Are our abilities static and fixed? Or are they dynamic and changeable? We all know that, as humans, we have the capacity to adapt, change and grow, but to what extent? These questions are important because Carol Dweck, a psychologist and researcher at Stanford University, has confirmed what many of us already implicitly know: what we believe affects what we go on to achieve.

For thirty years Dweck has tried to untangle why some children shrink back from challenges and others seek them out, why some wilt and some flower in the face of obstacles. The answer, according to Dweck, is a fundamental difference in outlook. Children with a "fixed" mindset avoid difficulties and challenges. Children with a "growth" mindset embrace them.

A “fixed" mindset is the belief that one’s abilities are carved in stone and predetermined at birth. In this mindset, intelligence is static and success is about proving how smart or talented you are. Getting a bad grade, getting fired or losing a tournament are among the worst things that can happen because they prove that a person is not smart or talented or clever or good enough. A “growth" mindset, on the other hand, is the belief that one’s skills and qualities can be cultivated through effort and perseverance. That talents and abilities can be developed consciously over time.

The easiest way to see the difference between the two mindsets is to look at how each approaches challenges, obstacles, effort, criticism and views the success of others:

- A person with a fixed mindset avoids challenges. A person with a growth mindset embraces challenges.

- A person with a fixed mindset gives up easily. A person with a growth mindset persists.

- A person with a fixed mindset sees effort as fruitless. A person with a growth mindset sees effort as the path to improvement.

- A person with a fixed mindset ignores useful negative feedback. A person with a growth mindset learns from criticism.

- A person with a fixed mindset feels threatened by the success of others. A person with a growth mindset finds lessons and inspiration in other's success.

- A person with a fixed mindset is focused on the outcome. A person with a growth mindset is focused on the learning process.

A handy summary also comes in the form of this infographic...


Dweck's ideas have touched the minds of many people in many different fields in many different places. However, such widespread adoption poses risks. “When any concept becomes popular, it can drift away from the original research,” Dweck has said. “But popularity has a price: people sometimes distort ideas, and therefore fail to reap their benefits. This has started to happen with my research on 'growth' versus 'fixed' mindsets among individuals and within organizations.” But what are the misconceptions surrounding the "fixed" vs "growth" mindset model? Here are three:

1) Growth/Fixed Mindset is Either/Or

A “pure” growth mindset doesn’t exist. Neither does a "pure" fixed mindset. Everyone is a mixture of fixed and growth. It's possible to have a predominant growth mindset in one area and a fixed mindset in another. I could possess a growth mindset when it comes to my abilities on the trail, thinking that I can always practice and get better, while also believing my competence as a wife and mother is static and determined.

2) That We Can Learn Anything and Be Anyone

People with a growth mindset “believe a person’s true potential is unknown (and unknowable); that it’s impossible to foresee what can be accomplished with years of passion, toil, and training.” As a result, they have every incentive to take on tough challenges and seek out opportunities to improve. It is not that they believe they can become a Beethoven or a Serena Williams if they practice and work hard enough, but instead they believe that they have the opportunity to take on tough challenges and become better than they currently are.

An interesting example of this comes from Dweck's TED talk, "The Power of Believing You Can Improve". In it, she describes a school in Chicago with an unorthodox approach to student assessment. “...students had to pass a certain number of courses to graduate, and if they didn't pass a course, they got the grade 'Not Yet.' And I thought that was fantastic, because if you get a failing grade, you think, 'I'm nothing, I'm nowhere.' But if you get the grade 'Not Yet' you understand that you're on a learning curve. It gives you a path into the future”

Dweck also says in her book “Mindset: The New Psychology of Success”: “As you begin to understand the fixed and growth mindsets, you will see exactly how one thing leads to another—how a belief that your qualities are carved in stone leads to a host of thoughts and actions, and how a belief that your qualities can be cultivated leads to a host of different thoughts and actions, taking you down an entirely different road.”

3) The Growth Mindset is Solely About Effort

It's not. People with a fixed mindset try really hard, too. No, the growth mindset is about the right kind of effort. It's about directing effort in a way that yields maximum learning and progress. It's also worth noting that the growth mindset is not some sort of consolation for failure. In fact, it's not concerned with winning or losing, or success or failure at all. The growth mindset is about learning, above everything.


Armed with an understanding of what fixed and growth mindsets are (and what they are not), you may start to notice certain things. For instance, when I first began being mindful of my nutrition I used to catch myself thinking, "I can't stick to this way of eating." And when I decided to start getting up early to run, it was hard. I used to think, "I'm just not a morning person." I didn't know it at the time, but those are fixed mindset thoughts and I've since overturned them. I do eat well most of the time and I can get up early when I need to.

Since I've read Dweck's work I've begun to realize when I'm stuck in a fixed mindset in different areas of my life. Now, I often ask myself, "What would someone with a growth mindset be thinking right now?" and each time I try to make the change. The result of deliberately adopting a growth mindset? I've taken on more challenges. I've found more effective ways to improve. I've persevered in the face of setbacks. Ultimately, I've made more progress in less time.