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Ms. Leber

June 27, 2023


Overcoming Can’t: The Power of a Growth Mindset

Writers know the power of words. Words express, explain, and even inspire. We salute the words of innovators, revolutionaries, and masters of their craft by holding their quotes up as motivation to achieve the impossible. Words shape and define our world in many ways, but we need to understand the source of their power, remembering that we think in words.

The debilitating force of “Can’t”

Psychologist Carol Dweck coined the terms growth and fixed mindsets. Dweck’s work is devoted to studying human motivation and unlocking why some people succeed despite mounting obstacles while others can’t. In her book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, Dweck postulates that something as simple as wording can be the deciding factor in achieving success or giving up when things get too complicated.

Failure is a dirty word to some people. It’s a reminder of their limitations– the things they can’t do. Fail enough times at something, and it’s easy to convince yourself that you simply can’t do it. People start to believe they lack the ability, talent, or intelligence and accept that it is keeping them from reaching their goals. Once that belief is established, their mindset becomes fixed. The word “can’t” locks their mind to believing the obstacles they face are insurmountable because they lack whatever exceptional people have, allowing them to succeed. The irony is that the only difference between those who failed and those who succeeded is their perspective on failure. 

“Now” versus “Yet”

Failure is painful– no one wants to fail. Failure makes people feel stupid, incompetent, and worthless, so most people run from it. They avert failure, or even the risk of failure, by accepting they can’t succeed and avoiding situations that lead to those undesirable feelings. But, those with a growth mindset see failure not as a setback or confirmation of their limitations but as an opportunity to improve and learn. They don’t operate in terms of can and can’t, but rather not yet. That fundamental difference was a revelation for Dweck. 

As part of her research, Dweck experimented with how 10-year-olds cope with challenging tasks. The key to improvement is stretching ability– operating outside the comfort zone of current knowledge or skill set and striving to perform at a slightly higher level. Some children reacted positively, seeking the challenge presented to improve or learn. Still, others saw their inability to succeed at the task as a judgment of their inability and worth. They were operating in the now, convinced they weren’t good enough, never would be, and nothing could be done to resolve that. But, children who saw this as an opportunity were operating in the realm of yet. In their minds, it wasn’t a problem of not being smart enough to meet the challenge but rather that they hadn’t solved it yet. They understood that intelligence and skill are malleable concepts that can constantly be improved. Children with this growth mindset were more resilient, persevering through challenges and obstacles, versus their fixed mindset counterparts, who tended to give up and experience self-confidence issues.

The value of “Try”

Children with a fixed mindset run from making mistakes, leading to avoidant behaviors, but children with a growth mindset see them as a necessary part of the process. Failure is a learning opportunity. Dweck believes this comes partly from the “gamification” of learning. Parents and educators praise results– grades, awards, and scores– rather than praising effort and work ethic. If adults seek to foster a growth mindset in children, ultimately setting them on a path toward success, they must reinforce the value of trying. When a student takes a risk but fails, nurturing the positive aspects of taking risks is essential, even if not every risk results in an immediate reward. Seek progress over perfection, and commend children for their creativity, problem-solving, and perseverance, especially when they don’t reach their goal. To ensure they understand that achieving goals is a process, cultivate the idea of completing a marathon, not a sprint.

Children with a growth mindset develop resiliency, determination, and a sense of self-confidence that doesn’t stem from their performance. They also develop adaptability, curiosity, and creative problem-solving, abilities valued and sought after by employers long after school is finished. A growth mindset is necessary to achieve success by any measure and establishes a lifelong love of learning. Without that mindset, children may stagnate and depend on outside validation to prove their worth, curtailing their overall potential.

Do you have a fixed or growth mindset? Take this quiz to find out.

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