Street art by TT. Shot in Melbourne by the author.

Design with a growth mindset

This is the write up of one of the talks I gave at Atlassian Design Week 2017. It’s an exploratory dive into the concept of growth mindset; the idea that one can — with the proper motivation, hard work, and practice — become great at almost anything.

What is growth mindset?

You might be wondering, What is a “growth mindset”? The term was coined by psychologist Carol S. Dweck from her book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. In a nutshell, it’s jargon for believing that knowledge and expertise are learned and earned, as opposed to being limited by one’s “natural” talent.

Talent is a thing, for sure, but without hard work and practice, talent won’t amount to much. More important, talent can give you a leg up, sometimes, but you can’t reach your highest potential without hard work and practice. And that potential is, in many cases, only limited by your imagination and motivation.

But don’t take my word for it, there’s a shitload of research in acquiring expertise. A great place to start is Anders Ericsson’s book Peak. And more and more evidence comes to light every day. It’s true that younger minds are more adaptable, and have a greater ability to learn, but as we discover more about the mind, we’re beginning to see many examples of how older minds can adapt and learn as well. Which is awesome, but it’s not all good news. Quite a bit of study has been done on how expertise and it shows clearly that without regular practice and learning, experts begin to lose their skills and knowledge over time.

So, to be great, you’ve got to put in hard work and practice.

Hard work is essential here. Simple practice, while beneficial to a point, will not do it. Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hours, for example, only works if purposeful and deliberate practice have been applied. You can’t simply play “Free Bird” over and over for 10,000 hours and become a master guitarist.

Take medical professionals, who have been studied particularly well. There is a lot of good evidence showing that simply listening to lectures does nothing to improve a doctor’s performance when that performance is judged in terms of how well the doctor’s patients do.

What does show an improvement in performance? The active and deliberate practice, particularly when observed and adjusted based on feedback to focus on specific areas where improvement is needed.

Back to the example of the guitarist. The way you get great is by changing your practice over time to focus on the areas that cause you problems. Playing “Free Bird” over and over, for example, would probably get you good at “Free Bird,” but would not expose the weaknesses and shortcomings you’d need to overcome and master to become an expert guitar player.

As with many things of a “self-help” nature, you might have to work though a bit of fluff and hyperbole to get to the meat. At this point, I’ve (hopefully) convinced you that growth mindset is a thing and that, with hard work and the right kind of practice, can help you get excellent at just about anything.

A more effective way to learn

So how do we get started? Here are three things to start with:

  • Beginner’s mind. Adopting a way of thinking that encourages learning. If you want to learn, you should always be thinking there’s a possibility you can learn something. I’ve written and given talks about this subject a few times and it still fascinates and motivates me.
  • Deliberate practice. You need to put in the purposeful hard work it takes to develop a skill. This is more than simple practice; you need to focus on those areas you want to develop and work on them with focus and intent.
  • Feedback and adaptation. Ideally, you’d have a coach who could evaluate your performance, but, even in the absence of a coach, you need to continually adapt your practice over time to focus on areas where you can improve.

The first of those three, beginner’s mind, is where the real change happens. The rest is just execution — it’s hard, and there’s a lot to say about it, but for now, just think of it as knuckling down and getting to work.

It’s more than “just do it”

Turns out that beginner’s mind, and getting into a growth mindset isn’t as easy as choosing to buy into it. Operating in that open mode requires practice to be able to do well.

In his excellent book, Liminal Thinking, Dave Grey talks about change and how we can work to effect positive change in our lives, our work, our families, etc.

I won’t talk too much about the concept, but let me comment on the idea of “limiting beliefs.” Each of us surrounds ourselves with a bubble, of sorts, of belief. Our individual experiences, assumptions, and perceptions create this bubble. And it’s often wrong. Wrong in the sense that while we all experience the same kinds of things, we experience reality differently and that causes us to have a unique set of beliefs about the world.

Often, these beliefs are limiting. Imposter syndrome is real. Thinking that you’re not good enough, and will never be good enough, is an belief that many of us share. Fear of failure is a common belief. Even something as straightforward as believing you don’t have anything new to learn, or no enough time to work on something new is a belief that can be extremely limiting.

Practicing beginner’s mind (and in many ways Grey’s idea of Liminal Thinking) can help you get through those barriers.

I love Grey’s definition of Liminal Thinking as it applies to growth.

“Liminal Thinking is the art of finding, creating and unlocking potential.” — Dave Gray

So, for Design Week, I gave a talk on this stuff and asked the audience to do several things for the week. Because Design Week is a great opportunity for learning and exploration, it’s perfect for beginning a practice that encourages lifelong learning. It’s an ideal place to plant the seeds for future practice. But we don’t need a week dedicated to learning to get started. All we need is the right mindset and a bit of time.

I believe that making regular time to practice learning and thinking openly is key to growth. A few days before I gave this talk, one of my awesome co-workers, Liam Greig, showed the designers on Atlassian Software Teams a great video of John Cleese talking about creativity. In it, Cleese makes the case that creativity is simply what happens when you put yourself into an “open mode” by giving yourself space, time, humor, and confidence. This open mode is great for creativity.

What’s the closed mode, you ask? I’ll talk about it more in another post, but closed mode is all about Getting Shit Done.

Open mode, to me, consists of:

  • Finding a safe place for learning.
  • Open, beginner’s mind. Yes, I’m hammering that bit.
  • Saying “yes!” and getting out of your un-comfort zone.
  • Playing. Having fun, feeling confident and willing to make mistakes.
  • Asking questions and being aggressively curious.

This last bit is critical. We should always be asking questions, and accepting of not knowing the answers. By asking questions, I don’t mean put everything to the Socratic Method, I mean curiosity and truth seeking. We should be doing this all the time. It’s amazing how people just accept what they’re told and presented.

To do something great, questions are required.

Last, I want to remind folks that we’re all in this together and at different points in our learning journeys all the time. So be kind, encourage and support each other. Remember: helping is an opportunity to learn and you can gain as much from the act of helping as someone does receiving your help.

This is an encouragement fox. He’s here to encourage you to encourage others. I’m a big fan of positive reinforcement as a motivational tool and this little guy is just a fun reminder that encouragement is important.

Don’t forget to be awesome!


Did you enjoy this post? Want more of the same? Consider following Designing Atlassian.

Show your support

Clapping shows how much you appreciated D. Keith Robinson’s story.