Growth Mindset: The Surprising Psychology of Self-Belief

Psychologist Carol Dweck’s much-acclaimed book Mindset opens with a powerful question:

What are the consequences of thinking that your intelligence or personality is something you can develop as opposed to something that is a fixed, deep-seated trait?

After decades of research into people’s beliefs about themselves and their abilities, Dweck identified two fundamental mindsets that people hold:

  • The Fixed Mindset. People with a fixed mindset believe that their most important personal characteristics like intelligence and personality are largely fixed and unchangeable. This mindset leads to a never-ending need to prove themselves, protect their ego, and constantly validate their sense of self.
  • The Growth Mindset. People with a growth mindset believe that their basic qualities and abilities are things they can cultivate through effort and persistence. This mindset leads not only to a passion for learning and personal development, but also confidence and a resilient sense of self in the face of adversity and criticism.

Thankfully, our mindset is not itself a fixed characteristic. And choosing to cultivate a growth mindset is possible for anyone. The benefits of doing so are wide-ranging, from increased confidence and self-esteem to more resilience, creativity, and perseverance.

What follows is a selection of my favorite quotes from the book along with my own brief thoughts and reflections.

On Love of Learning

The belief that cherished qualities can be developed creates a passion for learning.

I’ve often wondered why some people seem to be overflowing with passion and curiosity for almost any topic, while most people can’t even tell you what they enjoy doing outside of generic answers like “spending time outside” or “working out.”

It’s fascinating to think that our capacity for curiosity and deep passion comes from our beliefs about ourselves and our most important qualities and how changeable or not they are.

After all, if you don’t believe it’s possible to change, why would personal growth, learning, and curiosity be high on your priority list?

On Expertise

The major factor in whether people achieve expertise is not some fixed prior ability, but purposeful engagement.

I love this term purposeful engagement. It’s so easy in our hyper-stimulating modern world to become engaged by things around us—our phones, advertisements, TV, podcasts, etc.

But the development of true expertise and mastery requires that we shake ourselves out of the daze of endless feeds and news cycles and ask the big questions: What really matters to me and how am I going to go after it?

On Talent

Most people believe that the “gift” is the ability itself. Yet what feeds it is the constant, endless curiosity and challenge seeking (of the growth mindset).

Talent is a gift, but not in the way we imagine it—some kind of superpower or being born under a lucky star.

In any domain, the gift is the capacity for learning. And those of us with a growth mindset are given that gift by smart teachers, parents, and mentors. But we can also give that gift to ourselves. We can cultivate new talent and change our destiny by changing our beliefs about ourselves.

This isn’t new-age nonsense. This is psychology. This is identifying persistent habits of mind that are holding you back and reformulating them to be more accurate and constructive.

On Envy

Your failures and misfortunes don’t threaten other people’s self-esteem. Ego-wise, it’s easy to be sympathetic to someone in need. It’s your assets and your successes that are problems for people who derive their self-esteem from being superior.

Many people are unwilling to make positive changes in their lives because they fear deep down that other people won’t approve and might abandon them.

And it’s true: People will always resent you for being willing to do what they aren’t.

If you’re afraid to be alone, you’ll never achieve your potential.

On Becoming

The fixed mindset does not allow people the luxury of becoming. They have to already be.

It’s tragic to see people waste their entire life trying to prove to themselves and everyone else that they matter.

For those with a growth mindset, this is hard to even comprehend. To them, the question of whether they matter is as obvious as whether they are alive—of course!

On Potential

There’s a lot of intelligence out there being wasted by underestimating students’ potential to develop.

We all long for a little magic in our lives.

But the romantic, Disneyified, comic book mentality that ability is bestowed rather than built is a plague.

How many truly great minds went undeveloped because they were taught to believe that they’re “just not a math person”?

On Being a Natural

Just because some people can do something with little or no training, it doesn’t mean that others can’t do it (and sometimes do it even better) with training.

If I had a dime for all the “prodigies” and “naturals” I’ve met at one point or another who fizzled out in the long-run…

Here’s to the late-bloomers!

On Labels

In the fixed mindset, both positive and negative labels can mess with your mind. When you’re given a positive label, you’re afraid of losing it, and when you’re hit with a negative label, you’re afraid of deserving it.

Here’s an almost impossibly hard but profoundly instructive experiment: Try to go 24 hours without applying a label to someone, either in your speech or thoughts.

You won’t be able to do it and you’ll be shocked at how much you do.

I don’t know why we love to label and categorize people so much, but it’s a dangerous habit, especially with children and young people.

On Relationships

As with personal achievement, this belief—that success should not need effort—robs people of the very thing they need to make their relationship thrive. It’s probably why so many relationships go stale—because people believe that being in love means never having to do anything taxing.

I suspect that part of the reason why we’re all suckers for the romantic myth of effortless love (or effortless anything) is that we’re wired to conserve energy. Practically speaking, laziness is our default because for our ancestors, not wasting energy often meant the difference between life and death.

