A Growth Mindset: Why We All Need One

I suggest you print this image out.

I invite you to print this image & refer to it regularly until you have absorbed the ideas.

Do you ever feel so tired and frustrated that you are just in survival mode, getting from one day to the next, or even one hour to the next?  When I have felt like this I feel really closed, like I can’t take anything else on. I feel almost brittle – very tight and inflexible.  Change is unfathomable.   Inevitably, I feel fearful on some level.  This is a self-perpetuating cycle, a kind of downward spiral.  Does this resonate with you?  If so, I think that working towards having a “growth mindset” is going to help you.   It will help you find effective ways to meet challenges, to work to overcome obstacles, to see your efforts as a path to success, among many other things.  It will help you work towards greater happiness and joy and well-being.

When I was at a coaching conference in Texas about four years ago, one of the speakers who I really respect (Robert Biswas-Diener) told us we should all go out and buy this book – that it was such an important book for everyone and we should all read it.  So I did buy it and read it and soon found out just how important its ideas were.  The book is called Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, by Carol Dweck, a professor at Stanford.

Carol Dweck discovered through her research “a simple idea that makes all the difference” – that our mindset affects our ability to fulfill our potential – to grow and learn, take risks, bounce back from adversity, to build healthy relationships.   If we have a “fixed mindset” and believe our qualities, including our intelligence, are carved in stone, we behave in one way.  If we have a “growth mindset” and believe that we can cultivate and grow our basic qualities, including our intelligence, we behave in an entirely different way.  I will get into these definitions and their implications below, but for now, suffice it to say that, once I understood the difference,  I wanted to make sure I personally had a growth mindset in all domains, and that I was instilling a growth mindset in my children.

I have three delightful children, and my youngest has special needs.   Becoming a “good enough” Mum to him has been one of the hardest and most beautiful adventures of my life.     As his mother, being in a growth mindset means that I will choose to believe that he can grow in all ways – his intelligence, his character, his physical abilities. I don’t put him in a box and give him limiting labels. (Of course labels have their uses but not for me in this case.)  I keep his potential wide open and full of possibilities.   This is a powerful belief I will keep holding until proven wrong, if ever.   I assume that with practice, he will grow and learn.  It may take more practice and more time and more mistakes along the way, but it will happen.   I can’t tell you how much of a difference having a growth mindset in these circumstance has helped me rise to the challenges and joys offered to me in my relationship with my littlest guy.  Furthermore, I am modelling and teaching him to be in a growth mindset too, which I think is going to have a profound effect on his life.   Not meeting this parenting challenge was definitely contributing to my downward spiral of negativity.  That’s why I wanted to share it with you here, so you can see just how powerful this mindset shift can be.   It may sound far-fetched to you to think that “intelligence” can be grown.   The science apparently, is not settled on the issue. However, Carol Dweck’s research indicates that the answer to that question doesn’t really matter.  What matters is our belief.  If we believe intelligence can be grown, we get the benefits of the growth mindset.   I am going with that because it’s working for us.

For my other two children, for whom most things come very easily, the growth mindset is equally important.  They need to learn that it is through effort and risk-taking and failure that they will improve and grow.  Again, the growth mindset has made a major difference in the way I parent my older two children.  If I hear one of my kids say, for example, “I am bad at math”, I look them in the eye and say “No you are not.  You just need to practice more.”   Inevitably I get the eye roll and the  “Oh Mum, you are being coachy again!” at some point, but they listen and the point is taken.  And then we discuss what it is they want. Do they want to do better at math?  What’s challenging them?  What support can we get them?  What does doing their best look like?   For these two kids, we ask them to do their best and they usually rise to the occasion.

And for my clients, this idea is always there in the background when we are coaching.   I assume that they are capable of change and growth in all ways possible.  That is the starting point from which we work and it is definitely a powerful place to start.  Many of my clients have really benefited from paying attention to the conversations they are having with themselves about their challenges, their obstacles and so on and then injecting the growth mindset into those conversations.  It helps them address perfectionist and judgmental tendencies, helps them feel more optimistic and more compassionate toward themselves and helps them move toward their goals.

And finally, for me, being in a growth mindset is freeing.  I don’t have to know everything. I don’t have to be the “perfect” mother or wife or coach or workshop presenter, or blogger, for that matter. I can be learning and growing along the way and letting my kids and husband and others see my struggles.    (For those of you who have been following Brené Brown and/or my comments about her work, you can see how letting others see our struggles makes us vulnerable and therefore can also lead to deeper relationships with others, as Brené shows is a component of living “wholeheartedly”).

