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5 Ways to Cultivate a Growth Mindset for Self Improvement

5 Ways to Cultivate a Growth Mindset for Self Improvement

Think about a self-improvement goal you have, like becoming a better public speaker, earning a promotion at work, or losing weight. Be honest: What’s been stopping you from achieving, or even making progress, toward your goal?

Do excuses like these sound familiar? I’m a naturally shy person — speaking in front of people makes me nervous. I’m not a good writer, so I’ll never get promoted. I have a slow metabolism, and I’m not an athletic person — losing weight is impossible! If so, then what may be holding you back is a “fixed mindset”.

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You’ve probably heard this term, coined by Stanford University psychology professor Carol Dweck. Essentially, it’s the (erroneous) belief that your abilities are more or less finite and what happens to you, good and bad, is largely due to forces beyond your control, such as natural born talent and luck. For example: The only reason my presentation went well was that Sally was feeling sick, so this time she didn’t outshine me. Or: I can’t do yoga; I have always been really inflexible.

As Dweck argues, a fixed mindset is what stops many of us from trying to improve in certain areas where we think we’ve hit our ceiling. In truth, of course, we’re all capable of reaching new heights. It’s just a matter of shifting from a fixed mindset to what Dweck calls a “growth mindset,” a belief that we actually are in control of what we achieve. Yes, we all have inherent limitations; no matter how hard you try, you may never play tennis like Serena Williams. But, there’s a giant territory between being better than you are now and being the best in the world.

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If you have a growth mindset, you think: If I stretch 10 minutes every day, I will become more flexible or If I take a class and practice every day, I will become a better writer. You’ll take on self-improvement projects and you’ll persevere through challenges because, deep down, you know you can succeed. If you think you’ve been holding yourself back with a fixed mindset, how do you go about shifting to a growth mindset? Here are 5 ways.

1. Get expert help.

Can’t even run around the block? Find a running coach experienced with beginners and have her create a training plan for you that includes running with other novices. You’ll be amazed at how far you’re running in just a couple weeks. Hopeless in the kitchen? Take a cooking class, and learn to make two new dishes. With expert guidance, accountability, and social support, you’ll soon have the confidence to step out of your comfort zone. Once you get a taste of accomplishment, you’ll be ready for the next challenge.

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2. Look around you.

If you’re not able to recognize your own ability to improve, look to family members or friends for evidence that effort and perseverance pays off. Maybe a friend set out to learn Spanish and became fluent. If you instinctively think, “She’s obviously good with languages,” reframe your thinking. Are you really going to take that accomplishment away from your friend? More likely, she studied hard and practiced often.

3. Praise for effort, not skill.

When you get in the habit of recognizing effort in others, you’ll start to change the way you think about your own abilities. Instead of telling a friend, “You’re such a good cook!” say, “I love how you’re always collecting recipes and trying such interesting dishes.” Rather than telling your child, “You’re so smart” when they ace a math test, say “You studied hard for that and deserved a good grade.” Acknowledging effort over talent is a subtle but important change to make when working to adopt a growth mindset.

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4. Compete with yourself.

Yes, caring how we rank is human nature, but caring too much is counterproductive and fuels a fixed mindset. We all have our strengths. What’s important is not how you compare to others but how you compare to where you were yesterday, last week, or last year. Are you moving forward and making progress in the areas that you care about? If so, that’s all that matters.

5. Learn from failure.

When you have a fixed mindset, the voice in your head says, I didn’t make the sale because I’m terrible at closing. Challenge this mindset. Could it be that you didn’t prepare enough to answer all the clients’ questions? What could you have done differently to change the outcome? If you think about it hard enough, you’ll probably come up with lessons to apply to your next sales opportunity.

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    Sharen Ross

    Marketing Strategy Consultant

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    Last Updated on July 17, 2019

    The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

    The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

    What happens in our heads when we set goals?

    Apparently a lot more than you’d think.

    Goal setting isn’t quite so simple as deciding on the things you’d like to accomplish and working towards them.

    According to the research of psychologists, neurologists, and other scientists, setting a goal invests ourselves into the target as if we’d already accomplished it. That is, by setting something as a goal, however small or large, however near or far in the future, a part of our brain believes that desired outcome is an essential part of who we are – setting up the conditions that drive us to work towards the goals to fulfill the brain’s self-image.

    Apparently, the brain cannot distinguish between things we want and things we have. Neurologically, then, our brains treat the failure to achieve our goal the same way as it treats the loss of a valued possession. And up until the moment, the goal is achieved, we have failed to achieve it, setting up a constant tension that the brain seeks to resolve.

