The Science of Perseverance: The Growth Mindset

Riley Smith
Content Contributor
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Every challenge is an opportunity to learn.

When you are faced with a failure…

…do you berate yourself? Cover it up? Never try again, so you don’t look “stupid”?

Or do you embrace failure as a sign of learning?

Research shows the latter mindset will lead you to greater success. It’s called the Growth Mindset, and fear not! If you don’t have it yet, you can learn it.

The expert

Dr. Carol Dweck is the Lewis and Virginia Eaton Professor of Psychology at Stanford University, with previous appointments in the Psychology departments of Yale, Harvard, and Columbia.

Her research focuses on “the self-conceptions people use to structure the self and guide their behavior.” The culmination of decades of research into how people motivate and self-regulate led to her famous framework: the Growth Mindset.

She’s won a number of honors and awards for her research, notably Donald Campbell Career Achievement Award in Social Psychology and the Book Award for Self-Theories from the World Education Federation, an organization jointly run by the United Nations and UNICEF.

The Growth Mindset

When we talk about successful people, we often talk about them as if their success is the result of some innate characteristic. We say, “What talent!” or “So smart,” making the implicit claim that it is something spectacular about that individual, something they were born with, that led to their success.

However, this is not borne out by research. In fact, over the last thirty-plus years, Dr. Dweck’s research has shown that an individual’s own internal theories about themselves and their own intelligence has much more of an impact than natural ability.

What are these internal theories that have such a large impact on success? Dr. Dweck has defined them as the Growth Mindset vs. the Fixed Mindset.

Let’s dive into the differences between the two, when they’re most helpful, and how to cultivate the Growth Mindset for yourself and your company.

Growth vs. Fixed Mindset

What are the fundamental differences between a growth and a fixed mindset? It’s all about what you believe. Someone with a fixed mindset has different underlying beliefs than someone with a growth mindset, and those underlying beliefs will determine their actions.

For instance, someone with a Fixed Mindset believes that intelligence is static (you’re either born with it or you’re not), which means they’re interested in being “naturally smart,” or at least appearing naturally smart to others.

To maintain this image of themselves, individuals with a Fixed Mindset will…

  • Avoid challenges
  • Give up easily when faced with obstacles
  • See effort as fruitless or worse
  • Ignore useful negative feedback
  • Feel threatened by the success of others

As a result of these behaviors and thought processes, they will not try as hard, causing them to “plateau early and achieve less than their full potential.”

Ironically, this plateauing confirms their previous biases! Since they don’t stretch their abilities, they are “stuck” with their natural ones, and thus only achieve what they could already from the get-go.

On the other hand, those with a Growth Mindset believe intelligence can be developed. People with this mindset look for opportunities to learn.

As a result, individuals with a Growth Mindset will…

  • Embrace challenges
  • Persist in the face of setbacks
  • See effort as a good and necessary thing on the way to success
  • Accept and learn from criticism
  • Feel inspired by and learn from the success of others

The additional effort and persistence of those with the Growth Mindset pays off. As a result of the behaviors and thought processes listed above, they reach higher levels of achievement over time.

This gives them greater confidence in themselves and a greater sense of free will, which cycles back into the process and leads to even more beneficial growth behaviors and thoughts!

The impact of your Mindset

So, we know that the Growth Mindset provides a greater sense of accomplishment and free will, but how does that translate to success in the real world?

Dr. Dweck has a number of examples of the impact of the Growth Mindset. Let’s discuss a few here, so you can see the benefit of the Mindset in a real-world situation.

  • Fiske Elementary School trained their teachers in effort-based praise and saw growth in student abilities greatly exceeded state averages (Fiske Case Study)
  • The Growth Mindset was used to overcome stereotype threat in the math abilities of women and the academic achievement of Black, Hispanic, and low-income students (Good, et. al. 2003)
  • The original Growth Mindset study showed that performance goals led, ironically, to lower performance over time than learning goals (Dweck, Leggett 1988)

Dr. Dweck explores a larger number of studies and cases in her book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success.

When is a Fixed Mindset better?

In her appearance on “Talks at Google,” Dr. Dweck answered an interesting question: When, if ever, is a Fixed Mindset more effective than a Growth Mindset?

