Escaping the fixed mindset


de Roxana Stăneiu  

The caregivers had named her Ina. A short name, seemingly as inadequate for the bear’s personality as the cage in the zoo where she had spent the first 20 years of her life. At the insistence of animal rights activists, Ina was relocated from Zoo Piatra Neamț to the Bear Sanctuary in Zărnești. However, to everyone’s surprise, despite having the freedom to roam undisturbed in a generous and vast habitat, unlike anything she had ever seen before and as natural and normal for a bear, Ina faithfully maintained her accustomed circular path, which she was used to at the zoo. The image of the free she-bear in the heart of the forest, yet captive in her own mind, became a national news story. It was expected that her story would move people, that they would be touched by the living proof of the power our minds have to dictate reality and often overwrite it.  “Trying in vain, you’re not cut out for it,” “you’ve made too many mistakes, you’re good for nothing,” “he’s talented, you can’t change that,” “you can’t make something out of nothing, not even God can demand that.” We’re all familiar with at least one of these statements, most likely we’ve already heard them all. They are, in fact, variations of the same theme: “intelligence is fixed.” It’s the old belief that we’re born and die with the same IQ and there’s nothing we can do to change that.  However, social sciences have surpassed this belief as more and more studies have shown that the human brain benefits from neuroplasticity, the ability to form new neuronal connections and networks, to adapt, and to grow by forming new synapses. This capacity extends throughout life, and while it’s undeniable that in childhood the learning curve is much steeper than at other ages, there are significant peaks of development in other areas at other ages: between 20 and 30 years old is the peak of gray matter formation. Between 40 and 50 years old is the peak of numerical intelligence. Between 50 and 60 years old is the peak of inductive reasoning. And between 60 and 70 years old is the peak of verbal intelligence. And what maintains these peaks is mind training, like a muscle, through exposure to new experiences and challenges. The key is continuous learning.  The absence of a leaning towards learning, studies have already shown, can lead to a significant reduction in native IQ over time. Intelligence is not only not constant throughout life, but it can even decrease if we don’t maintain ourselves in conducive learning contexts.  Intelligence can and should be developed. This is the foundation on which Dr. Carol Dweck, a researcher, developed the concept of the growth mindset. This mindset is opposed to the fixed mindset, but to distinguish them more clearly we can observe how they position themselves on several levels.  People who believe that mindset is fixed avoid challenges, while proponents of the idea that mindset can be developed embrace them. The fixed mindset gives up easily, the growth mindset persists in the face of failure. The fixed mindset considers effort futile or even harmful. The growth mindset sees effort as the path to mastery. The fixed mindset manifests aversion to criticism and ignores negative feedback, while the growth mindset learns from both. People with a fixed mindset tolerate the success of others poorly because they feel threatened by it. People with a growth mindset, on the other hand, extract lessons and inspiration from the success of others. The differences between the two types of mindsets are also evident in their results. The fixed mindset caps its adherents early and prevents them from reaching their full potential. The growth mindset generally favors diversification of the types of achievements of the people who adopt it.  So, the growth mindset has 6 essential principles: 
  1. Intelligence can be developed. Through continuous learning and exposure to new contexts, our minds form new neuronal connections that contribute to the development of intelligence. 
  2. Learning from mistakes. Most often, behind mistakes are essential lessons that take you one step closer to achieving your goal. 
  3. Unconventional thinking. Being open to new perspectives, embracing differences of opinion, we can discover more than what is visible at first glance. 
  4. Perseverance and effort. Patience, careful channeling of effort, continuity in work, and conscientiousness will naturally produce results. The journey is often richer and more rewarding than the destination itself. 
  5. Lateral thinking. When we surpass the limiting beliefs of logical thinking, we use creativity to discover new solutions. What seemed impossible at first becomes clearer with each question, with each manifestation of curiosity. 
  6. Changes are beneficial. Yes, they are not comfortable, they are not pleasant, but they are necessary to facilitate our growth. When we step out of our comfort zone, we discover the unknown as a rich source of development opportunities. 