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    Ideally, this tension is resolved by driving us towards accomplishment. In many cases, though, the brain simply responds to the loss, causing us to feel fear, anxiety, even anguish, depending on the value of the as-yet-unattained goal.

    Love, Loss, Dopamine, and Our Dreams

    The brains functions are carried out by a stew of chemicals called neurotransmitters. You’ve probably heard of serotonin, which plays a key role in our emotional life – most of the effective anti-depressant medications on the market are serotonin reuptake inhibitors, meaning they regulate serotonin levels in the brain leading to more stable moods.

    Somewhat less well-known is another neurotransmitter, dopamine. Among other things, dopamine acts as a motivator, creating a sensation of pleasure when the brain is stimulated by achievement. Dopamine is also involved in maintaining attention – some forms of ADHD are linked to irregular responses to dopamine.[1]

    So dopamine plays a key role in keeping us focused on our goals and motivating us to attain them, rewarding our attention and achievement by elevating our mood. That is, we feel good when we work towards our goals.

    Dopamine is related to wanting – to desire. The attainment of the object of our desire releases dopamine into our brains and we feel good. Conversely, the frustration of our desires starves us of dopamine, causing anxiety and fear.

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    One of the greatest desires is romantic love – the long-lasting, “till death do us part” kind. It’s no surprise, then, that romantic love is sustained, at least in part, through the constant flow of dopamine released in the presence – real or imagined – of our true love. Loss of romantic love cuts off that supply of dopamine, which is why it feels like you’re dying – your brain responds by triggering all sorts of anxiety-related responses.

    Herein lies obsession, as we go to ever-increasing lengths in search of that dopamine reward. Stalking specialists warn against any kind of contact with a stalker, positive or negative, because any response at all triggers that reward mechanism. If you let the phone ring 50 times and finally pick up on the 51st ring to tell your stalker off, your stalker gets his or her reward, and learns that all s/he has to do is wait for the phone to ring 51 times.

    Romantic love isn’t the only kind of desire that can create this kind of dopamine addiction, though – as Captain Ahab (from Moby Dick) knew well, any suitably important goal can become an obsession once the mind has established ownership.

    The Neurology of Ownership

    Ownership turns out to be about a lot more than just legal rights. When we own something, we invest a part of ourselves into it – it becomes an extension of ourselves.

    In a famous experiment at Cornell University, researchers gave students school logo coffee mugs, and then offered to trade them chocolate bars for the mugs. Very few were willing to make the trade, no matter how much they professed to like chocolate. Big deal, right? Maybe they just really liked those mugs![2]

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    But when they reversed the experiment, handing out chocolate and then offering to trade mugs for the candy, they found that now, few students were all that interested in the mugs. Apparently the key thing about the mugs or the chocolate wasn’t whether students valued whatever they had in their possession, but simply that they had it in their possession.

    This phenomenon is called the “endowment effect”. In a nutshell, the endowment effect occurs when we take ownership of an object (or idea, or person); in becoming “ours” it becomes integrated with our sense of identity, making us reluctant to part with it (losing it is seen as a loss, which triggers that dopamine shut-off I discussed above).

    Interestingly, researchers have found that the endowment effect doesn’t require actual ownership or even possession to come into play. In fact, it’s enough to have a reasonable expectation of future possession for us to start thinking of something as a part of us – as jilted lovers, gambling losers, and 7-year olds denied a toy at the store have all experienced.

    The Upshot for Goal-Setters

    So what does all this mean for would-be achievers?

    On one hand, it’s a warning against setting unreasonable goals. The bigger the potential for positive growth a goal has, the more anxiety and stress your brain is going to create around it’s non-achievement.

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    It also suggests that the common wisdom to limit your goals to a small number of reasonable, attainable objectives is good advice. The more goals you have, the more ends your brain thinks it “owns” and therefore the more grief and fear the absence of those ends is going to cause you.

    On a more positive note, the fact that the brain rewards our attentiveness by releasing dopamine means that our brain is working with us to direct us to achievement. Paying attention to your goals feels good, encouraging us to spend more time doing it. This may be why outcome visualization — a favorite technique of self-help gurus involving imagining yourself having completed your objectives — has such a poor track record in clinical studies. It effectively tricks our brain into rewarding us for achieving our goals even though we haven’t done it yet!

    But ultimately, our brain wants us to achieve our goals, so that it’s a sense of who we are that can be fulfilled. And that’s pretty good news!

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    Featured photo credit: Alexa Williams via unsplash.com

    Reference

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