Dr. Dweck had the answer. “Research, not my research, but the research of others, has looked at this question and found two areas so far in which a fixed mindset is better.”

According to Dr. Dweck, one area that has been shown to benefit from a Fixed Mindset is sexual orientation. “People who accept that this is who they are and this is who they are meant to be seem to be better adjusted than people who think ‘I should be changing.’”

The other area that benefits from a Fixed Mindset is aging. “It’s nice to feel you can stay young through exercise and so forth, but people who run around nipping, and tucking, and the tummy tuck… it’s kind of a desperate attempt to retain extreme youth.”

Research shows that accepting your age helps you be more adjusted and more satisfied with your life and self.

But when it comes to areas of skill, a Growth Mindset leads to more success.

How to build a Growth Mindset

Everyone has a mixture of Fixed Mindset thoughts and Growth Mindset thoughts. It’s a spectrum, not a dichotomy, but you can improve your outcomes by training yourself to have a greater reliance on the Growth Mindset.

If you want to cultivate a Growth Mindset, start with the following:

  • Pick challenges over taking a safer route.
  • Interpret obstacles as learning opportunities.
  • Learn from those who are better than you (and be willing to admit there are plenty of people who are better than you!)
  • When faced with an error or failure, watch your thinking. Respond with positivity and the confidence that you’ll get it next time… or the time after that!

Since many of us were trained to have a Fixed Mindset, cultivating the Growth Mindset is often about watching for triggers that lead to Fixed Mindset thoughts, and combatting those in your own thought processes.

Let’s take a look at those triggers and what we can tell ourselves instead, so we can grow our Growth Mindset!

What triggers a Fixed Mindset?

Consider what happens when you face a big challenge or an obstacle.

Are you concerned about people “realizing” that you don’t know what you’re doing? Do you start out feeling worried about what will happen if there’s a setback?

If you jump to “I’m not good at this” when faced with a challenge, you’ve been triggered into a Fixed Mindset.

Criticism can also trigger a Fixed Mindset. How do you respond to criticism? Do you feel defensive or angry when given negative feedback, or do you take what you can from it and consider it a learning opportunity?

An angry response to feedback is evidence of a Fixed Mindset.

When faced with these triggers, try to consciously replace Fixed Mindset statements with Growth Mindset statements. Here are a few examples:

  • Instead of “I’m bad at this,” think, “I can get better at this.”
  • If you’re worried about looking “stupid,” remind yourself that failure and effort are inevitable parts of eventual success.
  • If you’re recovering from a mistake, don’t berate yourself. Remember that all people (including the “smart” ones!) make mistakes.
  • If you’re feeling threatened by someone who is “better than you,” ask yourself, “What can I learn from this person?” Perhaps this is even an opportunity to find a mentor!  
  • If you’re feeling angry or defensive about criticism, ask yourself, “What can I learn from this feedback?”

These shifts in thinking, while they may seem small, will help you achieve more and reach your goals in the long run.

The Power of Yet

In Dr. Dweck’s Talk at Google on the Growth Mindset, she shared a concept called the Power of Yet. It began when she visited a highschool where they had to pass a certain number of units to graduate.

Dr. Dweck tells us, “If they didn’t pass a unit, they got the grade Not Yet. I thought, isn’t that great! Because if you get a failing grade you think, I hate this, I’m out of here, I’m not good at this… But Not Yet means, hey, you’re on a learning trajectory.”

There is something much more helpful in saying, “I’m not good at this yet,” or instead of thinking about how you failed, telling yourself you just haven’t succeeded yet.

Try incorporating “yet” into your self-talk, and you’ll feel more positive and motivated as you work through obstacles or respond to failure.

It’s always a journey

Dr. Dweck reminds us that because we always fluctuate between the two, your mindset is a continuous journey. You will never “arrive” at the perfect Growth Mindset and stay there.

“It’s a lifelong journey of monitoring your trigger points and trying to approach things in a more Growth Mindset way, of taking on challenges, sticking to them, and learning from them… It’s not ever the case that you’ve arrived at a full, permanent Growth Mindset… Even I hear myself saying sometimes in my head, ‘I was never good at that.’ I’m like, ‘Whoa, did I say that?’”

It’s always a work in progress!

