Growth Mindset: What Is It and Why You Should Get One…

Leadership Optimism Growth
“You have to apply yourself each day to becoming a little better. By becoming a little better each and every day, over a period of time, you will become a lot better.” ~ John WoodenClick To Tweet

For a long time psychologists studying intelligence believed it was a fixed trait. Something that remained stable over the course of your lifetime.

Growth Mindset

This had two outcomes. It made it easy (and worthwhile) to measure intelligence and treat people differently according to their scores…

And for those with low scores? They could give up! What was the point? They weren’t intelligent, why bother?

Now we know better.

About 30 years ago, a psychologist called Carol Dweck discovered that students in her classes actually performed better when they were told that it was possible to increase your intelligence, when compared to other students with the same IQ.

In this article I’ll elaborate a little on what a Growth Mindset is, and even better, I’ll show you some things to strengthen yours!

What is a Growth Mindset?

“We must be learning if we are to feel fully alive, and when life, or love, becomes too predictable and it seems like there is little left to learn, we become restless – a protest, perhaps, of the plastic brain when it can no longer perform its essential task.” ~ Norman Doidge, The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science

What Carol Dweck and her colleagues discovered was that children differed in how they viewed failure. Some students would rebound remarkably quickly, and work even harder, while others were totally devastated and would ultimately give up.

Growth Mindset

The answer, she discovered, lay in attitudes about whether or not the brain is able to improve. Students who believed that they were born with a certain level of fixed innate ability became disheartened very quickly, while those that believed that intelligence is something that can get better over time saw the failure as a sign they needed to practice harder, and eventually, they developed the skills they needed to perform the task.

The opposite of a Growth Mindset, is a Fixed Mindset.

What is Neuroplasticity?

In essence, neuroplasticity is the term used to describe the way that the brain adapts over time.

There are some fascinating studies that show how capable the human brain is at adapting to circumstances… for example London cab drivers – known the world over for their mastery of ‘the knowledge’, memorisation of the street layout of the City of London, have been shown to have a significantly larger hippocampus than non-cab drivers. This is the part of their brains they use to memorise the street map.

The sceptical among you might well be saying “maybe they were born that way”. Good point!

Fortunately, a study carried out by Eleanor Maguire and Katherine Woollett at University College London explicitly tested this by measuring aspiring cabbies’ brains both before and after their training. Sure enough, there was no discernible difference in size between their brains, and those of the general population, before training – their hippocampus grew in response to the extensive memorisation task they had to carry out.

This phenomenal ability for the brain to change itself is explored extensively in Norman Doidge’s book The Brain that Changes Itself (how apt!) and can be boiled down to a kind of ‘biological economics’ known as Hebbian Theory. Neurons that fire together, wire together – it’s more efficient that way. Neurons that don’t fire together may be connected, but eventually the connections between them wither away, as they aren’t used. (I’ve simplified Hebbian Theory here, strictly speaking one of the neurons causes the other one to fire, so they don’t actually fire at the same time!)

Growth Mindset

In effect, this is how a Growth Mindset works. Because you believe that practice will help (a precondition for doing something more than once), you do practice. And practice.

And the more you practice, the more a particular group of neurons fire together. Eventually, the connections between those neurons get stronger and thicker, until performing the task becomes effortless.

Voila! The brain has literally grown!

What is an Abundance Mindset?

'The key to abundance is meeting limited circumstances with unlimited thoughts.' ~ Marianne WilliamsonClick To Tweet

I’m going to go out on a bit of a limb here, into slightly less scientific territory.

Now I haven’t read The Secret and I’m not into manifesting stuff… although I can see some ‘attraction’ with the idea (yes pun intended).

Growth Mindset

But what I can tell you is that people who look for the ‘good’ in situations, and have a more grateful and fortunate outlook, seem to be luckier.

Richard Wiseman conducted a 10 year study of the differences between people who think they are lucky, and people who think they are unlucky. In one experiment he conducted, he asked subjects to complete a questionnaire (that included whether or not they considered themselves lucky or unlucky) and then he asked them to count the number of photographs in a newspaper.

On page two, disguised as an advertisement, was a large headline in block letters that said “STOP COUNTING–THERE ARE 43 PHOTOGRAPHS IN THIS NEWSPAPER”.

People who described themselves as lucky were significantly more likely to spot the advert, and therefore saved themselves a considerable amount of effort in completing the task.

Wiseman argues that people who see themselves as lucky also possess a number of other mental traits (like optimism, personal agency, and Growth Mindset) that mean they are more likely to spot opportunities, because they believe they are there. Their minds are in a state of more active and open engagement with the world around them, compared with their pessimistic or ‘unlucky’ counterparts, who tend to think bad things will happen no matter what they do.

Have you ever said “eat your dinner! There’s children in the world who are starving!” to your kids? Have you ever felt protective of your best ideas and worried that someone is going to steal them?

If yes, then you may have a Scarcity Mindset – the opposite of an Abundance mindset.

Why do Leaders Need a Growth Mindset?

Leadership is optimism in action.Click To Tweet

You cannot be a leader unless you believe that things can and will be better – and more importantly, better because of the intervention and action that you enable and empower.

Growth Mindset

In particular, as a leader of people, you need to believe that you can get better (and be trying to get better) and that the people in your team are capable of improving their skills and capabilities over time.

You need to be generous with your knowledge and ideas. You cannot horde your knowledge – that does not make you an effective leader. It makes you expendable.

You need to be able to encourage your team to work harder in response to a failure or set-back. In fact, you need to see failures and set-backs as an inevitable part of the process – without which you won’t improve, and your organisation won’t be successful.

OK – You’ve Got Me… How Do I Get a Growth Mindset?

Here are three things you can do to develop a Growth Mindset right now.

Be mindful of your self-talk…

Hopefully, if you’re a regular reader of this blog, you’ve started to invest a little of your time and energy into building a mindfulness practice of your own.

The first step to developing a Growth Mindset is to be mindful of your self-talk. Whenever you hear yourself saying these things, out loud or in your head:

  • I can’t do…
  • I’m not… (artistic, creative, innovative, gifted, good with numbers etc)
  • This will never work…
  • I never win anything (raffles, lotteries, games etc)
  • I’m never lucky in (employment, love, friendships… etc)


Your brain hears you say these things and believes you!

Instead, you should say:

  • I’ve never done that before, but I’ll give it a go
  • I’ve never invested in learning that skill, but I could
  • This might work
  • I’ll never win anything if I don’t enter!
  • I make my own luck

Learn a little bit about brain science…

It’s pretty cool, and the science is solid, and getting stronger by the day.

Here’s some starter’s.

Learn a new skill…

'You don't learn to walk by following rules. You learn by doing, and by falling over.' ~ Richard BransonClick To Tweet

The proof is in the pudding, they say! So pick something you’ve always wanted to learn, perhaps even something that you’ve convinced yourself that you have no actual talent in – a musical instrument, or a new language… or maths…

Growth Mindset

Then decide you are going to learn it. Find a class – online, in your local community, it doesn’t really matter. And commit the time. Stick with it.

A final thought…

When you win the lottery… remember who taught you how to face the world with a growth mindset 😉 You know how to find me!

i3 Leadership Insiders

I want to help you to lead.  Not from a position of power, but from exactly where you are now.

So I’m writing a book specifically for you.  It’ll be out early next year (28 February 2018 to be precise).

If you’d like to know more, please sign up for i3 Insiders (I don’t spam, just a weekly newsletter) where I’ll keep you up to date on progress, test some ideas, and even share a preview or two as we get closer to launch-day.

Let’s do this!

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