Image Credit Bryant Robertson

Why You’re not a growth-mindset [insert job title]

And neither am I. But here’s how to work at it every day.

Last year my team and I started a book club. Yup, just like Pam & Toby’s Finer Things Club from The Office. Ok, well — not quite. Our first read was Carol Dweck’s seminal book, Mindset. For some reason, I thought the book would blow people’s minds and set them on a journey of self-discovery and understanding. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen; instead, it became an internal sport to let each other know when they were of a fixed mindset. This was not the environment I had imagined creating for myself and my team: Competitive one-upmanship instead of self-discovery and growth.

Maybe it’s because having a “growth mindset” remains an inherently positive, but broad, amorphous designation in our culture. It has recently become a buzzword for company executives and human resources on their culture quests to tap their inner Satya Nadella. As my co-founder Alen is fond of saying, we’ve “jumped the shark” when it comes to how we talk about growth and fixed mindsets. It is no longer the mindful, counter-culture movement it once was when Carol Dweck originally started publishing her research and instead has become so ubiquitous that you hear it in everyday speech, and see it on resumes. Have you ever searched LinkedIn for people with a “growth mindset”?

Have we jumped the shark on how we talk about a growth mindset? (Image under Fair Use / Giphy)

“I have a growth mindset with a passion for marketing…”

“Front-End Engineer // Growth Mindset”

“Marketing & Operations with a Growth Driven Mindset”

“Entrepreneur & Business Founder | Strong Growth Mindset & Management Ability”

You don’t get a growth mindset by proclamation. You move toward it by taking a journey — Dr. Carol Dweck

Here’s the problem: A mindset isn’t a master switch inside our brains that is on or off. I’m not always a startup CEO with a growth mindset and a bias towards results [insert more buzzwords here]. Instead, our mindset is comprised of hundreds or even thousands of gates and switches that can change based on an endless number of environmental or personal variables. And many of those gates and switches are unfortunately set to fixed. The great irony of assuming you’re a growth mindset anything all the time is that you’re becoming fixed in your perception of yourself, attitude, and actions.

You might find yourself growth focused at different times, in various meetings about different topics and a variety of people and problems. At any given moment you might find yourself in a fixed mindset; being quick to judge others’ ideas, overselling and overvaluing your ideas, ignoring or dismissing others in the room, or even using someone else’s failure as proof of your greatness and personal vindication.

Like a complex system, your mindset has many gates and switches that affect your growth journey. Don’t worry one of the engineers approved this diagram after a couple of revisions (Image: Bryant Robertson).

Like a microchip, your brain and your mindset are complex, and never just one thing. It’s not impossible to be perfectly aligned with a growth mindset at all times — just mostly impossible. But let’s agree that we all have a lot of “fixed” mindset switches that have to be undone from years of various influences: Parents, teachers, media, friends, colleagues, bosses, lovers, institutions, etc. I’m not judging their intentions, merely pointing out that we live in an imperfect world.

I once had a boss that would roam the halls after 7 pm to see who was working after the majority of folks had left the office, and would shower praise on those working late. I’m sure many of us have had bosses with such false dogma; we would call this the ass-in-seats fallacy. His fixed mindset was the belief that working hard was equal to burning the midnight oil in the office. There was no thought paid to the encouragement of others — there were simply those who worked late and those who didn’t put in the effort. Unfortunately, this meant that the only time this boss ever visited my office or gave me coaching was when he was on the prowl and I happened to be in the office late. It’s easy to identify the flaws: maybe other employees were logging in remotely after hours, some may have arrived much earlier in the morning, possibly people staying late hadn’t used their time wisely during the day, and those at home already had done more in their 8 hours than those working late. But as easy as it was to identify someone else’s fixed mindset or false dogma, it has always been more difficult finding the cognitive dissonance in my thinking. Even for someone who has read the research and considers themselves a believer in the growth mindset, in hindsight, I can see all sorts of fixed mindset actions I’ve been guilty of.

I often found myself quick to judge others spending time in meetings, I would deem useless, without even knowing what the meeting was about (I hate meetings, but not all meetings are bad). And what about the frustration towards an engineer or team that are reporting being weeks or months behind on a project? Why aren’t they staying late to get shit done? What about that Product Manager I just hired who is struggling to push a project to the next milestone? I don’t have time to babysit her, so I’m writing her off and putting someone else more competent on the project, and or dismissing someone else’s project as being less important than my own. I’ve been guilty of all of these and more.

