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Always Learning: Embracing the Core of a Growth Mindset

Growth Mindset is one of the big buzzwords these days; it seems like I can’t spend 10 minutes on LinkedIn or Instagram without seeing a post on the wonders of having a growth mindset, or on the different characteristics of growth mindset vs. fixed mindset. Everybody’s got these checklists of how to tell whether your mindset is growth or fixed, but it’s rare to see someone talk about how to change your mindset.

I don’t know about you, but there was a while when I was worried about myself with respect to growth vs. fixed mindset. When I looked at those lists of characteristics, I identified a lot with some of the fixed mindset ones. See if you relate to any of these stereotypical fixed mindset characteristics in the same way I did:

  • Attributing success to innate talent rather than practice and hard work: I can easily do this, both about the people I’m observing around me as well as myself. It’s particularly bad when I’m watching professional sports, or anything else where people are really good at what they’re doing.
  • Focusing on comparison: For me, this ties in with the previous one; when I attribute success to innate talent, it’s much easier to go down the road of “And I’m not as talented as they are.”
  • Perceiving criticism as a personal attack: I posted about this a while back. Nobody, myself included, likes getting criticized, and it has historically been easy for me to get stuck in the feelings about that.
  • Focusing on performance goals: I don’t focus on them exclusively, but when I’m setting goals for myself, they’re often performance goals and not learning goals. Even my learning goals are sometimes performance goals; when I started seriously studying Japanese, my goal was to be able to read Harry Potter in Japanese.
  • Fear of failure: Umm, yeah? It’s obviously not a paralyzing fear, because I’m out here doing stuff, but I’ve certainly got some of this, as does almost everyone I talk to.

But, ignore all that crap for a minute. One thing that I firmly believe, and have for a long time, is that I can get better1. In my mind, that’s the one core requirement of a growth mindset: the belief that you yourself can get better at things. All the rest is just window dressing, or indicative, or nice-to-have.

I was talking with my dad the other day, and I was telling him about some of the stuff I’m doing these days. After I had finished, he said something like “That’s consistent with what I’ve observed about you over the years. You’re always learning something new.”

That stuck in my head, because it hadn’t really been a part of the way I think about myself. I hadn’t seen myself as always learning something new, I just saw myself as doing the next thing that’s in front of me.

But, thinking about it, it’s pretty much true that I’ve always been learning something new. I went directly from undergrad into graduate school for my PhD. Shortly after I got my PhD, I was bored at my job and started studying Japanese. Not too long after that, I was promoted and spent time learning how to be a better manager.

A few years later, I had more free mindspace and took up Japanese again. Recently, I’ve been learning coaching, and social media, and honing both my public speaking and my Japanese skills. All throughout that, I’ve been learning smaller things related to my hobbies of cooking and working out—new recipes, new workout strategies, etc.

Now, what this really turns out to be is the result of a growth mindset in practice. Like me, some of you probably read some of the lists about what identifies a fixed mindset, identify with it, and think “Oh my god, that’s me, I’m doomed!” I know I’ve had those moments. If that’s also you, I’d ask you to take a step back and ask yourself one very simple question:

What have I gotten better at?

Think back 10-20 years. Compare your current skill level at anything—speaking, reading, playing an instrument, knowing how to navigate social situations, your job—to how you were then.

Outside of aging-related decline, or illness, it’s the rare person indeed who doesn’t do quite a few things better now than they did 10-20 years ago. Now, it turns out that there is a psychological phenomenon called the End-of-History Illusion, where people tend to underestimate how much they will change in the future, even knowing how much they have changed in the past.

But, the fact of the matter is that however much you changed in the past 10-20 years is probably about as much as you will change over the next 10-20 years. If you’ve learned some new things over that time, you’re capable of learning even more new things going forward.

And, just as muscles grow and get stronger with exercise, our brains also grow and get stronger with exercise. So, if you’re worried about your ability to grow and change, I’d encourage you to look at how much you’ve grown and changed in the past. If you don’t think you can learn new things, I’d encourage you to look at all the things you’ve learned in the past. Once you’ve done that, if you start getting stuck in the thoughts of not being able to grow or change, remind yourself how much you’ve already grown and changed.

  1. I also firmly believe that you can get better, which is important given my choice of career. 😊

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