Professional practice and a growth mindset

I quite often use the phrase ‘professional practice’, in contrast to ‘professional performance’. While I want those around me to ‘perform’ to a high standard, I want to suggest that most of what we do is actually practice.

I rarely ‘perform’ these days. And I’m not even practicing so that one day I’ll be perfect. I don’t want to repeat the same tried and tested procedure over and over again, letter for letter, in every situation. The world is too volatile and unpredictable. And while I’ve got a big bag of tricks and processes that I know have worked in the past, I’m nowhere near done learning.

When faced with a new challenge, and when we have the experience, we should measure the current situation to the templates we hold. Solutions that have worked in the past will be the first that we’ll try to apply now. But most of the time, taking a ready-made template to the types of problems I’m faced with isn’t the most effective or even the most efficient way of working. I improvise. I invent. I practice.

But I probably think in these terms because I’m also trying to practice a ‘growth mindset’.

Fixed and Growth mindset

Dr. Carol Dweck has contrasted two mindsets that we can hold in relation to skills and learning.

A fixed mindset believes that intelligence is static. People who adopt a fixed mindset want to look smart — so they tend to prioritise success, limiting their opportunities for growth. The fixed mindset means that they see their behaviour and performance as integral to their personality — they don’t see much choice or autonomy in the way they do things. Their confidence can be delicate. They might engage in ego-protecting activities — employing “low effort” strategies so they can excuse failure. They might default into defensiveness during feedback. They’re more focused on ‘results’ not ‘causes’. So they don’t make the most of feedback and have limited learning strategies. They likely see the success of others as a threat. They like to succeed and probably want a place on a pedestal — after all, they’re focused on looking smart and successful. But they probably care less about the legitimacy of their position — they’ll happily accept undeserved praise.

People operating using a ‘Growth mindset’ feel different. For these people intelligence can be developed, so they want to learn. They like to succeed (eventually) but they’re more likely to prioritise growth and development. They tend to be more resilient. Their confidence is likely more robust, supported by this resilience and a fast recovery from setbacks. They see failure as providing useful information — it doesn’t define them. They’re not intimidated if they’re not the best — in fact they kind of like being surrounded by people to learn from. They see the success of others as a model to follow and inspiration to power their own development. As leaders, people with a growth mindset tend to be nurturing — they invest time in people.

Whether we adopt a fixed or a growth mindset can have a profound effect on our ability to “perform” and practice professionally. Our mindset changes the meaning of effort for us. In a fixed mindset, effort most likely means that we’re not good enough. In a growth mindset effort can be energising.

Effort and ability are not mutually exclusive.

For those with a well-developed growth mindset, effort and ability are not mutually exclusive. Ask someone when they feel smart and someone with the growth mindset will answer “when I’m trying hard and getting better.” Someone with a fixed mindset will answer the same question, “when I make no mistakes.” The mindset that we adopt can have a profound impact.


You might be reading this thinking that you’ve “got a fixed mindset”. Ironically, you’ll probably also be thinking that you can’t change it. But you don’t need fixing — there’s nothing wrong with you — it might just be some of the behaviours that feel more natural.

The labels we use are profoundly powerful. Labels shape our reality and underpin the mindset we hold. I’ve redrafted this piece several times to try to avoid labelling people — labels belong to behaviours. The mindsets are just a default set of beliefs that affect our behaviours. It’s hard to unpick these implicit beliefs and assumptions. But we can easily adopt some more helpful behaviours which in time can shift our mindset.

  • Picture your brain forming new connections — learning is possible and inevitable — make it positive
  • Ask for authentic feedback from someone you trust
  • Rewrite the ‘defining moments’ from the past — if there’s a key event that made you think you can’t do something, revisit the memory. Reinterpret and re-write what happened with a more ‘growth mindset’ filter. Detach the labels of failure from you personally to the behaviour or specific execution.
  • Reframe effort as a positive, energising emotion
  • Who inspires you? Find out the truth of their achievement.
We have not seen enough of the rough drafts of those we admire. Confidence means forgiving ourselves for the horrors of our first attempts. The School of life
  • What ‘switches off’ your brain? Effort and failure can trigger flight or fight. Manage your ‘Amygdala hijacks’ to bring a more mindful, reflective state to moments of effort or failure.
  • Be intentional in moments of effort
  • Be careful with labels
  • Find cultures that support growth

If you’re a leader there’s a set of stuff you can do:

  • Take care with messages of success and failure — don’t use fixing-labels
  • Judge performance not people
  • Praise [good] process always (outcomes often)
  • Talk about growth, development and progress
  • Feedback focused on development is specific — be specific
  • Set high standards and fair expectations

Our mindset underpins everything we do. It’s the lens that sits between us and the world. But we can control it. Think about the assumptions and beliefs that stand between you and the world. What mediates your experiences and filters your potential? Think of your mindset as an object, so that you can look at it rather than just through it. Think about the skills and behaviours that you need and value — and then practice them.