So that’s my story of why this book has been incredibly important to me and those around me.

Now, what about for you?  How could this book, these ideas help you?

If you want to learn more, here are some suggestions:

  1. take the quick online test to see what your mindset is in various domains;
  2. review these definitions:

    Definitions (from p.6 Mindset)

    • “Fixed mindset” – believing your qualities are carved in stone – creates and urgency to prove yourself over and over.  If you only have a certain amount of intelligence, a certain personality, and a certain moral character – well, then you’d better prove that you have a healthy dose of them.  It simply wouldn’t do to look or feel deficient in these most basic characteristics. (Real live examples: John McEnroe, Lee Iaccoca)
    • “Growth mindset” – based on the belief that your basic qualities are things you can cultivate through your efforts.  Although people may differ in every which way – in their initial talents and aptitudes, interests or temperaments – everyone can change and grow through application and experience. (Real life examples: Michael Jordan, Anne Mulcahy, Marva Collins.)
  3. buy the book and follow more of the suggestions in it. The last chapter contains many practical questions to ask yourself as you live your days.
  4. Print the image by Nigel Holmes (pictured here) and really absorb it and then apply the ideas.
  5. See Karen Pape MD’s strong endorsement of Mindset  for all caregivers, parents and therapist of children of special needs.  Dr Pape is now retired from clinical work at the Hospital for  Sick Children here in Toronto and is writing a book on neuroplasticity in children.  I love her approach and mindset!
  6. Further to the issue of whether intelligence can be grown, here are few tidbits: “Robert Sternberg, the present-day guru of intelligence, writes that the major factor in whether people achieve expertise “is not some fixed prior ability, but purposeful engagement”.  Or as his forerunner Binet [designer of the IQ test] recognized, it’s not always the people who start out the smartest who end up the smartest.” p.5 Mindset  Here’s something I was very surprised to learn: Alfred Binet, the designer of the IQ test, created the test to determine, not how smart children were, but how well they were being taught.
  7. For more insights for applying the growth mindset to for people to whom most things come easily, see this short post: The Trouble with Smart People by my friend and colleague Lisa Sansom.

Here are a couple of inspirational stories for you to have a look at which embody the growth mindset:

  1. The Spark by Kristine Barnett – Kristine is the mother of Jacob, the boy who was diagnosed with severe autism as a toddler and who is now at the Perimeter Institute in Waterloo “changing science”.   A lovely friend of mine, K, invited me to a talk by Kristine in January (thank you K!!!). I came away so inspired by her on so many levels.
  2. What a 94 Year Old Track Star Can Teach Us About Aging by Bruce Grierson (his book What Makes Olga Run  will be released tomorrow) – the author refers to Carol Dweck’s work as explaining part of Olga’s story.  This really got me moving two Saturdays ago  after I read it over breakfast!

So, what”s different for you now that you have read this?  As always, I welcome your comments!

6 Responses to A Growth Mindset: Why We All Need One
  1. Alana
    January 20, 2014 | 1:27 pm

    Hi Milisa – I just started reading this book this weekend so when I saw the diagram you shared on your website, I thought it was so helpful! The principles resonated both as a parent and in my other roles in life. Definitely worth a read. I’m enjoying your newsletters. Thanks for keeping them coming.

    • Milisa Burns
      January 23, 2014 | 9:18 pm

      That’s great to hear Alana – what do you think so far? Thanks for commenting! M

  2. Yvonne Hart
    January 20, 2014 | 4:40 pm

    Great newsletter, Milisa…lots to learn.

    • Milisa Burns
      January 23, 2014 | 9:19 pm

      Thanks Yvonne! Yes it’s a life-long learning journey. 🙂

  3. Catherine
    August 4, 2017 | 9:05 am

    Milisa- WOW! This is inspirational (and educational) on so many levels. I love how you have shared your personal story – it acted to really solidify the main points and gave me a reference point to use with my own children (younger than yours so maybe there is still time to be a “good enough” Mom:) – thanks to you!

    • Milisa Burns
      August 8, 2017 | 11:51 am

      Dear Catherine,
      I am thrilled to hear that this post supported you on so many levels!!! Yes, there is still always time to be a “good enough” Mom!!

      Since I wrote this post I have learned another tool that can support a growth mindset…it is the three letter word “yet” as in, for example, “I am not [fill in the blank] YET”. I invite you to join me in stepping into the YET too. 🙂

      big hugs! Milisa

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