5 fixed mindset beliefs and how to overcome them

Is a fixed mindset helping or hindering your success?

A recent coaching client of mine was convinced that he would never be good at public speaking. Even leading meetings was problematic and it was holding him back in terms of his career progression. He had a fixed mindset belief that he just couldn’t work through.

We worked together on it and I videoed his journey. When I showed him the footage just 6 weeks later, he was blown away by the improvement he had made. He couldn’t understand why he hadn’t tried before. But I understood why – because his mindset got in the way.

fixed mindset

Mindsets are powerful filters through which we see and interpret the world. They help us understand and make sense of what is happening and why.

What if – like my client – you don’t believe you can change? That your thoughts, beliefs and abilities are so static that you can’t see the point, or even believe, that change is possible?

In this situation, you quite probably have a fixed mindset.

Someone with a fixed mindset believes that things don’t, won’t and can’t change, including their skills, their talents, their situation.

Conversely, someone with a growth mindset believes that these things are open to change and can be developed throughout life.

Fixed mindsets are only for grown ups…right?

You might think that adults are the main victims of a fixed mindset, but the research behind much of what we understand about fixed vs growth mindsets today was actually carried out with school-aged children.

Stanford researcher Carol Dweck and her colleagues were studying failure in school exams and tests and wanted to understand why some students bounced back from a poor grade, while others resigned themselves to a life of under par performance.

When they looked at thousands of students’ beliefs about intelligence and success, they realised that those who believed they could become more intelligent, learn more and improve next time had a ‘growth’ mindset. These students put in extra effort, worked harder and showed improvements in the future.

But those who had a fixed mindset, believed that they were as smart as they were ever going to be and would never improve. And they didn’t.

Someone with a fixed mindset inherently believes “I’m no good at maths,” “I’ll never understand physics,” or “I wasn’t born with any musical talent.” They feel it is hopeless and pointless to even try, so they don’t.

Evidence from young people and adults suggests that having a fixed mindset impacts the type of goals you aim for (less challenging); your attitude to feedback (less likely to seek it or heed it when given) and overall feelings of confidence and ability (reduced).

It was also discovered that those with a fixed mindset of being smart, fought so hard to retain this status that they were more open to cheating in tests because they couldn’t face the possibility of failure.

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But could there be situations when a fixed mindset is more helpful than harmful?

In her book Mindset The New Psychology of Success, Carol Dweck makes the point that a growth or fixed mindset is not ‘good’ versus ‘bad’. The question to ask is “is my mindset helping or holding me back in this situation at this time?”

It can be particularly helpful to have a growth mindset in situations when the answer is not clear, when we’ve made a mistake or failed in some way or when we are feeling anxious.

But it is not helpful to adopt a growth mindset to everything – you’d soon run of time and energy! So a growth mindset needs to be targeted rather than applied to everything.

In terms of when a fixed mindset can be helpful, research has found two areas in which a fixed mindset is better.

One is sexual orientation – people who can accept that this is who they are and who they’re meant to be seem to be better adjusted than those who think ‘I should be changing.’

The other area is in regard to aging, when a growth mindset can lead to an unhealthy attitude to looking young through surgery etc.

So it seems that in situations where there is a need for acceptance, a fixed mindset may in fact be helpful.

However, overall the evidence in adults and young people is that a fixed mindset can limit learning, performance, outcomes and wellbeing.

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5 fixed mindset beliefs and how to overcome them

  1. Either I’m good at something, or I’m not.

This one-extreme-or-the-other approach is limited thinking at its most basic level. And, let’s face it; we’ve all been guilty of this at some point.

How can we know we are bad at something if we never try? How do we know we can’t improve unless we attempt to?

But, it comes down to fear. And it’s the same with any fixed mindset approach – we are scared to let go of what is normal or familiar. Even if that familiar behaviour is ultimately damaging to us.

Growth mindset alternative: If I’m not good at something, I can always become better at it through practice.

  1. There’s no point in trying if I’m going to fail.

This is the ultimate statement in hopelessness.  What’s the point in even trying?

Yes of course you might fail. You might keep failing and wondering what and how to get out of it.

But, again, this is out of fear; fear of looking silly for trying something, fear of doing the wrong thing, fear of letting someone down etc.

What if we were able to look at every failure as an opportunity to reframe the situation completely? The one question you need to ask is:

How bad do you want it?

Growth mindset alternative: I see failures as opportunities to learn, to reassess, and to do better next time.

  1. I take feedback as a personal attack.

It’s true that some people just don’t know how to offer feedback constructively (or they don’t want to). Or, they resent the success of others so much that they attack their efforts (and then laugh at their failures).

However, you might perceive it this way, when the other person is just trying to be helpful.

The thing you have to remember about feedback is that even when it’s vitriol, it is never specifically about you. You need to try and separate the words from the intent. Learn how to take away what is useful to you from what the person is saying. This is not always easy, but it’s definitely a useful skill to practise.

Growth mindset alternative: I can find the value in every bit of feedback I receive.

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  1. I always struggle with….

This is negative self-talk at it’s strongest. If you tell yourself you can’t do something, your whole body and mind will believe it.

As the famous words of Descartes go: I think, therefore I am. 

If we believe that we always struggle with something, we permanently close off that part of our brain that could potentially help us to try and do better.

When we use our cognitive abilities to switch our thinking to more positive, affirmative beliefs, amazing things can happen. But it takes time and consistent effort to think like this when we have always had this part of our brain closed off to improvement.

Growth mindset alternative: I can always do better at something if I want to, but it will take effort.

  1. I’ve always been told that I can’t __.

As Dweck’s study proved, it’s the young brains amongst us that suffer from being told something about their own abilities, or lack of. Where does this self-doubt come from? Parents, schools, older influencers.

These limiting, destructive beliefs become our ‘truth’ when we hear it often enough.

But, we can’t blame ourselves, or others, for being surrounded by the ‘truths’ we were told when we were young.

As an adult, we need to understand that someone else’s opinion is exactly that. Their opinion. Their truth. Not ours.

We also need to believe that we can change what we previously thought was true, even if it has been ingrained for so long.

Growth mindset alternative: No one can know my potential. I must discover it for myself, independent from outside opinion and influence.

Fixed mindsets for leaders

Understanding that fixed mindset beliefs are based in fear can be useful for leaders when coaching themselves and others towards a more growth mindset.

Your fixed mindset (or that of others) is ultimately trying to keep you safe, so when thinking about how to shift someone’s mindset, a good general approach is to consider how you can help them feel more safe and secure.

After all, building trust in ourselves and others, is a root cause of success for leaders.

Paige can help you to recognise your mindset and work with you to leverage this knowledge as a leader. Talk to me about 1:1 and team coaching, and my Leading Well workshop.

Copyright 2019: Dr Paige Williams

Paige Williams, PhD

Paige Williams, PhD

Speaker, Author, Mentor, Coach

Paige helps leaders leverage their leadership to lead teams that deliver and create culture that feeds high performance.

Leveraging Leadership for positive purposeful impact.