In her memoir, The Choice: Embrace the Possible, Holocaust survivor Edith Eger shares the story of two trauma victims she treated when early in her career as a clinical psychologist.
Two young Air Force pilots had both lost their legs in a devastating crash landing after a military skirmish.
The first pilot bemoaned the loss of his legs. He sat with Dr. Eger, lamenting over the moments in life that would be forever altered by his disability. He could no longer join in on weekend basketball games with friends. He would no longer be able to go on the evening walks with his wife that he had so cherished. He wouldn’t dance with his daughter on her wedding day. His legs, he reasoned, enabled activities core to his very identity. Without them, he didn’t know who he was anymore.
The second pilot was a different story. He sat in his hospital bed astonished and overjoyed at the fact of his survival. Rather than lamenting everything he could no longer do, he celebrated those things that he would still be able to do because this accident hadn’t killed him. He might not be able to dance at his daughter’s wedding, but he would be there. He may no longer be able to take evening walks with his wife, but he would still be able to come home to her. He might never play basketball again—although, says who?—but he would still have his friends to make new memories with.
Mindset is everything. Here you have two men who after suffering the same traumatic disability are nevertheless able to imagine entirely different futures for themselves simply because of the differences in their mindsets.
Why Mindset Matters
“Mindset is everything,” might sound like an exaggeration, but it’s hard to understate just how important it really is. Our mindset has the power to shape every aspect of our lives, including:
- how happy we are,
- the quality of our relationships,
- the trajectory of our careers,
- our motivation and productivity,
- the amount of sleep we get,
- the quality of our diets,
- how often we exercise,
- our levels of anxiety and depression,
- our chances of contracting cardiovascular disease,
- how often we get a cold (and how quickly we recover),
- and even how long we live.
People with a positive mindset tend to be healthier and live longer than people with a negative mindset. They attract success and are more likely to achieve their goals.
Fixed Mindset vs. Growth Mindset
Some of the best research on the relationship between mindset and self improvement is that of Stanford University psychologist, Carol Dweck.
Before Dweck’s work on mindset theory, mindset was usually defined in terms of the way it manifests in the mind—positive mindset or negative mindset. There’s nothing wrong with this distinction, but it doesn’t help us understand the reasons a person might exhibit more positive or negative thinking patterns. Dweck was able to establish the motivational basis for our mindsets, which she refers to as fixed and growth.
- Someone with a fixed mindset believes that her intelligence, talents, and skills are preordained at birth and therefore unchanging.
- Someone with a growth mindset believes that her intelligence, talents, and abilities can be developed with education, practice, and hard work.
Most of us think we fall into the growth mindset bucket, but the reality is that, when faced with new challenges, we often default to fixed mindset thinking.
That’s not because we secretly doubt our inherent ability to learn and develop our skills. It’s because most of us think that to do so would be so hard or time-consuming to even try.
In this way, having a growth mindset as much about the awareness of our ability to improve as it is about our drive to do so.
Ask yourself if any of these thought patterns sound familiar:
- Replaying in your head an interaction with a person that you wish had gone differently (“If only I’d said it this way.”)
- Ruminating over the things you did wrong during the day and ignoring the things you did well
- Assuming that you are an unskilled failure after an attempt that didn’t go your way (“I’ll never be good at public speaking.”)
- Thinking of yourself or your performance in a given area in black or white terms (“I’m just not athletic.”)
- Assuming responsibility for another person’s happiness (“What’s wrong? Is it something I did?”)
We’ve all had thoughts like this. Each one is an example of fixed mindset thinking, believing that our talents and abilities are either fixed or too hard to change. At the end of the day, our brains are hardwired to take whatever solution is easiest.
Dweck found that fixed mindset thinking creates a kind of snowball effect (illustrated below) that not only limits your ability to stay positive but also your ability to accomplish your goals and achieve success in life:
5 Habits To Build A Growth Mindset
The good news is that, just like our talents and intelligence, our mindset is also an attribute that we can develop through practice and hard work.
Self-improvement is best made through habits, actions that we do often and regularly, sometimes without even knowing we’re doing them. Habits are automatic behaviors that become unconscious the more we do them.
NOTE: If you’re interested in learning more about the process of building habits, I strongly recommend Picking up James Clear’s Atomic Habits. It’s a brilliant, practical, and plainly-written guide on habit-building that I find myself returning to time and again.
Here are 5 habits you can start to build right now to help you on your path toward cultivating a growth mindset:
Habit #1: Meditate
Meditation is foundational to any form of self-improvement. It trains your mind to be more aware of your thoughts and feelings as you’re having them. Most of us have grown accustomed to the chaotic emotional roller coaster that our thoughts and feelings take us through every day, but it doesn’t need to be that way.
It took me a while to come around to meditation. Like many people at first, I didn’t think it was for me—some mystical variety of shamanism to be practiced by only hippies in camper vans or monks in the mountains of Asia. I had attempted meditation a handful of times, usually giving into my boredom after a few minutes, unsure of what I should be feeling.
But meditation isn’t about sitting with closed eyes and open balms. It’s not about “ohms” and gongs and incense. It’s about patiently watching your the thoughts, feelings, and sensations your brain is processing and accepting them. It really is surprising just how ephemeral thoughts are.
It wasn’t until I downloaded Andy Pudicommbe’s Headspace app that it all finally clicked. Headspace is an extremely popular meditation app, and for good reason. It assumes you know absolutely nothing about meditation, and builds your foundation one concept at a time through a series of structured sessions. With a few exceptions, I’ve been able to make meditation a daily habit since 2015.
