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The Mindset for Career Success

24 October 2016

Look around and see if you can spot the people in your workplace who consistently think they can and those who consistently think they can’t.  It is often easy to spot.  Those who think they can are likely to have what Stanford University Professor Carol Dweck calls a learning mindset. 

When faced with something that is difficult and challenging if you have a learning mindset, you know that with persistence, effort and openness to learning, you will eventually be able to do it.  Those who think they can’t, even if they are highly talented, believe there is a limit to their talents and that once they reach that limit further effort is useless.  These are people with Dweck’s definition of a fixed mindset.

For people with a fixed mindset failure is to be avoided at all costs as any failure indicates deficiencies in who they are fundamentally.  For people with a growth mindset, challenges and failure are just part of the landscape and the only time they really fail is if they fail to learn.

Mindset Impacts Your Career

The thing is, you are often unconscious of the beliefs that determine your mindset, and unconscious of these beliefs you are often unaware of the small, subtle ways they may be impacting and undermining your career.  Mindset, you will be pleased to hear, is not fixed and it is possible, and fairly easy, to change.

In an earlier post I talked about the 5 Principles of Career Success and having a Learning Mindset is one of these, so let’s look at how you can strengthen your learning mindset giving you a greater chance of fulfilling your career potential.

Head Talk

The key difference between the two mindsets occurs in the head talk you engage in which reflects the view you have of yourself.  When something goes wrong for someone with a fixed mindset the head talk has a judgement element to it and sounds something like this: “I am just hopeless”, “This means I suck at doing x”, “People are watching me fail”.  Then when things go well, someone with a fixed mindset will use their good fortune as an opportunity to confirm their status: “This means I am better than x” “This stuff is just easy for someone like me”.  For people with a fixed mindset life is a test to either pass or fail.  If things are hard, or they don’t ‘get it’ the first time this is proof of their limitations.  They approach life, and their career, as an arena in which they have to prove their worth again and again with any setback a reflection on the limitations of their level of talent, intelligence and personal worth.

With this fixed mindset, fear of getting it wrong is ever-present, meaning these people don’t push themselves into new areas and try new things.  They stay safely in their comfort zones.  Often people with a fixed mindset have a naturally high level of talent which sees them through to a certain level of success, but then their fixed mindset thinking limits further growth past the things that come relatively easily to them.

If you have a growth mindset you are still rocked by the times when things go wrong (you are human), but your internal dialogue becomes quickly focused on what the failure means for your growth, with head talk like: “What learning can I take from this” “What aspect of this situation could I improve upon” “Who can I turn to for help”.  If you have a growth mindset you know that the talents you were endowed with at birth and that were nurtured through your childhood are just the start point - it is up to you to cultivate and continue to stretch your raw talents.  A growth mindset does not mean you can achieve anything, but it does allow you to explore your unknown potential.  With a growth mindset you are more likely to enthusiastically put in the time, effort and training to step further into that potential.

People with a growth mindset are not angels.  Even if predominantly you have a growth mindset there will still be occasions and circumstances when you slip into a fixed mindset, as will those who hold a predominantly fixed mindset have occasions when they embrace growth.  The big difference sits in the degree of prolonged effort, grit and determination to continue learning that those with a growth mindset will bring to pushing through the barriers again and again and again. 

Love the Challenges Work Presents

The implications of this for your career are enormous.  Our daily work lives are peppered with challenges, changes and opportunities to stretch ourselves. To be successful (however it is you define success) takes stepping up to these challenges again and again, patting yourself on the back when things go well, then searching out what you could do differently when things don’t go so well.  The fixed mindset stops many people from putting themselves forward for new jobs, for fear they would not survive the potential rejection if they were not successful.  It has them hold back from speaking up during group discussions unless they are completely sure of their standpoint, which they hold to tightly.  It also has them, over time, hold back from making new connections as the effort to continually prove themselves to new people becomes tiring.  People held back by a fixed mindset still desire success and status and recognition know they have inherent talent, but their internal dialogue holds them back again and again and again – and these small pauses add together to limit their potential.