With this in mind, Dr. Dweck recommends that before you jump in and try to change your whole inner thought process, you spend two weeks listening to yourself.

Over two weeks, closely observe your thought process. See when you rely on limiting Fixed beliefs, and when you open up to a Growth Mindset. Carefully observe your own inner monologue without attempting to change it yet.

After observing yourself, you’ll have a much greater understanding, and the journey to a Growth Mindset will be easier.

Organizational Mindset

It’s not just personal… an organization can have a mindset, too! Often, we consider this in terms of “company culture,” which is basically a way of saying the whole organization’s tendency toward one mindset or another.

A Growth Mindset organization can see the same benefits as an individual in terms of increased creativity and ultimately success.

Let’s discuss how to tell your organization’s mindset, how to look for this mindset when hiring, and how to shift your culture into even more of a Growth Mindset.

Signs of a Growth vs. Fixed Mindset organization

The distinction between a Growth vs. Fixed Mindset organization often comes down to this:

Does your organization value raw talent, hire raw talent, and praise raw talent above everything else? Or do you believe everyone can learn and succeed with effort?

The former is the biggest sign of a Fixed Mindset organization, and the latter is the thinking of a Growth Mindset organization.

Another way to tell is by the honest opinion of an organization’s employees. In a Growth Mindset organization, employees will believe the following:

  • They are empowered by the organization, and are thus more committed to it.
  • Their companies genuinely value creativity and innovation.
  • If they take a reasonable risk, and it doesn’t work out, they will be supported by the organization.
  • Their company values teamwork.
  • Managers believe their employees have tremendous potential.

Employees of a company with a Fixed Mindset will believe the following:

  • They are ready to leave for anywhere if offered a higher salary.
  • The company talks about creativity and innovation, but doesn’t believe it.
  • If something goes wrong, somebody will “pay the price.”
  • Cheating, deception, and information hoarding are expected to get ahead of peers.
  • Managers do not believe their employees have much potential.

Think carefully about your organization. Is your culture focused on Growth, or fixated on “talent”?

How to identify “Growth Mindset” hires

If you want to grow your organization using this mindset, it can help to bring people on who already think in this way (although the environment you set in your organization will have a much bigger impact than any one individual).

Here are some ways to tell if a new hire is using a Growth Mindset.

Ask how the interviewee gained their skills. Look for the people who describe the process and effort it took to gain them, and avoid those who claim it’s a result of innate talent.

Ask interviewees about their greatest failures. Do they actually admit failure? Can they describe how they learned from that failure to later use it to fuel success? Candidates who discuss failure candidly and honestly, without defensiveness, are likely working with a Growth Mindset.

Also, watch interviewees for a readiness to share credit while accepting blame. If they focus on blaming others for failures while taking credit for success, they’re likely working within a Fixed Mindset.

Shifting corporate culture to a Growth Mindset

Shifting your company’s mindset from fixed to growth will of course take a great deal of time. It’s not an overnight process that can be accomplished with one email or a new slogan.

The message, encouraging growth over talent, must come from the very top of the organization, but it can’t just stay words. It has to be backed up structurally within your company by real rewards, including salary and advancement.

To start this journey, communicate to your entire company the values of a Growth Mindset:

  • Taking on challenges
  • Rewarding reasonable work
  • Valuing teamwork over individual performance
  • Sharing information

Your next big step will be shifting the focus during performance evaluations, however those look like for your organization. Evaluations should speak to people’s growth and contribution to the company in terms of new learning.

You can’t just praise without concrete rewards. Make sure salary increases take into account whether someone improved and helped others improve. The bottom line counts, but a Growth Mindset organization is focused on these things far more than “How much did you sell this year?” or “How impressive were you in meetings?”

The important thing to note here is that just talking about a Growth Mindset won’t make it happen, especially if you keep up the old system of rewards (and punishments). You have to incorporate the mindset into the very structure of how your company works, and most importantly, who gets rewarded.

Join the conversation

We’re diving even deeper into the science of Perseverance on our podcast, REACH, where we explore the mindsets of high achievers and then seek to apply the lessons to life, business and marketing. If you haven’t had an opportunity to listen to the podcast, please visit to listen through your favorite podcast provider.

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