Success? It’s All in Your Mindset
The way you think about your talent and potential affects your ability to
succeed in today’s, as well as tomorrow’s, dynamic world.
Your core beliefs about yourself and your skills can be either fixed and
inflexible or flexible and growth-oriented.
Most of us start with many fixed notions about our talents and doubt
whether we can actually improve them. Research indicates we are
misleading ourselves -- the brain is more like a muscle that can be changed
and strengthened with practice. This is good news because flexibility is
crucial if we are to adapt and adjust to the continual and accelerating
changes that face us in our professional and personal lives.
Your talents and skills can be cultivated. Here is an illustrative story about
the power of changing your mindset:
Barbara Oakley, who has recently written a book on how to excel in math
and science (A Mind for Numbers), opens her book with the story of how
she became a professor of engineering:
“What are the odds you’d open your refrigerator door and find a
zombie in there, knitting socks? The odds are about the same that a
touchy-feely, language oriented person like me would end up as a
professor of engineering.”
As a young girl, Barbara “loathed” math and science and avoided those
courses like the plague. Her interests in history and languages sustained her
in college. After college she joined the army which provided an opportunity
for her to pursue her interest in learning Russian. Barbara became so fluent
that she was often taken for a native speaker.
Then the army offered her an unexpected, and unwelcome, challenge. She
was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army Signal Corps
with the expectation that she would become an expert in radio, cable and
telephone switching systems. Forced to take electronic training, Barbara
finished at the bottom of her class.
Stepping back to reflect on her career at this point, Barbara saw that she had
followed her inner passions but hadn’t been open to new ones.
She realized that she had a choice to make. Figuring that the odds of finding
a career in Slavic languages were limited and that careers in technology
were unlimited, Barbara made a conscious decision to use her GI bill money
to retrain herself “to retool her brain from mathphobe to math lover” “from
technophobe to technogeek”.
It wasn’t easy. Barbara’s classmates seemed to have a natural knack for
seeing solutions that she lacked. She struggled but persevered. Through trial
and error, she trained herself to learn how to learn math. Barbara ultimately
graduated with a Ph.D. in engineering with top grades, which, in turn, led to
a new passion -- how the brain works and how that affects learning.
Carol Dweck, in her book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success,
discusses her years of research that culminated in the discovery of two basic
mindsets: the fixed mindset and the growth mindset.
If you have a fixed mindset, you believe that intelligence and talent are
innate and unchangeable. You either have it or you don’t. And that’s it. The
best strategy is to focus on what you are good at and avoid situations you
believe you are not good at. With a growth mindset, you believe your basic
intelligence, skills, and talents can be cultivated through sustained,
deliberate effort and practice. You see stepping outside your comfort zone as
an opportunity to learn and grow.
Barbara Oakley’s story illustrates the power of mindset – how your
assumptions about yourself and your abilities affect your behavior. She
started out with a fixed mindset, believing strongly that she wasn’t good at
math or science, and therefore limited her energy to what came “naturally.”
Although Barbara managed to move beyond the fixed mindset, believing
that success is the result of inherent talents leads many individuals to avoid
challenges or give up too easily when they do tackle something new. For
individuals with a fixed mindset, stepping out of their comfort zone looks
With the decision to re-set her mind to become an engineer, Barbara shifted
to a growth mindset. She began by taking incremental and strategic steps to
learn differently, leaving plenty of time to practice, and using mistakes as
feedback to improve. Gradually, she built her confidence and expertise and
found that, like studying Russian, she enjoyed math. Her achievement and
passion were ignited through her effort.
The priority for an individual with a growth mindset is learning. Each
problem, situation, or challenge is an opportunity to learn, to figure
something out. Mistakes, critical feedback, and difficult problems are
welcome grist for the learning mill. Excitement and success come from
learning and facing something different. “This is new to me, but I think I can
figure it out.” On the other hand, a fixed mindset fears new challenges that
are outside their comfort zone “I’m just not good at that” and simply drops
In her research, Dweck asked grade schoolers to young adults “When do you
Those with a fixed mindset said “It’s when I don’t make any mistakes.”
Those with a growth mindset said “When I work on something for a long
time and I start to figure it out.”
Carol Dweck’s research has demonstrated that there is a strong link between
our beliefs about ourselves and our behaviors.
Many of us have grown up in an educational or cultural environment that
fostered a fixed mindset. Your worth was determined by test results and
grades. Mistakes were bad news, not an occasion for learning. You were
either a natural at something or you weren’t.
If you’d like to get unstuck from a fixed mindset, start with some of Carol
• “The fixed mindset stands in the way of development and change. The
growth mindset is the starting point for change.
• You don’t always need confidence. Even when you think you’re not
good at something, you can still plunge into it wholeheartedly and
stick with it.
• You don’t have to think you’re always great at something to want to
do it and enjoy doing it.”
Barbara Oakley realized in retrospect that “her way of thinking” made her
“deaf to the music of math.” Her story offers a model for challenging our
self-portraits to discover what music we might not be hearing because we
have decided not to listen.
To see where you fall on the fixed/growth mindset continuum go to:
To learn how to prepare yourself to effectively study and approach complex
problems and avoid procrastination read Barbara Oakley’s book, A Mind for
Numbers: How to Excel in Math and Science (Even If You Flunked Algebra),
published in 2014 by Jeremy P. Tarcher/Penguin.
To learn more about fixed and growth mindsets, read Carol Dweck’s book,
Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, published in 2006 by Ballantine
Written by: Jeanne Svikhart and Kelvin Wall, JQS Consulting