A lot of people think intelligence, or innate talent, is responsible for success. It seems to make sense, right? But actually, that’s not quite true. It’s the people who keep growing that come up with the best ideas and are willing to take the risk of trying something new.
There are basically two mindsets you can have when it comes to learning: a fixed mindset, or a growth mindset. A fixed mindset assumes your outcomes are determined by your intelligence and talent, which can’t be changed; a growth mindset assumes you can get stronger, better, and smarter over time by learning.
The danger of being a genius or an expert in a certain field is that it’s easy to fall into an ego-driven fixed mindset, where you’re so busy maintaining your image as the smartest or best, you become afraid to try new things for fear of making a mistake in front of someone. “Experts” often end up very attached to their pet ways of doing things, to the point that they’ll fight passionately for their use over other methods, even when their approach really doesn’t make sense.
It’s not just experts, though. Anyone can fall into the fixed mindset trap. If you believe that you’re smart and people expect it of you, you can become afraid to try new things and appear stupid or incompetent. Meanwhile, if you believe that you’re dumb, you can also become afraid to try new things, because you believe you’re doomed to failure. Both of these are symptoms of a fixed mindset, and either way, they stop you from learning and growing.
How to recognize a fixed mindset
People with a fixed mindset tend to stay in their comfort zones as much as possible. They feel threatened by:
- challenges—what if I don’t have what it takes to meet this challenge?
- obstacles—what if I can’t figure out how to get around this obstacle?
- having to expend a lot of effort—if talent is what counts, why should I have to work this hard? Will it buy me anything?
- criticism—the things I’ve done reflect my abilities, so criticism of my work is a criticism of me
- others’ success—if they do something I haven’t, it’s probably because they’re smarter or better than me, so I can never catch up, and it makes me look stupid by comparison
- new ideas or approaches—if what I already know isn’t enough, that means I’m obsolete
I recognize more of myself in this than I like to admit. Every time I’ve tried a new hobby, I’ve found myself frustrated that I wasn’t immediately good at it. Playing roller hockey, spinning yarn, contra dancing, autocross, painting—with each one, I got very frustrated and discouraged at how bad I was at it and how much better everyone else was, even though I knew that was ridiculous. Nobody is born knowing how to do any of those things. Some people pick them up faster than others, but everybody has to learn and practice if they want to get good. That’s just how life works. But somehow I still find myself thinking “I’m smart, so I should be good at this!”
Worse than that, I’ve let some of my skills atrophy because the world moved on without me, and I was too intimidated to learn the new stuff. When the internet was first becoming mainstream, I was on the cutting edge. Unfortunately, I haven’t moved much beyond cutting edge, circa 1998. Needless to say, I’ve been left in the dust. It’s not that I couldn’t learn Ruby on Rails or CSS or any of that stuff…but I didn’t. I never realized why it all seemed so menacing to me, but it must come from a fixed mindset. By being afraid of becoming obsolete, I made myself obsolete in an area that was my best strength.
The problem with a fixed mindset is that it limits you to never being much better than you are now. In contrast, a growth mindset approaches the brain like a muscle that can be strengthened and developed. Challenges and obstacles are just opportunities to get stronger. Things that require effort teach you useful skills and help you grow. Criticism shows you areas where you can improve. Other people’s success does not diminish your own, but offers lessons for how you can become more successful, too. New ideas allow you to build on what you know and make it even better.
How to change
I think just recognizing the difference between these two mindsets is a good first step. Now that I understand how my fixed mindset was limiting me, I want to take on a growth mindset as quickly as possible in all areas. In fact, I should already be good at it now! (Just kidding.)
If you accept the premise that your mind can grow and improve with exercise, make sure your outlook matches. When you try something new, you may find yourself automatically reacting with a fixed mindset thought, such as “This looks hard–what if I fail?” or “Oh no, I suck at this, and everyone can see it!” That’s ok, just catch yourself and dispute it. Remind yourself that your goal is to grow. You’re learning and practicing and expanding—that is the way to get better, not staying home and acting cool. Choose to see challenges, obstacles, and criticism as opportunities to learn. Stretch yourself by trying new things that you’ve never done before. Don’t let your fear limit you–grow!