With a growth mindset you are more likely to say you love the work you are currently doing, or at least you are able to find the elements in your current work that you can take enjoyment from.  With a growth mindset the point is not to get to the spoils, but to do all that you do with commitment, enjoyment and curiosity.  The promotions, opportunities, exciting projects, and chances to make a difference just come along for the ride.

Some Steps to Grow a Growth Mindset

So a growth mindset is a definite plus when it comes to success in the workplace, and Dweck’s research has shown you can develop and grow it, and that it is beneficial for everyone to do so. Those of you who already have a growth mindset will benefit from strengthening this capacity and those of you with a predominantly fixed mindset will be pleased to know that it is easier than you think to switch your mindset to a growth one – it does take effort and persistence, but now you know the difference you would be failing if you didn’t put in that effort;)

The first step is to take the online test Dweck has developed on to assess where your current mindset sits.

Next reflect on the past 2-3 months of work and identify times when a fixed mindset has held you back – write these down.  Then identify times when you have seen yourself act with more of a growth mindset – write these down.  These examples give you a baseline.

Then identify a challenge you currently have.  It might be a decision to do something a little more stretching in your job, it might be a piece of work you are having trouble getting on top of, it might be an out of control email inbox, or a workplace relationship that is not as good as you would like it to be.  As I said, there are countless challenges we face on a daily basis in the workplace so I am sure you can find one. 

Strengthen and grow the growth mindset you have about this challenge by going through the following steps:

1. Hear the fixed mind set language you have around this challenge and write down this thinking.
2. Recognise you have a choice to listen to this thinking then either accept it or challenge it.
3. Talk back to your fixed mindset thoughts with an intentional growth mindset voice.
4. Do what your growth mindset voice tells you to do.

Lets go through this with a challenge I have seen hold many people back in their careers: The challenge of speaking to a stranger at a networking event.

Step 1: You might hear your fixed mindset say stuff like: “The other person might think I am an idiot” “What if I make a fool of myself” “If I was any good at networking this wouldn’t feel so awkward”.  Write these thoughts down.

Step 2: Remind yourself you are the one in control of your thinking and you can change it with just a bit of effort.  If you need more help recognising this choice take some time to write down the benefits that might come if you do change your thinking about this challenge.

Step 3: It is time to intentionally talk back to your fixed mindset.  For example your thinking might be something like: “If you don’t try you won’t be put into an embarrassing situation and you will keep your dignity”.  Your growth mindset can counter with: “If I don’t try then I automatically fail and will never get better at doing this.”  Or your fixed mindset thought might be something like: “If I was any good at networking this wouldn’t feel so awkward”.  The counter from your growth mindset could be: “No one feels 100% comfortable approaching strangers and after a few moments things will feel more comfortable.  You can prepare some things to say.”

Step 4: Finally choose to take the action that your growth mindset has put forward for you – do it, learn from doing it, and get better for next time.
Again on the website you can read other scenarios that outline these four steps.

The goal in shifting your mindset is to initially be able to recognise when you are having fixed mindset thoughts then, over time, learn how to dispute them to eventually have a mindset, when you face a challenge, that is predominantly characterised by growth mindset thoughts.

My hunch is you will see benefits in your career fairly quickly especially as the research shows that others respond with higher levels of positivity to those with a growth mindset.

A Special Note for Parents

Carol Dweck’s research has identified that the way we were spoken to as a child is one of the biggest contributors to the mindset we develop as an adult.  Many parents fall into the trap of praising outcomes rather than praising effort.  When children succeed they are often labeled as cleaver, or smart, or naturally sporty, or just good at whatever it is they have succeeded in.  Then when they fail the same language prevails and they are again labeled as dumb, or clumsy, or overly sensitive. Children interpret this language as characteristic of them with constant repetition confirming it as a fixed trait, strengthening their fixed mindset.  For those of you who have contact with children a way to encourage more of a growth mindset is to praise effort not outcomes.  Notice the time, perseverance, effort, determination, and obstacles the child overcame and praise them for these elements not for the final outcome whether that was success or something they need to put more effort into.

As ever wishing you a Flourishing Career.




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