You’re probably using the phrase ‘growth mindset’ wrong

We’re smack dab in the middle of annual planning and that means one thing: The phrase “growth mindset” gets thrown around the boardroom a lot.

It’s a particular favorite of adherents to the “grow or die” ethos — or the idea that we, as individuals and corporations are either growing or dying — ushered in by mega-startups like Uber and Amazon. But this Ricky Bobby-esque “first or last” mentality isn’t just alarmist, it misses the point of what having a “growth mindset” actually means.

But if you’re using it interchangeably with the need to grow at all costs, then you’re still vastly underestimating your brain’s growth potential.

So, what’s a ‘growth mindset’? (And where do I get one?)

In short, it’s about believing you can change.

A growth mindset is the belief that our skills and intelligence are not fixed; that they can be developed.

And just as important as moving us forward, having a growth mindset can also make us more adaptive to change, more forgiving of our missteps, and more resilient in the face of hardship.

But, our current understanding of cognition isn’t very elastic…

We’re conditioned to believe that, in terms of our inherent intelligence, “we get what we get.” Things like IQ tests, gifted classes, cement the idea that we are born with a certain capacity for intelligence; no more, no less. Unfortunately, these tests have proven to be inherently flawed, and are by no means a definitive indicator of a person’s intelligence.

We could talk for hours on why this is (for a deep dive on the origins of the IQ test and our fraught understanding of cognition, check out this wonderful mini-series from podcast by “Radiolab”), but simply, research shows that our cognitive ability is far more flexible than that.

Depending on how we were raised, we may also have a different understanding of our potential growth: A study of students across schools in Chile showed that students from lower-income families were less likely to hold a growth mindset than their wealthier peers.

This same study showed that a student’s growth mindset was a reliable predictor of their academic achievement.

Having a growth mindset can change entire communities

Growth mindsets have the power to uplift individuals and economies alike by buffering us through difficult times.

A growth mindset can make lower-income students more resilient against the negative effects of poverty on their academic performance. Meanwhile, a study of small businesses in Africa showed that success in the new economy was not just a function of relevant skills; but also required an “entrepreneurial mindset,” or “a way of thinking about business and its opportunities that capture the benefits of uncertainty.”

The best news? Our mindsets themselves can be changed: A 2007 child development study showed 7th graders who were taught that intelligence is malleable and shown how the brain grows with effort “showed a clear increase in math grades.”

Conclusion: Compassion

We can take the concept of a growth mindset and apply it to nearly any aspect of our lives where we face hardship.

But, rather than using this mindset to disregard challenges and blame yourself for not growing fast or far enough, consider a more freeing thought: I may have failed, but I am not a failure.

This is just my brain getting stronger.

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