Habit #2: Keep A Journal
It might sound counterintuitive, but the best way to think is to write. Thoughts are naturally non-linear and deeply intermingled with feelings and emotions. Putting them down on paper forces you to disentangle and confront them objectively.
Journaling provides an easy window into your past mental state, so that you can look back on your thoughts with the benefit of hindsight.
I started keeping a digital journal in the summer before my freshman year of college in 2005. Today, I have more than 15 years (almost half of my life) documented in my journal. It’s become an endlessly instructional source of insight and reflection for me. By looking over my past entries, I’ve noticed that the kinds of things I focus on in the moment aren’t always as important as I think it is in the long run.
In this way, a journal really can be evidence that mindset is everything. As I reflect on the events of my life, hindsight actually changes my remembered reality, for better or worse. (More often than not, it’s for the better.)
Habit #3: Express Gratitude
Research has long established the link between expressing gratitude and positive thinking. It makes sense. To express gratitude, you must first focus on something in your life that you appreciate.
The problem is, most of us spend our lives with our heads in our screens focused on whatever is coming up next in our Instagram feed. We’re so often exposed to everything we don’t have, that we start to take for granted everything we do have.
Journaling is an outstanding way to start a habit of expressing gratitude. Some people create a dedicated gratitude journal. Since I already keep a journal, it’s easy for me to simply make a note of what I am grateful for as part of my normal journaling practice.
Writing down one thing you’re grateful for each day is an incredible way to keep your mind open and thinking broadly about challenges over the course of your life. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve written down that I was grateful for that disagreement I had with a coworker or that speaking opportunity that I’d been dreading. In hindsight, each of these experiences developed my skills and built confidence in areas where I felt deficient.
Habit #4: Repeat Affirmations
If you’ve been following this site, you’ll know that I am a big fan of affirmations. Affirmations are positive statements of truth that you repeat to yourself to keep your mindset on track in times when it is challenged.
An example of an affirmation might be: “I know that the only path to success is to take action, whether I feel ready or not.”
This is obviously true, but when the rubber hits the road and it’s time to act, many of us are quick to fall back on excuses that keep us from acting and achieving our full potential. Affirmations are a way of coaching yourself through those times when your resolve is being tested. Repeating them daily is a great way to keep these truths top of mind, and over time, you’ll find that they work their way into your mindset.
Of course, affirmations have to be true. Telling yourself, “I am wealthy and comfortable all the time,” is not going to get you anywhere if you know inside that you’re lying to yourself.
Maintaining a personal manifesto is a great way to build affirmations into your life. A personal manifesto is essentially a list of the affirmations by which you want to live your life that you can repeat daily. I’ve written an entire article about how to create and maintain your own personal manifesto here.
Habit #5: Practice Self Care (Eat Healthy, Sleep, and Exercise)
Your mind and your body are inextricably linked. Trying to build a strong growth mindset without taking care of your physical health is like trying to build a house on a foundation of sand. It’s just not going to last very long.
Regular exercise, adequate sleep, and healthy eating are the basic building blocks of a healthy lifestyle, but too many of us skimp on one or more of these areas when times get tough. There’s been great research done on how these activities in service of our personal well-being are often the first to go when we are short on time or when we’re in a high-stress situation.
If you haven’t noticed by now, being under stress and short on time is an inescapable fact of modern life. As hard as it may be to accept that, the sooner you acknowledge that you need to find a way to make time for self care, the more effective you’ll be in all areas of your life.
Doing this is going to require some discipline and some tough decisions. You may need to decline lower priority work projects so that you have enough time to hit the gym after work. You might need to leave your friends early to make sure you get to bed on time.
Everyone will to have a different strategy to help them stick with the lifestyle choices they’ve made, but the first step is making the commitment to change and then creating the plan to put that change into action.
Your mindset is everything. It’s your life, your relationships, your aspirations, and your achievements. It is the driving force behind all of your behaviors and actions. And just like any talent or skill, it is an attribute that you can hone and develop as you move through life.
To have a growth mindset is to live with the conviction that a person’s talents, intelligence, and skills can change with practice and dedication. People who have a growth mindset see challenges as opportunities, and as a result, they push themselves harder because they know that, regardless of the outcome, they’ll come out better for it on the other side.
The fixed mindset, on the other hand, is the default for many of us. It makes us feel exposed and vulnerable. It pushes us to feel ashamed of our deficiencies, because after all, if we believe that our talents are fixed, to be deficient in an area is to be fundamentally deficient. Attributes come to define us, and we feel the need to portray perfection in all things. As a result, we set less ambitious goals and we look for opportunities
Carol Dweck summarizes this idea in her book:
I’ve seen so many people with this one consuming goal of proving themselves — in the classroom, in their careers, and in their relationships. Every situation calls for a confirmation of their intelligence, personality, or character. Every situation is evaluated: Will I succeed or fail? Will I look smart or dumb? Will I be accepted or rejected? Will I feel like a winner or a loser?Carol Dweck, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success
Ultimately mindset is everything in life. It shapes our goals, our relationships, our accomplishments. Our mindset can limit our potential, but it can also set us free.
By putting these simple habits into practice, you can begin the process of cultivating a growth mindset today, and in doing so put yourself on the path to successes you may never have imagined. After all since mindset is everything, when you change your mindset, you change your entire world.
If you’re interested in learning more about mindset theory, I recommend Dweck’s outstanding book:
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