I was an almost straight-A student in college. I ended up receiving honors for academic achievement in my field of study at graduation. One of my hardest classes was a politics class. In this class I received the worst grade I had ever gotten on an exam. It was the first out of three exams in the class and involved an exam paper responding to a very specific prompt and a close reading of a text we had been studying. In the end, I completely misread the text. So, I wrote a response that therefore didn’t answer the prompt, and got a C on the exam. I was devastated.
I never thought that I placed my worth in my grades. Of course, I always enjoyed doing well and receiving the praise of my teachers and parents. But in that moment, I realized that I had been placing too much of my value into the number that would appear on my paper.
Immediately I tried to manufacture reasons in my head as to how I could’ve gotten that grade. I held up my previous grades, intellectual ability, and hard work as proof that I should have scored better. I am embarrassed to admit now that I compared myself against those in my class who I didn’t view as intellectual equals. “How could I have scored the same as someone who doesn’t participate in class or who started the paper the night before it was due when I spent all week on it?” I thought to myself.
But I had a skewed view of how intellect works. I thought, though I wouldn’t have admitted it, even to myself, that each person had a given amount of “smartness.” While you could improve in different skills, of course, you couldn’t change how “smart” you were. I had what psychologist Carol Dweck calls a fixed mindset.
Fixed Mindset vs. Growth Mindset
In her book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, Dweck asks the reader to evaluate whether or not they agree with the following statements:
- Your intelligence is something very basic about you that you can’t change very much.
- You can learn new things, but you can’t really change how intelligent you are.
- No matter how much intelligence you have, you can always change it quite a bit.
- You can always substantially changehow intelligent you are.
You can probably guess the pattern by now. If you feel yourself agreeing more with the first two statements, you are probably stuck in a fixed mindset. Whereas, statements three and four demonstrate a growth mindset.
But fixed and growth mindsets do not just have to do with intelligence and ability. Consider these statements about personality and character:
- You are a certain kind of person, and there is not much that can be done to really change that.
- No matter what kind of person you are, you can always change substantially.
- You can do things differently, but the important parts of who you are can’t really be changed.
- You can always change basic things about the kind of person you are.
Those with a growth mindset will seek out and thrive on a challenge. In contrast, those with a fixed mindset might be hesitant to start something they don’t think they will be good at. People with a growth mindset will have no problem bringing up ideas to their spouse about something they might like to do differently in their relationship. Yet, those with a fixed mindset might see that as a failure to meet their partner’s needs. People with a growth mindset will know that you need to work hard to learn a new skill. However, if a task doesn’t come easily to someone with a fixed mindset, they might assume that it’s not for them.
What Are You Telling Yourself?
The two are not equated to each other, but someone with a fixed mindset will be more likely to find him or herself in the victim circle often. People with a fixed mindset are prone to thinking that the world is out to get them, or even that they’re simply just unlucky. Confronted with failure, those with a fixed mindset feel worthless. They staked all their hopes on proving themselves to be successful.
So how do we cultivate a growth mindset? It has a lot to do with the messages we tell ourselves, which take time to change, especially when they have been ingrained in us from childhood.
For example, if people praised you when you could accomplish a task quickly and easily, you might need to change your mindset to believe that if you did something right the first time, that you weren’t challenging yourself enough. Understanding that setbacks are a good thing and an opportunity for learning can be the first step towards a growth mindset.
Or perhaps people labeled you as a “bad kid” and you have struggled with confidence in your abilities. Oftentimes people who society has not held to high standards have a hard time expecting themselves to do well. In that case, learning to not expect failure when you start a new task can help you achieve things you never thought possible.
With many of the Servant Leadership tools, we try to make them tangible and practical by giving you graphs and checklists: but there is no checklist for re-orienting your perception of intellect and stagnation. Instead, there is a slow process of changing your internal dialogue and holding new beliefs in tandem with your old ones. Dweck says that completely getting rid of your fixed mindset beliefs is an unrealistic goal. Rather, you can tame your fixed mindset by identifying its triggers, which requires system 2 thinking, and seek out opportunities for learning and growth every day.
I will not pretend to have a perfect growth mindset now. However, I am glad that I started the process towards one back in that politics class. The professor graciously offered office hours to anyone who wanted to discuss their exam papers. I signed up, but not because I really believed I could grow. I hated this feeling of failure and couldn’t stand to let it happen again. In the end, I was desperately seeking out a reason for the grade other than a lack of intellect.
I felt almost ready to cry walking into the office of the man who had deemed my paper worthy of the worst grade of my academic career. Instead, I found that he didn’t view me any differently than he had before I turned in the paper. He kindly and plainly explained my misreading and offered up the correct one. He didn’t view me as “less smart” for my mistake. In fact, he even strove to be so incredibly fair in his grading that he had us turn in our papers without our names on them. This way he could grade them blind, not letting his perception of a student’s ability cloud what they had written.
I took his advice to heart and applied myself throughout the next unit to understand each text. I improved my next exam grade to a B. While I did learn about American politics that semester, I more importantly began to really believe that my failure does not define me, and that having to try again means I’m on the right path.
Gracie McBride is the Content and Systems Management Coordinator for The Crossroad.