A reflection on what it really means to have a growth mindset

I spent most of high school obsessed with doing well in school and getting good grades. I may not have realized it at the time, but my entire self-worth was defined by my grades. I constantly berated myself for making mistakes, because every little mistake meant that I didn’t understand, that I couldn’t succeed and that I didn’t deserve anything good. The praise from my parents, my peers and my teachers when I did do well only reinforced my belief that I was only worthy if I had high grades. 

To be honest, it was exhausting, and I wish someone would have told me that it was okay to fail sometimes. The first time I didn’t do up to my usual standards on an exam it shook my self-confidence to the core: “What if I’m not good enough?” “I’ll never be able to understand this.” “I’m not smart enough.” I’m sure that’s a familiar narrative to all of you. We spend a significant portion of our lives defining our self-worth by our grades, but at the end of the day, a number is not what defines you. Failing, in my opinion, is sometimes more valuable than always doing perfectly — if you’ve failed, it means you’ve had the opportunity to learn.

If you never fail, you’ll never learn to succeed.

Having a growth mindset means believing that you can learn anything if you are sufficiently motivated. It means putting in the effort despite the risk of failure. And most importantly, it means knowing that making mistakes doesn’t mean that you’ve failed — it means that you have the opportunity to grow.

In the world of the fixed mindset, perfection is crucial, and it must be instantaneous. After all, if you need to put in effort, that means you’re not really good enough, right?

Wrong.

Your potential for development is not limited by your effort. Rather, it is unleashed by effort. By choosing to develop a growth mindset, you are choosing to opt for growth rather than fear of failure. If you believe that you have the capacity for growth, then your “failures” will simply show you a new path to success.

The fixed mindset is fed by our constant need for validation. As Carol Dweck, the psychologist who pioneered the theory of the growth mindset says,  “The idea of trying and still failing — of leaving yourself without excuses — is the worst fear within the fixed mindset (…) Without effort, you can always say, ‘I could have been …’ But once you try, you can’t say that anymore.” The problem with this way of thinking is that it prevents you from truly trying to succeed. On the other hand, in the world of the growth mindset, it is “almost inconceivable to want something badly, to think you have a chance to achieve it, and then do nothing about it. When it happens, the I could have been is heartbreaking, not comforting” (Dweck 43-44).

When you have that fixed mindset, constantly seeking validation and trying to prove yourself over and over by always being “the best,” you can’t really go anywhere. You’ll always be stuck in that vicious cycle of caring more about a narrow vision of success than learning to let yourself grow and expand, and when that inevitable failure comes, it will be devastating.

Students who have a fixed mindset tend to study by simply trying to memorize everything, without actually trying to understand. If they do poorly on an exam, they conclude that the subject is just not for them and that they don’t have the capacity to understand the material.

Students with a growth mindset take charge of their own learning and look for themes and underlying principles across lectures. They study to learn, not just to ace the test. As a result, they achieve higher grades.

Students with the growth mindset embrace challenges rather than shrink from them, because a challenge has the potential to further growth, whereas in the fixed mindset, a challenge simply exposes weaknesses. Finally, students with the growth mindset request feedback in order to improve, accept help from others, and most importantly, persist in the face of setbacks.

Developing a growth mindset is not easy, especially if you’ve spent a long time stuck in the fixed mindset. I’m three years into university, and I still find myself falling into the trap of the fixed mindset. Remind yourself how far you’ve come. Remind yourself of your own success. Remind yourself that you’ve only just begun your journey. Learn to forgive yourself and remember that it is impossible to grow without failure.

References: Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, by Carol Dweck, PhD (2016 edition).

Sophie Gregoire-Mitha
3rd year, Biomedical Science

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