Mindset is one of the most powerful tools in your arsenal to control the direction of your life. Before you do anything, you have to believe it’s possible. But mindset can be an elusive word, something experts and self-help gurus use to describe a concept that can often be difficult to understand, let alone attain.
Part of the reason mindset can seem a bit vague is that there are a lot of different ways to define it. In general, mindset is nothing more than a set of assumptions or beliefs you have. That’s it. But what defines those beliefs and what behaviors identify those beliefs are where the competing definitions can get a bit muddled.
(This content contains affiliate links. If you use these links to purchase something, we may earn a commission. Thanks.)
What is mindset?
One way to break down mindset is how you see the world and what’s possible for you within that world. Do you believe there is enough opportunity for you? That it doesn’t matter what you know, it’s all about what you can learn? The answers to these questions can give you an indication which mindset you currently hold.
The field of mindset was initially introduced clinically by a German professor of psychology at New York University, Peter Gollwitzer. His work was foundational in the field of cognitive psychology. Gollwitzer’s mindset theory of action phases delineated the cognitive thought processes an individual experiences during the process of decision-making. He believed that mindset could be defined as deliberative versus implemental. The former referring to your decision-making prior to setting a goal and the latter after you’ve begun pursuing the goal.
As the idea of mindset evolved, those definitions came to embody the thought processes of decision-making. You deliberate while considering your options and implement them afterwards. But what about the beliefs that drive those decisions? Where do they fit in?
One of the more well-known and embraced definitions of mindset comes from Carol Dweck’s research. In her book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, she defines mindset as how someone views where their ability comes from. It comes down to two mindsets: fixed and growth.
In a fixed mindset, you might believe that you were born with a finite amount of resources, such as talent or intelligence. If things don’t come easily to you, it’s easy to brush off the failure as being something you couldn’t avoid. Your ability to do anything comes down to skills you either have or don’t have, and nothing you can do will change that.
A growth mindset believes the opposite. You would believe that anything (within reason) is possible with enough time, hard work, education, and training. You understand and accept that failure is part of the process and that there will be times you’ll struggle to move forward. But no matter what, you believe that success is possible in the face of difficulty.
It’s important to be aware that there’s also a false growth mindset, where you may believe you have a growth mindset, but exhibit the belief systems of a fixed mindset. This means you take a trait or skill that you already have and are good at, and use that as evidence that you have a growth mindset. Because it’s something you’re good at, your belief that this is what helps you become successful is actually just a spin on the fixed mindset. To truly have a growth mindset, you have to believe in your ability to develop skills and traits that you either don’t currently have or aren’t very good at.
Steven Covey, author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, looked at mindset through a slightly different lens. He coined the terms abundance mindset and scarcity mindset. In this perspective, you either believe in win-win situations (abundance) or win-lose situations (scarcity).
Essentially, with an abundance mindset, you believe that there are enough resources in the world that everyone is capable of sharing in the success. And with a scarcity mindset you believe it’s you against the world, with only a finite amount of resources available to those who fight to win them.
While there are other definitions and interpretations of mindset, they all tend to come down to this duality. You either believe anything is possible or you don’t.
Mindset in the brain
It turns out that mindset isn’t simply a state of mind. It’s neurological. Most studies done have focused on the behavioral aspects of mindset, meaning the behaviors you exhibit that indicate whether you have a growth, false growth, or fixed mindset. But neurologists have started to explore what happens in the brain when you display these behaviors. They’ve discovered that motivation has a lot to do with your reward system.
The reward system is primarily controlled by the mesolimbic dopamine pathway. This is a large system that connects multiple parts of the brain, including the ventral tegmental area, nucleus accumbens, hypothalamus, amygdala, and the prefrontal cortex.
One common misunderstanding when it comes to the reward system is that the reward itself is what your brain wants. But surprisingly, the brain releases more dopamine when it anticipates the reward before it actually gets it. That anticipation is what drives your behavior that ends up getting you the reward. Having a goal is more rewarding than achieving your goal. If you have a fixed mindset, you don’t actually believe you can accomplish something. Which means your anticipation of receiving that reward is also low. That low dopamine is not very rewarding or motivating to your brain, which means you’re unlikely to engage in that behavior, keeping you in a fixed mindset.
Studies have shown neuroscientific evidence that individuals with a growth mindset are also open to receiving corrective feedback and have a heightened awareness of mistakes. They show increased activity in the anterior cingulate cortex, an area related to learning and control. In addition, they showed increased neural activity in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex where executive functionality for things like task-switching, planning, and working memory takes place.
EEG studies in school children show that brain activity is higher in children displaying a growth mindset and that they performed with higher accuracy on tests even after mistakes. Behaviorally, they were able to demonstrate that they remembered their mistakes, understood why they were wrong, and make corrections. Children who were afraid to take risks and didn’t want to show mistakes had lower activity in the same areas of the brain.