But we don’t live in caves anymore. Cultivating yourself may hurt, but it won’t kill you.

On Praise

Praising children’s intelligence harms their motivation and it harms their performance… Yes, children love praise. And they especially love to be praised for their intelligence and talent. It really does give them a boost, a special glow—but only for the moment. The minute they hit a snag, their confidence goes out the window and their motivation hits rock bottom. If success means they’re smart, then failure means they’re dumb. That’s the fixed mindset.

As a psychologist, here’s my #1 piece of advice to parents who want to raise confident, well-adjusted children: Praise effort and creativity, not ability or outcomes.

Instead of, Wow, you’re really smart! try, I’m proud of you for working so hard to study for that test.

Instead of, Honey, that drawing is beautiful! try, Oooo, that’s cool how you used orange and green in that part.

On Parenting

If parents want to give their children a gift, the best thing they can do is teach their children to love challenges, be intrigued by mistakes, enjoy effort, and keep on learning.

Protecting your children is only half your job. The other half is to teach them how to live without you.

You can’t do the second without cutting back on the first.

On Teaching

Some educators try to reassure their students that they’re just fine as they are. Growth-minded teachers tell their students the truth and give them the tools to close the gap.

If you’re a teacher, parent, coach, therapist, doctor, mentor, manager or any other person of influence and authority, don’t be lazy.

It’s hard, uncomfortable work to look someone in the eye and tell them they have a long way to go. And it’s even harder work to stay by their side, showing them how specifically they can improve.

But that’s our job.

On Self-View

The view you adopt for yourself profoundly affects the way you lead your life.

Most of us never even consider that we have powerful beliefs about ourselves operating constantly in the background of our minds, influencing all the choices we make in life from the smallest to the most significant.

If you frequently find yourself stuck, confused, or terrified by the direction your life is headed, it’s worth taking a look inward and examining your own beliefs about yourself.

Seriously, sit down and list 10 or 15 of the most important aspects of yourself. Then for each one, ask: What do I believe about my intelligence/people skills/sense of humor/compassion/work ethic/self-esteem/etc.?

Our mindsets dictate our choices. If we can learn to see these mindsets, we can begin to change them—and in so doing, alter the very course of our lives.


Add Yours

I was thinking about a part of her book that talks about fixed mindset people taking things personally while a person with the growth mindset wouldn’t take things said about them personally. Carol mentions this twice in her book, first on page 162 in developing relationships, and again on page 170 when she talks about what a growth-minded kid would think about bullying. So my question is, why do you think a person with the growth mindset is less prone to take things personal while a person in a fixed mindset is more likely to take things personally?

Great question, Von! I think it’s because people with a growth mindset don’t tie performance to identity. When something goes wrong, they’re more likely to attribute it to external factors rather than personalize and internalize it.

Interesting, I asked because I couldn’t connect how a person with the growth mindset would be less likely to take an assault to their image personally I.e. ”you are ugly”, ”or you’re skinny”.

when others say things that are just mean-sounding, i.e. “you’re ugly” or “you’re skinny”, remember to consider the source. You don’t have to believe someone else’s opinion of you. It can take a lot of self-talk to purge other’s negative opinion of us, especially if they are close relatives or loves. Just keep repeating to yourself that their opinion is not your own opinion. Love yourself

Great article Nick! I really enjoyed it! I’m one of those “prodigies” who was limited by a fixed mindset. I skated by on my intelligence and by agreeing with everything and everyone. Now I’m developing my growth mindset and find myself much more fulfilled and calm!

I’ve been struggling through personal development for over a decade, & now that I’m 2 years post-grad & haven’t been hired, I don’t really believe in this growth mindset anymore. I’ve been trying to e joy the process of my career since day one of school, & the only thing that got me through it was my list of thinngs I’ll be able to afford when I’m hired. I’m almost 40, living with my grandma, more poor than ever, health blah blah I can’t stop thinking about money. It’s the reason why I’ve not experienced a lot of things & I’m trapped without it. I know about motivation & outcome-based mindsets instead of process-based but…I feel stuck. I’ve slid the other direction because of my attempts & outcomes. I learned a ton on my own without school out of curiosity, but eventually, injuries happen, people get careers, & the limits of my wallet surround every second of every day. I feel like I can see the car wreck of depression I’ve already experienced & escaped, & I can’t do anything about it. Everyones advice seems to resemble “Well ya just gotta do/believe the thing.” but I never see results. This is the 3rd career I won’t be starting. I’m 39 this month. The world doesn’t care about my problems.

After almost a year, I have practiced & gotten nowhere. In 2 months I will be homeless. Instead of planning to fail, I dedicated myself to improving my career skill, spent money on more classes, & now I’m out of time to make money. For now…I’ll delete this bookmark, & enjoy passionate practice for a couple months, until my tools are repossessed, & I’m separated from the only things that kept me going.

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