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Researcher Carol Dweck first introduced the concept of a fixed mindset and a growth mindset. Much of her research is on how this pertains to children, and their ability to learn. The idea has far-reaching implications though, and while it certainly applies to teaching kids (about anything, not just school subjects), it applies to us as well. We are always growing and changing. We can always learn new things. But if we don’t believe that we can change, if we believe that we just “are who we are,” then our potential for change drastically diminishes.
A fixed mindset is one in which we believe that we just ARE a certain way about things. These can be either positive or negative things that we think about ourselves.
Here are some examples:
I suck at running
I’m great at art
I can’t draw to save my life
I’m good at math
I can’t cook
All of these statements may have some element of truth to them (for example, I really am bad at running). But the key here is that the mindset of saying “I am” or “I can’t” is one which doesn’t leave any room for improvement. Thinking in this way keeps you stuck precisely where you are, with no desire, urge, or inclination to try to change or improve it.
A fixed mindset is essentially settling for the status quo. “It is what it is” and this is also how it always will be.
We can fairly easily see how this way of thinking isn’t helpful when it comes to things we’re not good at. We end up stuck in a negative place. But what’s so bad about being stuck or fixed in a place where you consider yourself good at something?
It prevents you from getting even better.
Even if you already are good at something, like art, or dance, or running, you can almost always improve. Smart people still need to study to learn new things. Runners still need to practice to get faster or more efficient at running. Gymnasts still need to train to be ready for the Olympics, etc.
Additionally, if you identify as a “smart” person, and then don’t study and fail a test, it feels like a personal failure. The one failed test feels like a personal assault to your identity as a smart person, like “I thought I was smart! This test tells me differently. Who even AM I anymore?”
So a fixed mindset doesn’t really help us much in either the positive or negative scenario.
And speaking of the negative side of things, if you’re NOT good at something right now, that’s okay. The secret to shifting that fixed mindset toward a more growth-oriented one is one simple word:
If you’re not good at running (like me), you can either see that as a destiny to always be bad at running, OR you can see it as a starting point, from which you can improve. I’m not a good runner… YET. With practice, I can get better. (That is, of course, if I want to be better at running, which I honestly don’t. But I could. More on this later.)
The same is true of art, or sports, or cooking. It’s okay if you’re not great at those things right now. But with a growth mindset, and the knowledge that you’re able to learn and improve, you can practice and get BETTER at those things.
A growth mindset is a glimmer of hope in all things. No matter what you’re not good at, or can’t quite do, you’re not set in stone at your current place. There is always the ability to improve.
I’m an emotional eater
I’ve always been heavy, it’s just meant to be
I can’t cook
I’m addicted to sugar and can’t control myself around sweets
I hate vegetables
These are some really common fixed mindsets that I see in my work with clients. All of these have a negative spin, where the person feels stuck in a place that they don’t actually like, but they don’t see a way out of it.
The fixed mindset keeps them in that place! Identifying yourself as an emotional eater means surrendering to the idea that food will always be the only way in which you cope with tough emotions.
But we can challenge that narrative.
If we rephrase these statements into growth-mindset statements, we suddenly feel a sense of hope, a sense that we’re not actually as stuck as we thought we were:
I’ve always eaten in response to tough emotions, but I can practice trying other ways to deal with them.
I may be heavy, but I can make a few changes to my habits or lifestyle to become healthier and maybe also lose weight.
I can’t cook well yet, but I can learn to make some new things and practice some cooking skills.
I really like sweet foods, but they don’t hold power over me. I can practice finding a moderate approach to them.
I’m not a fan of most vegetables, but I can try new ones or cook some of them differently to find ones I do like.
In all of these rephrases, the facts haven’t changed. Someone who isn’t good at cooking doesn’t start thinking “I’m a good cook.” They’re still not good at cooking… YET. So they acknowledge where they currently are, and see that there is a way to improve with practice in the future.
We all have them. Even positive ones like “I’m smart.” And all of them keep us stuck where we are.
As I mentioned above in relation to my running abilities: it’s okay to stay stuck where you are if you WANT to be there. If you have no desire to get better at running, or cooking, or studying, or anything else, that’s completely your choice. We certainly don’t need to always be actively working on improving every aspect of our existence (I’m exhausted just thinking about that)!
But if you WANT to make a change, like find ways to deal with emotions that aren’t food-related, or learn to cook so you don’t have to order take-out so much, then call out your fixed mindsets and try to rephrase them. Don’t accept defeat before you even begin. Give yourself the hope that come from knowing change IS possible.
Find things you feel stuck at, that you want to improve, and come up with new ways of thinking about how you CAN improve at those things. Post it in the comments below if you like! I’d be happy to help you find growth-mindset versions of your current fixed thoughts!