything you’ve done before. Your first thought is:

A: Crap! This is going to be hard and I’m not sure I have what it takes to get it done. What if I fail?
B: Oh boy, I have to prove myself. I have to knock this out of the park so she can see how talented I am!
C: This is going to be a challenge, but I’m definitely going to learn a lot from it.

If you answered A or B, your mindset may be holding you back from being more successful, both personally and professionally. Mindset has a profound impact on how you live and how happy you feel. Here’s the interesting part: Though your mindset is developed over the course of your life, as a result of experiences you’ve had, it’s actually under your control. You can also influence the mindset of people around you.

Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck says there are two distinct types of mindset. People with a “fixed mindset” (FM) believe their fundamental qualities, such as intelligence or talent, are static traits that can’t be changed; they believe that potential is determined at birth, and success is an affirmation of inherited abilities. By contrast, people with a “growth mindset” (GM) believe that their fundamental qualities can be cultivated, and that hard work and perseverance will make them good at whatever they decide to focus on. Research has proven that growth mindsets lead to perseverance, motivation, better performance, and ultimately to success. Fixed mindsets, however, lead to less confidence, less curiosity, and a propensity to give up more easily.

Now you may be saying to yourself, “I value hard work and learning, so I definitely have a growth mindset.” But don’t be so sure. I thought the same thing and found out that I was wrong — and I’m a psychologist! Here’s how to determine which mindset you’re in and, if yours is fixed, how to change that.

How do you approach setbacks or failures?
GMs view setbacks as opportunities to learn and improve; FMs feel defined by them. Fixed mindsetters don’t think, “I failed,” they think, “I’m a failure.” Perhaps as a defense against those negative thoughts, FMs have a hard time admitting, and therefore correcting, mistakes. Failures feel like evidence that contradicts their talents, causing them to feel threatened. Have you ever told a white lie about your SAT scores or your college GPA? That is your FM trying to protect you.

How do you evaluate a challenge?

FMs approach new or challenging situations warily; they think, “I don’t know if I’ve got what it takes to do this” (see answer A above). GMs approach challenges with openness and curiosity, asking, “Will this allow me to learn something?” In Dweck’s research, she offered four-year-old children the option of completing an easy puzzle they had already mastered or a more difficult puzzle. Mindset predicted behavior: FM children chose the easy puzzle, likely to avoid the risk of being seen as not smart, while the GM children were adventurous, choosing the new puzzle. Dweck’s studies showed mindset has a direct influence on school grades and confidence levels.

How do you feel about your abilities?
GMs believe they can learn anything they want to. They see effort and attitude as more important determinants of outcome than natural ability. By contrast, FMs believe they are either good at something or not good at it. Have you ever found yourself saying, “I’m not good at math,” or “My brain just can’t master a foreign language”? That’s your FM popping up!

How do you handle the success of others?
FMs are more likely to feel threatened by other people’s success. Their mindset promotes fear of scarcity, the sense that there’s limited opportunity for success in the world. GMs find other people’s success inspiring and feel motivated to do more and do better.

What are your motivations?
FMs are motivated by a need to look smart and prove themselves (see answer B above), while GMs are motivated by a love of learning and a desire to broaden their experiences. A fixed mindset promotes a strong focus on outcomes, so FMs are likely to opt out of a challenge rather than risk failure. GMs are more likely to invite new challenges and look for opportunities to stretch themselves. If you answered C to the question above, then you have a GM approach.

If you recognized yourself in one or more of the above examples of FM, don’t be discouraged. The great news is that you are in charge of how you think — and you can actively change your mindset around any particular issue. And mindsets aren’t black and white. You could have a GM generally but have an FM on some particular issue. Or vice versa. If you think there’s too much FM in your mental mix, take the following three steps to becoming more GM:

1. Pay attention to your self-talk, your actions and reactions, and be willing to admit when your mindset seems fixed. I know this can feel like a full-time job, since it’s been estimated that about 65,000 thoughts go through our minds each day. But deciding to deliberately tune in and observe yourself is the key to intercepting the negativity.

2. Push past the negativity. Once you’ve noticed the disparaging, fearful, self-defeating, or jealous voices in your head, ask yourself some questions: How else could I view these events? What else could I try? Why didn’t this approach work? What can I learn? Questions loosen the hold of the fixed mindset and allow the brain to cultivate more flexible thoughts and behaviors.

3. Take a risk. Now that you’ve started to think more flexibly, push yourself to show up in a different way, to play a different role, or try on a new response. Breaking your habit of making choices based on a mindset that is reflexive, defensive, and restrictive will allow your intelligence and talent to lead you to even greater success.

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