All these principles could be summed up in a single proverbial phrase: to grow, you must embrace lifelong learning. Examples of professionals who have reached unexpected heights of success due to adopting this attitude are abundant. To name just one: Patricia Miranda, a professional wrestler, won a bronze medal at the Olympic Games in Athens (2004). When she first stepped into a wrestling gym, she was told she wouldn’t stand a chance as a wrestler. She resoundingly contradicted this first impression and after proving otherwise with her medal, she pursued a completely different and unexpected path: she attended Yale Law School, becoming a lawyer and having her own law firm.  Success can come at any age: the children of Westside Preparatory Charter School were seen as lost causes for education. All having either cognitive retardation, low IQ, or social adaptation problems, which led them to be rejected by “traditional” schools, they were taken over by a teacher who refused to believe and label them as “maladjusted” and rather bet on the maladjustment of the educational methods used in the past with these children. It turned out that the teacher was right. Put together in the new school, starting in the second grade, the children progressed to reading and understanding Shakespeare and solving high school-level math problems by the fifth grade. They achieved these results thanks to learning methods that were consistent with the growth mindset and embracing the idea that intelligence can be developed through constant learning, by viewing mistakes as important sources of growth, by making continuous efforts to evolve and discover.  Embracing a growth mindset acts as a catalyst for neuroplasticity – the ability of our brain to form new synapses. In other words, neuroplasticity refers to the brain’s ability to adapt and reorganize by changing neuronal connections in response to experiences and the learning process. To benefit from neuroplasticity for the purpose of intelligence growth, we can engage in activities that stimulate our minds, cognitive challenges that take us out of our comfort zone. Here comes the direct connection with the growth mindset. Saying “yes” to change, exposing ourselves to new contexts, learning from mistakes are just a few examples that stimulate neuroplasticity.  Growth mindset interventions work, it’s proven. But how can we develop this mindset if we happened to be educated in a fixed mindset? We can start, counterintuitively, by accepting both. The fixed mindset will always be a part of our lives, but we can make sure it’s not dominant, but rather that we control its scope. We can then identify the “trigger”: what makes us say that we won’t succeed, that we’re not good enough (maybe challenges, maybe the mistakes we’ve made, maybe new contexts, maybe the words we were told when we were young). Another helpful thing is that, the next time we consciously identify that we’re in a fixed mindset, to give it a shape, a color, a name, and outline its personality. This way, we detect when we enter the fixed mindset and expose it by calling it by its name. We can also experiment. Every morning, we can create a plan and ask ourselves: 1) What learning and growth opportunities do I/have I create(d) today? 2) When, where, and how will I enjoy them? A concrete answer to these questions will help us throughout the day to truly realize and take advantage of the opportunities that arise. Then, we can change the paradigm from “I don’t know” to a much more effective one, using the power of “yet”. “I don’t know how to handle conflicts, so I avoid them,” becomes “I don’t know how to handle conflicts yet, but I will learn.” Another secret that helps us implement the growth mindset in ourselves and in others, especially in children, is to give compliments that praise not only the result but also the effort. v An effort is also to constantly check ourselves, to stay with ourselves, to ask ourselves questions, to be connected with what we feel and which keep us in a state of awareness of our own mindset. Some extremely useful questions in this process can be these: 
  • How were you praised by your parents and/or teachers when you were little? Did they tell you how smart you were or did they appreciate you for the effort and work you put in? 
  • Is there someone in your life (a friend, a partner, a manager, etc.) with a fixed mindset – who doesn’t take risks, can’t accept mistakes, feels down after every failure? Can you understand this behavior better now? 
  • How do you position yourself at work? Are you a person who seeks validation after every success and feels good when receiving it or are you more excited about the growth opportunities you have and how you can develop them? 
  • When do you feel smart? When you do something flawlessly or when you try something new and it works out? 
  • What do you tell yourself when you make a mistake? 
In the end, escaping the fixed mindset involves gentleness towards ourselves, compassion towards ourselves, and the paradoxical understanding, even in the process of changing mindset, that the journey is important, not necessarily the result. It will be a sometimes difficult, unnatural, exhausting journey. But like any journey, including the one towards a growth mindset, you reach the destination step by step.