A fixed mindset could be holding you back — here’s how to change it

It seems counterintuitive, but trying to build a child’s self-esteem by constantly praising them might actually create a brittle, fragile person.

“It turns out that’s kind of backfired on us,” says Professor Jill Klein from the University of Melbourne’s business and medical schools.

She says indiscriminate adulation doesn’t foster resilience or happiness in a growing human. Rather, children and adults alike need to manage — and expect — both successes and failures.

“Our mistake was thinking that you build robust self-esteem by telling kids ‘you’re brilliant, you’re so smart, everybody wins, nobody loses, everybody gets a trophy’,” Professor Klein says.

“It’s led to a fixed mindset.”

Mindset theory looks at how whether we perceive abilities as learned or innate, and how we view and recover from mistakes or failure.

It places our mindsets in one of two categories: fixed or growth.

Ways to develop a growth mindset

  • Acknowledge and embrace your weaknesses
  • View challenges as opportunities
  • Try different learning tactics: what works for one person may not work for you
  • Replace the word ‘failing’ with the word ‘learning’
  • Make a new goal for every goal accomplished
  • Value the process over the end result
  • Celebrate growth with others

A person of fixed mindset, Professor Klein explains, believes intelligence and abilities are fixed entities.

“You have a certain amount of intelligence and there isn’t that much you can do about it.”

But raising someone to believe they don’t need to develop skills because they’re brilliant at everything they do is difficult to sustain, she says.

“When the world starts to be a bit more honest with you about what your strengths and weaknesses actually are, and you start hearing negative things about yourself, if you’ve developed a fixed mindset you become very brittle,” she says.

“If you either have it or you don’t, when something suggests you don’t have it — a failure or a set-back or hearing criticism — that is a big blow to identity.

“There’s a defensiveness. You either blame failures or setbacks on other people or you deflect criticism. If you can’t do that — it can lead to a real crisis [including] depression.”

Someone with a growth mindset, on the other hand, believes intelligence and abilities are malleable, and can change and develop through practice, study, feedback and working through setbacks.

They are likely to bounce back better from failure, as it’s an opportunity to develop or improve their skills.

Is your mindset holding you back at work?

Technological developments are changing our workplaces, and these changes can mean workers are required to learn different skills from the ones that have made them successful in the past.

If you have a fixed mindset you could struggle more than others to adapt.

Professor Klein says such a person is likely to think “I don’t have those and I want to stay where I’m recognised as being great at something. That’s what’s safer.”

But if you have a growth mindset, Professor Klein says, you’re more likely to think “I built those abilities through a lot of experience and practice and set-backs, and I can build new abilities that way as well”.

And it isn’t only individuals that gain advantage from a growth mindset: Professor Klein says workplaces can adopt one too.

By encouraging staff to learn from mistakes, rather than chastising them for making them, the workplace benefits, she says.

She says entire workplace cultures benefit when they have a mindset that supports the development of everyone.

“When workers see an organisation as a growth mindset organisation they feel more supported, there’s more trust, they feel like they can be innovative, take chances and try new things,” she says.

“Particularly when organisations want to be more innovative and more adaptive to change, there’s a lot of good outcomes that come from being growth mindset.”

The same is true in the sports arena.

At the Australian institute of Sport, where Professor Klein teaches these concepts to Olympic coaches, they are recognising that a fixed mindset is not the best mindset to work with.

“They say they would much rather pick a kid whose current ability is a little lower, like a sprinter who’s a little bit slower…but who responds to coaching and seems enthusiastic about learning, than a kid who seems brittle in the face of coaching.

“They know that the kid who’s a little slower will end up being faster.”

Doctors, deadly consequences and mindset

But does the growth mindset work in jobs that are a matter of life and death?

As Professor Klein says, a mistake in the business sector — even a major one — will only result in “losing some money”.

For trainee doctors it’s a different story.

“Make a small mistake and it can have catastrophic consequences. Somebody could die.

“You have a grieving family on your hands and you can feel, if had just done this one thing differently, this person would still be here.”

For those with a fixed mindset — and Professor Klein says that accounts for many new doctors — it’s an incredibly difficult position to be in.

“To get into med school they’ve been top of their class pretty much their entire lives, so they’ve been told they’re smart and they’re brilliant and they’re intelligent,” she says.

“Then they’re in this very complex, very difficult work situation — and they’re overworked usually — where it’s very easy to get something wrong.

“If you make a mistake you’ve got to be thinking, well, I shouldn’t be a doctor, I don’t belong in this profession, I don’t have it.”

To help combat this, she now runs mindset training with trainee doctors on their second day of medical school, and again just before they begin their internships.

She teaches them to “get used to the idea that they’re not perfect”.

“They’re going to make mistakes, some of those mistakes will have consequences and the key thing to being a good doctor is learning from those mistakes.”

Changing how you think

If you recognise yourself as having a fixed mindset and aren’t thrilled about it, don’t despair.

A growth mindset can be learned — but it requires having strategies for dealing with adversity.

Professor Klein shares an example from a hospital where growth mindsets are being fostered.

At the hospital, when there’s an adverse event that is the result of a mistake or a lack of communication, the whole team gets together.

“They say, if we could start over again with this patient, if we could have this patient just admitted now or just come up from the emergency department, what would we do differently? And the whole team discusses that,” Professor Klein explains.

“That’s a team I’d want working on me if I was a patient, because that’s a team that’s going to get better and better and better.

“They’re not brushing mistakes under the carpet, they’re not pointing a finger at just one person — and quite often it’s the least powerful person in the team that can get blamed for the error.

“They’re not doing that. They’re seeing it as a team issue and they’re motivated by improvement, and that’s a very growth mindset approach.”