Researchers have known for years that almost no one is ‘born with greater potential to learn’ any subject. Nothing in our genes makes us good at maths or bad at languages. Nothing inherent to the person defines our potential to learn. If you’d like to see the proof of that statement, you might look up the work of Carol Dweck. We’re not going to go into proving or disproving that concept here. Instead, we’re going to explore what it means, and how you can ‘become’ good at things which you always thought were beyond your potential.
Dweck’s work tells us that the difference between someone who finds it easy to learn and excel in a subject and someone who struggles with it is their mindset. If you have (or can cultivate) a ‘growth mindset’ then you will not only believe that you have the potential to grow as a person – picking up new skills and capabilities easily – you’ll see real results.
Apparently, most people have adopted what Dweck calls a ‘fixed mindset’. This is a way of thinking which assumes that your potentials and abilities are set, and unchanging. It is akin to fatalism, in that it is based on the core principle that you can’t change things in a meaningful way. The thing is, that is only true if you believe it to be.
Those with a fixed mindset spend their effort ‘proving’ that they are ‘smart’ or ‘talented’ or ‘good at something’ and cannot admit that the way they approach things could be flawed. Rather than seeing their limitations as potential places of growth, they tend to deny they exist at all.
If someone with a fixed mindset were to fail a test, they might respond by labelling themselves ‘bad at maths’ and stop attempting to learn. Someone with a growth mindset, however, would see the failure as a positive event – one which points out an area where growth is not just necessary, but actually possible.
The core of a growth mindset is the understanding that you have no fixed potential. That everything about you can be improved by your efforts. That there are no hard limits you cannot transcend.
So, how can you develop a growth mindset?
If you are asking yourself that question, you are to be congratulated. Because you see the need for a positive trait, and can imagine that you can gain that trait by effort, you are already halfway there!
However, not all effort is equally efficient. It takes more than work to develop yourself. Rather, you need to expend that effort in the right ways. With that in mind, we’ve listed 25 ways you can work towards a growth mindset, and towards gaining all of the other skills and aptitudes you’ll need to succeed in life.
- Own your attitude!
You weren’t born with your current attitude (growth or otherwise), and you have the power to change it. That means you also have the responsibility to change it for the better. Not doing so is the only way to truly waste your potential.
- Have realistic expectations about the time it takes to learn.
Nothing worthwhile is easy, as they say. Even with the best kind of growth mindset, learning complex skills and mastering subjects takes a lot of time. Don’t be discouraged if progress is slow, and keep working towards your goals.
- Don’t be afraid to fail.
More importantly, don’t be afraid to let people see you fail. Remember, you aren’t proving your ability, you’re improving it. There is no shame in failing 1000 times, if you succeed on the 1001st.
- Never rest on your laurels.
Every goal you achieve should be celebrated, and we do all need rest. However, you should never be without a goal to work towards. Every time you succeed, you should set a new goal immediately.
- Learn from others, from their successes and form their failures.
No one is really all that unique. You have the same core nature, the same potential as every ‘great’ person and every tragic failure. See how they succeeded and how they failed, and learn as if it had happened to you.
- It isn’t ‘no’, it’s ‘not yet’.
Have you succeeded? Not yet. This may be the single most powerful phrase in the English language, and the one you will rely on most. You will succeed, you just haven’t done so yet.
- Remember that no one is ‘naturally smart’.
Not Albert Einstein. Not Carol Dweck and not even you. Everyone who has an asset – intelligence, technical skill, professional ability or anything else – worked at it. You can do that too.
- Be tough.
Remember that success isn’t what makes one great. Success isn’t praiseworthy. The work that got you there is praiseworthy, and you might have to give that approval to yourself.
- Train your brain to accept learning.
Just like the body’s muscles can be strengthened by regular use, so can your mind. Mental effort leads to learning, intelligence and persona growth. Make the effort.
- Abandon pretence.
If no one is ‘naturally smart’ or ‘naturally talented’, then no one who has these traits is unique or special. They did the work and saw the results. The work is praiseworthy, not the personality.
- Reflect on your progress regularly.
Take the time to think about what you’ve learned recently at least once a day. What have you learned, and what does that mean for you?
- Stop associating ‘improvement’ with failure.
If you fail, there is ‘room for improvement’. Well, there is room for improvement when you succeed as well. There is always more potential to grow.
- See all criticism as constructive criticism.
Anyone pointing out a flaw or limitation is doing you a great favour. Acknowledge it, and reflect on whether this criticism shows you a new way to improve yourself.
- Stop celebrating ‘genius’.
Being good at something takes effort, not ‘genius’. No one was ever born a ‘genius’ and anyone can do well enough to be called one.
- Celebrate actions, not traits.
When someone succeeds, praise them for doing well, not for ‘being’ clever’. No one ‘is’ smart or talented. They can, however, do intelligent or talented things.
- Remember that growth is more important than speed.
Learning quickly is not always the same as earning well or deeply. In fact, if the process took a long time and involved overcoming mistakes it probably involved much more actual growth.
- Celebrate your growth with others.
Surround yourself with people who understand and value growth, and celebrate what you’ve learned with them – not what you’ve accomplished.
- Work on your sense of purpose.
You are here for a reason. You are growing for a reason. Decide what that is, and never lose sight of it. Don’t be afraid to re-evaluate it, though! Even your purpose is a place of potential growth.
- Remember that the process is more important than the result.
All learning is a process, and it is the process where the real growth happens. Learning never stops, and growth never stops, even after you’ve got your degree, your career, or anything else.
- Don’t seek out approval.
You are learning and growing for the sake of learning and growing. Being distracted by approval or status can only limit your growth. Most people approve success, which has nothing to do with learning or growth.
- Don’t say ‘failing’. Say ‘learning’.
Falling short, making a mistake or even presiding over a complete disaster is not ‘failure’. If a ‘failure’ leads you to examine your process that means you can learn something, and therefore grow.
- Keep abreast of the sciences, especially the concept of ‘brain plasticity’.
The brain is the organ of thought and learning, and science tells us that it grows and changes throughout your life. If the brain can change, so can the mind.
- Try different ways of learning.
What works best for one person might not work at all for another. Don’t hesitate to try different learning methods and strategies, and keep trying new ones from time to time even after you find a few that you like.
- Don’t see challenges as chances to fail, see them as opportunities to grow.
These are excellent opportunities for growth and learning. See them as opportunities and not threats. A challenge is a chance to grow, not a test of your ability.
- Love your imperfections, even as you work on them.
If you fail to acknowledge your imperfections, how can you improve yourself? At the same time, don’t hate your flaws – they are what makes it possible for you to grow, improve and learn.
If you practice these things, you’ll soon find yourself more willing to take on challenges, more motivated to excel, less anxious or depressed, and more open to relationships (collegiate, romantic and otherwise). You’ll be more focused on learning, and more open to the kind of experiences which lead to learning and growth. The fact that you’ll be doing almost everything that you already do at a higher level of performance and ability is beside the point.