How to get Unstuck in Life: Fixed Versus a Growth Mindset

Problem: a fixed mindset causes undue stress

“It’s not how hard you can hit. It’s how hard you can get hit and keep on moving forward.” Rocky Balboa.

What is a key difference between those who dust themselves off and keep ‘moving forward’ after one of life’s ‘hits’ and those who drop like a stone?

It’s not possible in one article to cover all of the reasons people struggle to move forward. (although that didn’t stop Americans spending 13 million on personal development in 2010 trying to find out!). However, as dedicated psychologists and sociologists increasingly investigate subjects like happiness and optimism (Seligman), genius and talent (Dweck), procrastination (Steel) and influence (Cialdini) they are uncovering significant keys or leverage points which can make our lives more effective and fruitful.

One such key exists in the difference between a growth and a fixed mindset. I will be borrowing liberally from Mindset by Carol S. Dweck as well as other literature to explain the importance of this.

Here’s a promise: Understanding and implementing this distinction can liberate you to embrace growth as your birthright. It may also deal with a host of negative consequences that come with using the fixed mindset. But more on that later.

So what is a fixed mindset?

Basically, a fixed mindset believes you have some quality or you don’t. You’re good at something or you’re not. You’re smart or you’re not. You’re beautiful or you’re not.

So what, you say? It’s true. Some of us have inborn talent and some don’t. It’s obvious. Just look in the playground for example– some kids are good at football and some are not.

Only… a reading of books like The Talent Code, Bounce, and Talent is Overrated strongly suggest that its not so. They looked at so-called geniuses (and also at the places in the world that produce exceptional talent) and concluded that an outrageous amount of the right kind of practice is really what separated the goods from the greats. In other words, anyone who works hard enough and applies themselves to developing skills the ‘right’ way can develop what looks and smells like genius.

“Well, maybe” so you say – “but I was born with an advantage. I was good at music/sport/board-surfing since an early age.”

I’m not God, perhaps you were. But let’s look at the dangers of assuming you have fixed inborn talent or smarts. I have heard of ‘smart’ children who go to schools for gifted pupils and suddenly find themselves surrounded with others far ‘smarter’ than themselves. Or so it seems.

What are they to think? This is where the difference between the fixed and growth mindsets starts to kick in.

Children with the fixed mindset start to doubt that they are that talented or smart after all. They are surrounded by kids who really seem to have ‘it’, to have been touched by God.

Tracking studies have shown that children with this mindset fall behind in their grades after two years. They increasingly tend to avoid situations they think they can’t handle thus avoiding the opportunity to grow.

Project that avoidance tendency over a lifetime and you get a lifetime of under-achieving on your full potential.

Children with the growth mindset understand already that they can learn from those who know more than them. They believe they can get that good through learning and practice.

They may seek out extra help. They may befriend people with a greater talent and find out ‘how they do it.’

They actually relish challenges because what they see is the growth, not that the challenge means there’s something wrong with them.

Let me let you in on the secret. Growth oriented people don’t focus on the hit, they focus on the moving forward.

Fixed mindset people focus on what the hit means about them.

Dweck says “From the point of view of people with the fixed mindset, effort is only for people with deficiencies. And when people already know they’re deficient, they have nothing to loose by trying. But if your claim to fame is not having any deficiencies – if you’re a genius, a talent, or a natural – then you have a lot to lose.

Effort can reduce you.

What develops the fixed mindset?


Ironically, praising or criticising a child for having (or lacking) a particular quality can start the problem. It seems more natural and easier to tell a child (like my 18 month old) “You’re so smart” when she brings me my toothbrush and exclaims “daddy teeth” . This could encourage the fixed mindset whereas “I’m so pleased you worked that out – that you brush your teeth with the toothbrush” encourages effort and further thinking.

So what keeps the fixed mindset in place?

Lack of awareness of the growth mindset is one reason!

But now you’re learning about it your mind, stretched by a new idea, will never go back to its original dimensions (thanks Oliver Wendell Holmes for the quote!)

