Lately I’ve been really appreciating the growth mindset of Eric, my friend, business partner and–this spring–skiing partner. In this, just his second season of skiing, he’s progressing quickly, and now he’s leading us down some of the hardest mogul runs at Mary Jane (where I’ve been skiing the blacks for 15 years).

“That one’s annoying, it’s too hard,” I whined.

“That’s why we should practice it,” he replied.

Oh your beautiful growth mindset, Eric! And oh how my tendency toward a fixed mindset gets in my way, making me afraid to try and fail. (Yes, I followed him down the run. Yes, the repetition is making me better.)

Carol Dweck’s research teaches us that a person with a fixed mindset tends to believe that intelligence and talent are fixed–we are how we’re born and it doesn’t change. From that perspective, everything in life is a test. The response to failing tests is to think (deep inside and often unconsciously), “I’m just not good at that; I won’t do it.” Failure is stressful, and to be avoided. Who wants to discover she’s not as smart as she thought?

A person with a growth mindset believes we grow and change. Hard things are a chance to get better.
How fun is that? I wish I had that thought more often.

Here’s the kicker, for me anyway: It turns out that girls, especially girls excelling in school, are particularly prone to this affliction, as a direct result of adults’ well-intentioned attempts to encourage them. With every bold childhood academic success, our parents and teachers said “well done!” The internal message? “Ack! I did well! How do I ensure I keep earning that praise!” As opposed to, say, the boy (no fear he’ll get beat down by societal biases) who hears after each failure “do better! (like your sister)”. The message into our brains: There is a better, and you can strive to find it!

Impact — on self and others

Fixed mindset is a self-limiter, in so many ways.

It makes us afraid to try new, uncomfortable or hard things. So we miss chances to grow and improve. It brings us to a place of fear, from which it is hard to lean in and be bold (I think of me, paralyzed, on top of a run I am perfectly capable of skiing).

I recently spoke with a young engineering manager. She was trying to figure out how to help a talented but inexperienced female software engineer who uses self-deprecating language constantly. The team has let the manager know that the self-berating hurts the team, lowering morale and eroding the faith they had in the engineer to start. I’ve been there; it’s exhausting.

The internalized fear that we are only average, or not good enough, leads to what I think of as the related phenomenon of imposter syndrome. We fear that we’re about to be found out as not really being as talented as we need to be. Traditionally, individuals were blamed for imposter syndrome, implying they should “get over it”; new research indicates psychosocial forces are to blame, which to me implies addressing the factors that install fixed mindset and imposter syndrome in the first place.

It’s never too late to adopt a growth mindset

My own struggle with fixed mindset was brought to light in the Agile 2011 conference closing keynote by the amazing Linda Rising.

There we were, emotionally and physically exhausted from a week of networking, speaking, learning, socializing. And she said it: women suffer most from fixed mindset. And then she appealed to the fathers of daughters in the room. (It being a tech conference, there were way more fathers than women.) Your attempts to encourage your girls might backfire (implication: maybe already have?). Result: not a dry eye in the house. I was crying not only because of the impact these fathers (my brother?) could make on their daughters, but also the impact some of those words and practices could have had, could still have, on my own life. A seminal talk in my life. You can watch it here.

When Linda gave that talk, she said that good news was that we can nurture our growth mindset. The next year, she held a salon at the conference to hear what people had experienced over the previous 12 months. I shared that mere awareness had helped me begin to shift my thinking.

Step 1, then, is simply to increase your awareness. Can you learn to notice when you say things that indicate intractable personality or cognitive flaws? If you do, note it in your journal. Maybe enlist a friend/colleague to help you notice.

In recent years, my awareness increased when friend and business partner Christine started pointing it out. In response to my tossed-off “I’m an idiot” she would reply with “Don’t talk about my friend that way!”

Just noticing that you’re using fixed-mindset language counts as a WIN. Claim it.

Step 2: Actually begin to change your language. Write down some alternate phrasings from what you usually say.

For example, the other day (yes, it still happens!!) I said something like, “I suck at that.” And Christine replied with “Yeah, you don’t get to practice that much.”

So powerful, right? In my version, I’m thinking “i’m a person incapable of __.” In her version, I’m just out of practice. Or, I don’t have that skill YET. Wow. What a difference.

Write down your intention: When my brain thinks “I suck at that,” I’ll replace that with “I don’t get to practice that much” or “I haven’t learned that yet.”

Again, enlisting a colleague to help you notice, and to praise you when you catch yourself, can be amazing positive reinforcement. More often than not, I catch myself only after getting half-way through the self-disparaging phrase. I interrupt myself, and rearrange the words. And Christine (my accountabilibuddy) will smile. And say, “good catch.” She smiles so warmly, so genuinely glad that I have remembered to honor my brain, my talents, my humanness. My heart soars. And after the dopamine hit my brain is just a little more wired to choose the empowered language first next time.

Claiming my wins (and other new habits)

I think of how I’ve grown with regard to the New York Times Crossword, which infamously gets harder as the week goes on. I used to do only Mondays and Tuesdays. Maybe the occasional Wednesday. When I tried a Sunday, I’d get pissed off so soon, and quit. Now, I do all the days. And I especially love Sundays. Sometimes they’re quick. Sometimes they take all week. I’ve learned to use each puzzle as a chance to learn. Not to cheat…not to google [difficult clue crossword] but rather to google facts that help me figure out the answer while also learning new things. Those trick clues? Well, those just take practice. 🙂

When I ski tomorrow, and I’m intimidated by a run, I’ll remember my recent wins. And I’ll earn my next win–following Eric down that run, rather than finding the easier way down. Trying and falling is the path to improvement. 🙂

What’s your next win towards a growth mindset? Share it with me on LinkedIn.