Why Mindset Matters and What To Do About It
"Whether you think you can or you cant, you're probably right." -
What have you always struggled to learn? Whether it's an apparent incompetence with languages or ineptitude with numbers we've all experienced frustrations with learning. If only more people knew that the first and most important step to solving these problems is surprisingly simple.
When we struggle to learn something, we often attribute it to a lack of innate ability. At some point, we've all used explanations like the one I occasionally told myself at school when wrestling with a difficult maths problem - "I'm just not good with numbers." This perspective frames our capacity to learn as something outside of our control, when in reality it's influenced heavily by our own beliefs.
If learning is a journey from a destination of knowing less to one of knowing more, then trying to learn something when we dont believe we can do it is like trying to drive with the handbrake on.
Unsurprisingly, the idea that we need believe were capable to succeed isn't new and often appears in childrens stories like The Little Engine That Could and in motivational quotes.
Consider Henry Ford's old adage "Whether you think you can or you cant, you're probably right" or one of Muhammad Ali's most cited quotes "If my mind can conceive it and my heart can believe it, then I can achieve it."
It turns out that there's more than just wit and rhythm to these statements. The work of Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck suggests that there is scientific substance to this idea that mindset matters - our belief systems directly affect our behaviour, which in turn affects our success in learning.
In 20 years of research with children and adults, Dweck placed learners into two categories: those with a fixed mindset, who believe their abilities are set in stone; and those with a growth mindset, who believe that their abilities are malleable and can be developed through consistent effort.
Having a growth mindset doesn't mean we have to believe that anyone can become the next Einstein, Mozart or Da Vinci. We only have to acknowledge that our potential to learn is unbounded and that the power to increase our own abilities is within our control.
Approaching things from this perspective creates a real passion for learning, and makes us more likely to apply the grit we need to succeed. We become less discouraged by failure and more attentive when we're struggling. We start to see difficulty as an opportunity to stretch ourselves rather than trying to avoid it.
All these characteristics not only make us more likely to learn new things but they also increase our chances of reaching our goals in our careers and personal lives.
Dweck and her colleagues have consistently produced results that prove the positive impact of a growth mindset on learning performance. In one of her early experiments, outlined in her book, she ran a workshop for a 7th grade class at a New York City junior high school.
Half the students were given a presentation on memory and effective study techniques, while the other half were given an introduction to Dweck's ideas about mindset and were told that their intelligence largely depended on their own effort. After the workshop both groups of children went back to their classrooms, with their teachers unaware of the difference between what they had been taught.
As the school year unfolded, the students from the second group developed a growth mindset and became higher achievers than the students from the first group, who retained a conventional fixed mindset. Dweck's team has replicated these results across different locations, age groups and subjects with remarkable degrees of success.
Our mindset is fundamental. It's more important than inherent ability in learning performance and has a huge impact on the other areas of our life such as our career and relationships.
All learning strategies, tools and techniques are almost useless if we don't combine them with a strong, growth based learning mindset - the simple belief that the power to improve our learning abilities lies in our own hands.
What are your most limiting views about your learning abilities? Write them down in as much detail as you can and give examples from the past which justify these beliefs.
Be honest with yourself and try to think of all the times in the past when your own beliefs were the major barrier to your learning.
Now cross-examine these limiting beliefs through the lens of a growth mindset, just as a prosecution lawyer would analyse a defence testimony. Think of examples in the past where your effort led to progress and ask if those limiting beliefs stand up to the test now.
I'll be surprised if any of them do, because the growth mindset encourages you to take responsibility for successes and failures, rather than citing external factors as the main cause.
A growth mindset is something you need to practice consistently over time, like anything else. If your limiting beliefs pop up again in your mind, remind yourself that your ability is under your control. When you wake up in the morning, ask yourself these three questions:
This exercise is recommended by Dweck herself and from personal experience, reviewing these types of concepts has been hugely useful in my own learning projects.
The truth is that you've already done some of the work by reading this post. Apparently, the simple act of reading about the research can have a significant and measurable impact on your attitude and learning performance. So if you've reached this far, I look forward to a thank you message in the comments.
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