Secondly, because of the way our minds look for evidence for what we already believe if we see the world through ‘some have it, some don’t’ eyes we’ll continue to do so unless we have a jolt that forces us to re-evaluate.

Here’s a jolt: if you have a fixed mindset you can kiss long-term high self-esteem good-bye. Why?

Because each time there’s a challenge to how smart and talented you are your self-esteem (which is based on this) is threatened.

Even if you overcome there can always be the lurking suspicion and fear about what will happen if you fail. You won’t be smart. Then what WILL you be? A loser?

Do you really want to think like that? Many do.

But the cost of such thinking is anxiety, avoidance, lack of growth, despair, self-criticism, unfulfilled potential blah, blah, yadah, yadah!

Now before you fall into a pit of despair I want to reassure you that there are ways to ameliorate this mindset.

As mentioned above, just learning about the new mindset can create a shift towards growth thinking.

Dweck reports one child who, having realised that intelligence was not fixed, asked with tears in his eyes: “So I don’t have to be dumb?” From that moment on he improved greatly in his attitude and grades.

If you’re very self-critical you need to create a framework of self-acceptance, appreciation and esteem. If you struggle with this The Personal PowerPack available from here can help you set these frames.

If you have a fixed mindset you may overuse a mental process called Identification.

Alfred Korzybski, creator of General Semantics, talked about the unsanity of identification. Although this sounds technical it refers to how we make linkages in our minds between things.

When we make links between who we are and a negative idea we can mentally imprison ourselves. For example, the belief ‘I AM a loser gets mentally processed as ‘I’ = LOSER.

Your mind will equate EVERYTHING you are with the idea of LOSER. Except you’re not a whole and total loser, are you? Are you?

Are you not more expansive and complicated and wonderful than that? I hope you think so.

Take a piece of paper and write out answers to:

I am a……………….

Then ask yourself if those descriptions say everything about you? Really? You’re just a x? In every situation? At all times?

If you’re having trouble changing beliefs you can use something like Reboot Your Mind,a radical belief change process which can free up your mind when you feel ‘stuck’ in a certain mindset.

How can you change from a fixed mindset to a growth mindset? (full details on )

1)  Learn to hear your fixed mindset voice

As you hit a setback, the voice might say, “This would have been a snap if you really had talent.” “You see, I told you it was a risk. Now you’ve gone and shown the world how limited you are.” “ It’s not too late to back out, make excuses, and try to regain your dignity.

2) Recognize that you have a choice

You can interpret challenges as a sign that your fixed talent or abilities are lacking. Or you can interpret them with a growth mindset as a sign you need to make extra effort, find new strategies and stretch yourself.

3) Talk back to it with a growth mindset

So many personal issues never change because we don’t think to challenge them.

You need to challenge your fixed mindset with a new growth frame of mind.

So, ‘ my taxes are too difficult’ with ‘I can handle this by taking it slowly – one concept at a time. Each section mastered is a step forward, I’ve learned something new and I’m improving.

Even just telling yourself: “Plenty of  people have learned how to do this. I can learn this too and improve as I go.”

4) Take growth mindset action

Do something that reflects your new growth mindset.

Here’s a summary document of the key ideas in mindset. It’s useful to print out and put near your desk.

The final word is this: a growth mind set helps you become MORE of who you truly are.  A fixed mindset  immobilises you and fossilizes your natural growth abilities inside a cocoon of having to prove yourself.

Go out and grow!



Products by Douglas Cartwright

Change your Concepts, Change your Life

The Personal PowerPack

Mind to Muscle SuperPack

Photo credit: ‘Row of Cars‘ by Big Stock



Erin shows overscheduled, overwhelmed women how to do less so that they can achieve more. Traditional productivity books—written by men—barely touch the tangle of cultural pressures that women feel when facing down a to-do list. How to Get Sh*t Done will teach you how to zero in on the three areas of your life where you want to excel, and then it will show you how to off-load, outsource, or just stop giving a damn about the rest.

7 Responses to How to get Unstuck in Life: Fixed Versus a Growth Mindset

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