A Growth Mindset is the Key to Breaking Free

When Josh was 18, he missed his last day of high school. Instead of spending it saying goodbye to his friends and talking about graduation, he spent it in jail.

Following the car ride with his father who had just picked him up from jail (not for the 1st time), he sat in his room. Staring at the ceiling, he waited for his parents to join him and give him the usual lecture.

At times like these, his thoughts were usually about how his parents didn’t understand him, how they were stupid and didn’t know anything, and how they made everything a big deal when it wasn’t.

After sitting in his room for two hours, his dad walked in. Josh prepared himself for the typical, “Why are you fu*#>ng up?   And you’re grounded!” speech. But his dad surprised him when he said, “I don’t know what to say. I love ya. I always will. And I’m very disappointed.”

His dad left the room, and left Josh alone with his thoughts.

Up to that point, Josh had no plans for his future. He wasn’t planning on going on to higher education. He just figured he’d stay home, find work, and start living his adult life.

On that day, in his room though, Josh thought, “Is this really the life I want for myself?   I’m just going to live with my parents? Is this all my life will be?”

That’s when he decided he’d work over the summer and use the time to figure out his next step. When summer came to an end, and his friends all left for college, it spurred him to action. He was not going to be the only one left – the guy hanging out with high school kids even though he was already out of school. So a week later, he took the money he saved over the summer and moved away from home, found a roommate, and enrolled in college.


Fixed versus Growth mindset

I have found plenty of research that explains the difference between a fixed and growth mindset. In general, a fixed mindset is the belief that whatever talents or skills you have are inherent. You are a certain amount of creative, intelligent, or funny, for example, and you can’t change that.

A growth mindset, on the other hand, means you believe you can grow in any area – that there are things you can do to improve your creativity, intelligence, sense of humor, and other characteristics.

Josh describes his experience with going to jail and having that short conversation with his dad as a moment when he believes he shifted from a fixed mindset to a growth mindset. It was when he most clearly remembers his shift in thinking. His new thought being, “I need to do something to change the life I’m creating for myself and I’m the only one who can do it for me.”


Are You Fixed, Growth, or Both?

Most of what I’ve read gives the impression that people are one or the other: fixed or growth mindset people. In my own experience, I have found that we can be both.

For example, I grew up believing that I could grow in certain things such as my tennis skills, my communication skills, and my overall intelligence – knowledge gained and so on. However, in high school, I didn’t believe I could change other aspects of myself. I thought some things were static – that we are born with a certain level of it and that’s it. These included things like how funny or artistic we are and how happy we are.

I find many people share the mindset I had once, which is a combination. They believe there are things they can improve about themselves and there are some things they cannot change.


Growth Mindset, Success and Happiness

What I’ve come to realize is that everything can be changed. The most successful people… whether that is success in career, relationships, health, or some other category… have a growth mindset in all things. They do not believe they are limited. They know they have strengths and weaknesses, but at their core, they know if they put the time and effort into it, they can improve ANY weakness.

Even at the most basic level, such as our own happiness level, there are things we can do to increase it just by practicing a few simple strategies. If you haven’t yet read The Happiness Advantage by Shawn Achor, it is totally worth picking up.


Developing a Growth Mindset

There are a few simple things you can do to work toward a total growth mindset in all areas of your life.

  • Be aware of the kind of language you use. Do you find yourself saying things like, “I’m just not that organized,” or “That guy isn’t very smart.” Remember, if you have a total growth mindset, not only do you believe YOU can grow any area, but you also have the core belief that anyone can. It’s a belief in the ability of people to grow and improve; it’s not a belief that you are one of the super humans who can grow and improve. So your language about others can be as telling as your language about yourself.
  • Consistently remind yourself of human capabilities. Read stories, watch videos, or talk to people who have accomplished things that were unexpected. The person who went from hardcore poverty to wealth (at their own doing), the person who was told they were learning disabled and went on to be a thought leader, or the person who overcame some serious physical or mental damage after being told they would never heal or be the same again are just a few types of examples you can look for. The more we remind ourselves of human greatness and capabilities, the more it sets in our minds that we are also great and capable despite any circumstance.
  • Recognize and celebrate behavior more than results – in yourself and others. You can absolutely celebrate both. When celebrating the behavior of growth, it reinforces that mindset. Sometimes when we celebrate results, it feels good, and is deserved, but doesn’t solidify whether those results came by means of luck, fate, or human capability. Recognizing a person for the persistence to keep plugging away, to continue to work on improvement, despite any setbacks, is much more powerful than recognizing them for a good outcome. Both are nice. Do both. Just make sure you don’t ONLY recognize results.


Advantages to Having a Growth Mindset

If you do a self-check-in, and find you have some areas that could use a shift from fixed to growth mindset, these are reasons that make it worth putting in the effort to make that change.

  • You don’t feel stupid when learning new things. You understand it is just part of the growth process and you’ll get through that tough, awkward beginning stage with continued practice.
  • You won’t develop an oversized head. Believing that everyone has the ability to improve any area they choose helps keep you from believing you are superior to others. Of course, maintaining your humility, not matter how cool you get, is part of what makes you so magnetic to others.
  • You’ll see challenges for what they are – learning opportunities or chances for growth. Challenges are great for pointing out where you need improvement, which makes them very useful.
  • A decrease in your fear of negative outcomes. You know that no matter how it turns out, you’ll find a way to deal with it, learn from it, or overcome it.

Having a growth mindset doesn’t mean you ALWAYS have to be growing. It means you know that when you decide to grow, you are able to. You are not in a jail of the abilities you were born with. You can break free any time you choose.

A growth mindset doesn’t mean you are perfect or ever will be perfect. It just means you know you can strive to be your best self and you can improve when you choose to.


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