And it isn’t just in my past. Just yesterday I was talking with a colleague about how afraid I am about failing in our new startup, how important it is to me that ultimately I’m successful. “I can’t afford failure,’ I said, ‘I need a 10x return on the money my investors put up. When we built Space Monkey, we were in it to learn not to earn. We have to be in it to earn this time.” I think I puked a little in my mouth thinking about what I said. Yes, I am afraid of failure; there is nothing wrong with that. But the tyranny of the “or” is a very fixed mindset. The idea that I’m either in it to learn “or” to earn, and I couldn’t do both along the way, is simply not true. And it assumes that making lots of money is the only measure of personal success. I would like to both earn AND learn. The real question is, which is more important, so which comes first in this sentence. I want to learn first and earn secondly. Learning means I must accept some level of failure along the way; I need to be ok with some failures as long as I’m learning. Learning from failures doesn’t mean we can’t be successful, according to all the growth mindset research; being able to withstand failure and persist is often what ultimately makes us more successful in our endeavors.

The first step is to embrace your fixed mindset. Let’s face it, we all have some of it. We’re all a mixture of growth and fixed mindsets and we need to acknowledge that. It’s not a shameful admission. It’s more like, welcome to the human race. — Dr. Carol Dweck

I do believe you can use powerful growth-minded habits to help flip various fixed mindset switches throughout the day as you are faced with different situations. Dr. Dweck identifies a growth mindset as a journey and the first step in that journey “is to embrace your fixed mindset.” Some of these tips are broad stroke ideas to help prepare you for the day or week ahead, and some can be used in the moment or retrospect.

A year or more of using the BestSelf journal; it’s been painfully helpful.

Keep a daily and weekly journal. One of the best ways I’ve found to establish and maintain a growth mindset at the beginning of each week and throughout the day is through journaling. I’m a big fan of the BestSelf journal; there is a myriad of versions you can use, or just a simple moleskin notebook will work. Your growth mindset depends on creating goals, evaluating your progress, learning from your mistakes and failures. Journaling is a great way to reinforce each of these parts of the growth mindset journey. It’s also a great way to channel gratitude a driving force in the growth mindset journey. Not sure? Try it because you have nothing to lose.

Develop empathy and exercise it daily. Empathy is the most underrated and most valuable quality any human can have. Start by talking with those you serve; if you are an engineer, take time to speak with customers, and if you’re an executive take time to speak with all your employees. All-hands or town halls are not the same thing. You have to take time in one-on-one situations to understand someone and the challenges they face. Developing empathy is hard for some, myself included because it requires being a great listener. Empathy requires no response, but it does require judgment-free listening and a level of vulnerability to build trust. Many of our fixed-mindset conflicts at work occur because of a lack of trust, and that lack of trust exists because of a failure to be vulnerable around those we often look to for support.

Get candid feedback and give candid feedback. I’ll be very honest: I’m good at neither. Seeking feedback is uncomfortable. But if you make it part of who you are and encourage a culture of feedback, it will feel less like a junior high dance and more like a tribe that values each other’s opinions. Likewise, learn to give good candid feedback. Kim Scott, in her book Radical Candor, provides an excellent formula for such a task.

Situation, behavior, impact. From the Center for Creative Leadership Ms. Scott shares a simple technique when giving feedback 1) the situation you saw, 2) the behavior (i.e.what the person did, either good or bad), and 3) the impact you observed. As Ms. Scott points out, this avoids making judgments about a person’s intelligence or other personal attributes.

I’m not amazing at this technique I usually write it down first and read it aloud to myself. There have been a few times I’ve scrapped my feedback because the process has helped me realize maybe my perception of the situation, behavior or impact was likely wrong, and instead of jumping to giving feedback I sought to understand better the people involved by asking clarifying questions. Either way, it’s a win-win.

Give the right kind of praise. Praise should be used in a way that encourages growth instead of fragility or dependence. Dr. Dweck says it best:

“Instead of just giving employees an award for the smartest idea or praise for a brilliant performance, they would get praise for taking initiative, for seeing a difficult task through, for struggling and learning something new, for being undaunted by a setback, or for being open to and acting on criticism. Maybe it could be praise for not needing constant praise!”

Step away from work with your team. Don’t eat at the company cafeteria and encourage your teammates to do the same. It’s nice that you have a three-and-a-half-star chef cooking your meals, but for many people eating at the cafeteria is an extended lunch meeting. You and your people need to take a break from work, and I have found when you eat away from the office you talk less about work and give yourself a chance to rejuvenate before starting the second half of your workday. Author Daniel Pink has similar ideas in his book When.

Create or adopt a growth mindset mantra; something simple and something with meaning to you. Mine is simple: Life responds to effort. No matter where you are in the rollercoaster of life, up, down or upside down, life will respond to effort. This maxim is true for anything you are doing: hitting the gym, learning to write code, building a business, refining your sales skills, raising your children or growing a relationship with a loved one.

As Dr. Dweck says in her book, a growth mindset “thinks about the journey. An inclusive, learning-filled, rollicking journey.” The learning part comes when we make mistakes, experience failure, or identify the times our fixed-mindset has halted our progress. And ultimately, allowing this to happen, even practicing it, will lead us to our greatest successes.


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Clint Gordon-Carroll

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Clint is a serial entrepreneur based in SLC, currently working on a startup to kill the year-end performance review and help teams achieve greatness.

The Startup

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