The nature of mindsets

A primer on how our underlying beliefs, attitudes and assumptions create our everyday lives — and our shared world.

Mindsets shape the lives we lead, the actions we take and the future possibilities of the world we live in.

In this primer, we provide an overview of what mindsets are, why they matter and explore a range of practices you can use to be mindful about how and why you use them.

What is a Mindset?

“Your beliefs become your thoughts, your thoughts become your words, your words become your actions, your actions become your habits, your habits become your values, your values become your destiny.” — Mahatma Gandhi

Eight principles can be used to describe the underlying nature of mindsets.

1) Mindsets are habits of mind

The word mindset was first used in the 1930’s to mean “habits of mind formed by previous experience.” In simple terms, mindsets are deeply held beliefs, attitudes and assumptions we create about who we are and how the world works.

2) Mindsets are created by experiences

Mindsets are created from the distinctions we are able to make about our experiences. We have experiences. From our experiences, we make new distinctions. From these distinctions, we create new mindsets.

3) Mindsets create blind spots

Mindsets provide us with fragmented ways of looking at the world, never with complete facts of what is. We always see the world through the filter of our mindsets and our mindsets are always incomplete.

4) Mindsets are self-deceptive

Any attempt to shift our mindsets will be met by powerful forces. An example of these forces is our tenancy for confirmation bias; the searching for, and recalling of, information that reconfirms our pre-existing beliefs.

5) Mindsets shape our everyday lives

We make our mindsets, and thereafter, our mindsets make us. Our thoughts, words and actions radiate out from our mindsets like ripples on the surface of a lake. If there is something we would like to change in our lives, such as be more creative or improve our wellbeing, we must also be open to shifting our mindsets.

6) Mindsets create our shared world

Mindsets are a powerful leverage point for cultural and systemic change. If we want to more consciously create the world we live in, such as act in a way that contributes to the UN global goals, the first-ever global consensus on what must be done to address inequality, climate change and mental health, we must also be open to shifting our mindsets.

7) Mindsets can be developed in complexity

The more developed our mindsets become, the more we unfold towards deeper levels of wisdom and effectiveness in the world. Our mindsets evolve from simple to complex, from static to dynamic, and from ego-centric to socio-centric to world-centric. Our ability to take a perspective improves, as does our capacity to embrace ambiguity and hold paradox.

8) Mindsets can be transcended

Using the power of mindfulness, we can transcend our blind spots and self-deceptive forces, examine how our habits of mind manifest to create our lives and our world — and tap our collective capacities for profound personal and societal transformation.

In sum, it can be said that there is no way to avoid the far-reaching effects of our mindsets. Their hidden web of influence permeates everything — all the time. What’s inside us, our beliefs, attitudes and assumptions — manifests outside, shaping our future possibilities on both an individual and a collective level.

Why mindsets matter

“It is not primarily our physical selves that limit us but rather our mindset about our physical limits.” — Ellen Langer

On a personal level, examining mindsets can create subtle yet radical click’s in our mind, when suddenly, new ways of seeing, being — and ultimately acting become available to us. These liberating shifts can go on to meaningfully transform our lives in surprising and fulfilling ways. Cultivating this capacity is particularly important when engaging in creative activities, or when participating in innovative processes such as human centred design.

For some of you, this may be enough of a reason to inquire into the nature of your mindset. There is, however, a deeper reason to examine your habits of mind.

“It is not until we see our global problems as symptoms of one fundamental, deeper-rooted crisis — the symptoms of our individual and shared mindset — that we can begin to mount a more profound response” — Monica Sharma

We live in turbulent times. Everyone is facing increasingly urgent and deeply interrelated challenges they haven’t faced before. Collectively, we are facing an ever-growing number of social and ecological crises that continue to intensify and worsen. The ultimate source of today's great challenges — the primary root cause that creates all of our crises in the first place — is also our mindsets. All of today's great global problems are consequences of reliving unexamined habits of mind.

Thus, the deeper reason to examine our mindsets is so we can mount a self-aware response to the great challenges of our day. We simply can’t respond to our personal and global problems in a meaningful way unless we also learn how to examine our mindsets as an integral part of how we live our lives.

The three basic mindsets

“The most important question anyone can ask is: What myth am I living?” — Carl Jung

While everyone’s mindset is unique there are some common types that are useful to be aware of.

This includes the Fixed, Growth and Benefit Mindsets which reflect common beliefs people hold about the nature of learning and leadership.

A Fixed Mindset is symbolised by the everyday expert.

“In a Fixed Mindset people believe their basic abilities, their intelligence, their talents, are fixed traits. They have a certain amount and that’s that, and then their goal becomes to look smart all the time and never look dumb.” — Carol Dweck

A Growth Mindset is symbolised by the everyday learner.

“In a Growth Mindset people understand that their talents and abilities can be developed through effort and persistence. They don’t necessarily think everyone’s the same or anyone can be Einstein, but they believe everyone can get smarter if they work at it.” — Carol Dweck

A Benefit Mindset is symbolised by the everyday leader.

In a Benefit Mindset we not only seek to fulfil our potential, but choose to do it in a way that contributes to the wellbeing of others and society as a whole. We question ‘why’ we do what we do, and believe in doing good things for good reasons.

For a more detailed summary of the research behind each of these mindsets please refer to our academic paper.

The basic mindsets in practice

Let’s say you went shopping to buy some food for dinner.

If you did your shopping on autopilot, drawing on your habitual patterns of behaviour and bought what you normally would, that’s an example of a Fixed Mindset.

If instead, you went shopping and considered making something new and different, and bought ingredients in a mindful fashion, that’s an example of a Growth Mindset.

However, if you went shopping, considered making something new and you also considered the wellbeing of your community and the planet — choosing socially and environmentally innovative options, that’s an example of a Benefit Mindset.

This is a simple example of how the mindset we adopt shapes our everyday actions and the future possibilities of our world.

More consciously choosing your mindset

“We are called to be architects of the future, not its victims.” — Buckminster Fuller

How can we become more conscious of the mindsets we are living? There are a wide range of practices for making more conscious choices, here are a few worth noting;

  • On a personal level, a practice of mindfulness helps us become more aware of how our mindsets are manifesting in our lives and our world.
  • In a community setting, Walk Out Walk On by Margret Wheatley & Deborah Frieze provides a rich variety of practices communities are using to live the future now. Communities who come together to walk out of their limiting beliefs, attitudes and assumptions — and walk on to healthy and resilient futures.
  • In an organisational setting, Robert Kegan’s and Lisa Laskow Lahey’s concept of a Deliberately Developmental Organization is valuable for promoting whole organisation mindset development.
  • Otto Scharmer has developed a mindset transcending practice called Presencing (also called Theory U). Presencing can be understood in three primary ways: first as a framework; second, as a method for leading profound change; and third, as a way of being — connecting to the more authentic aspects of our self and the world.
  • David Gray’s book Liminal Thinking provides a range of nine practices for minimising reality distortion, envisioning new possibilities and creating positive change. These practices can be summarized as three simple precepts: 1. Get in touch with your ignorance. 2. Seek understanding. 3. Do something different.

Who do you want to be and what kind of world do you want to create?

“You cannot get through a single day without having an impact on the world around you. What you do makes a difference, and you have to decide what kind of difference you want to make.” — Jane Goodall

In this primer, we’ve explored; what mindsets are, why they matter and provided a range of practices you can use to be mindful about how and why you use them.

If your organisation is interested in developing this vital human capacity, get in touch and let’s work together.