While we’ve always understood and measured mindset through behaviors, these new studies are showing that there is a clear link to neural activity in the areas related to motivation, learning, and self-regulation. Thankfully, the brain is fully capable of changing itself through neuroplasticity, meaning you can change your mindset.
12 questions to ask yourself to determine your mindset
While the basic definition of mindset can seem fairly straightforward, the underlying belief systems can be trickier. Here are twelve questions to ask yourself to help determine what kind of mindset you have.
- Do you see the world in have and have not?
- Do you believe in talent or process?
- Do you see setbacks as failure or opportunity?
- Is criticism helpful or hurtful?
- What is your initial reaction to obstacles? Do you give up or push through?
- Do you believe in perfectionism or messy progress?
- When others succeed, do you see that as a good for your goal or a threat to your goal?
- Can you change your skills, abilities, and intelligence in a meaningful way throughout your life?
- Do you believe some things just come easier to others?
- Are challenges exciting or demotivating?
- Do you compare yourself to others?
- Do you enjoy learning new things? Or would you rather stick with what you know?
You can take this list further and break down how you react to new challenges and goals. Understanding how you feel about specific situations can help you identify where you might have some fixed beliefs. Even if you have a mostly open, abundant, and growth-orientated mindset, there might still be some underlying beliefs that can hold you back. Knowing what they are and how they can hide is pivotal to changing your mindset.
10 Ways to Change Your Mindset
- Accept new challenges. You want to start small, but part of changing your mindset is accepting that you can learn how to be good at something you’re currently bad at. Pick something fun, something that doesn’t have a timeline. You don’t want this to be a high pressure activity where delays in progress will lead to frustration, stress, or fear. Instead, you want to use this as a learning opportunity. Practice saying yes to trying new things. It could be as easy as a new food or seeing a new movie. You want to get used to the idea of trying something where you don’t know the outcome, and being okay with the experience. The more you say yes, the more you’ll discover about yourself, opening entirely new possibilities that you never considered before.
- Change your language. Fixed mindsets have specific language that keep them in place. When you struggle to overcome an obstacle or fail at a step, change how you see those setbacks. They are opportunities to learn or chances to come up with creative new solutions. If you find yourself saying things like I can’t finish this, I’ll never be good at this, I don’t have the ability to understand this, add the word yet to the end. I can’t finish this, yet. I’m not good at this, yet. I don’t understand this, yet. It’s a small adjustment, but opens the possibility for change rather than staying stuck in defeat.
- Find your why. Understanding why you want to achieve a goal is pivotal in unlocking your motivation. Maybe you want to get better at public speaking so you can get a promotion at work. Or, learning how to dance will help you find a way to connect with your spouse. But if you believe that those things are the goals of other people—your boss or your spouse—it’s going to be much harder to change your mindset towards them. Your purpose helps you stay focused when things get hard. The more personal you can make it, the better. You might want the promotion so you can buy a house with a yard for your kids to play in. Focus on their smiling faces, their laughter, the memories you’ll create whenever you’re struggling and you’ll find more reasons to push forward.
- Redefine success. Success is not a ribbon you break at the end of the race. It’s constantly moving. Instead of defining success as the end of the goal, break your goal down into small steps. Every time you reach a step, reward yourself. This helps your brain focus on the reward, which increases the reward loop. But it also helps you build confidence as you progress. And when it comes to changing your mindset, confidence is part of the foundation that helps you do that. When you are confident in your ability to learn, achieve your goals, and make progress in your life, you’ll be less afraid to take chances and will begin to pursue more goals to better your work, learning, and life.
- Seek constructive criticism. One of the biggest obstacles in a fixed mindset is fear of criticism. When you have a fixed mindset, criticism can feel personal, as if that person is highlighting your inability to do the task at hand. You want to view criticism as an opportunity for growth and not praise. If you’re asking someone for their opinion or feedback, expect to get both. And be honest with yourself. If you ask for feedback but really want praise, you may not be ready to hear their honest response. Criticism can be a gift, helping you see your obstacles and failures from a new perspective. Rather than hearing that you can’t do something, listen to how their feedback can help you.
- Track your progress. It can be easy to get lost inside of goals, especially when they’re long-term or encompass difficult learning subjects. You’re already practicing by breaking success down into smaller goals, but tracking your progress can be a valuable reminder of how far you’ve come. You can do this through a journal, a chart, a calendar, a notebook app, a document. However you track your progress is up to you, but you want to be able to visually look at your progress and note how much work you’ve done. When you learn in incremental steps, it can feel slow or non-existent. But being able to see how far you’ve actually gone can be incredibly motivating. It gives you physical evidence that you can change, learn, and reach your goals.
- Acknowledge your frustrations. You’re going to get frustrated and demotivated. When you’re tackling a new subject, you have to admit your weaknesses so that you can work to overcome them. You might be a slow reader, or have a difficult time with math. Maybe you’re out of shape or have never picked up a musical instrument in your life. Once you’re honest about your baseline capabilities, the more realistic your goal and timelines will be. Make sure you add in time for setbacks and have a plan for when you get overwhelmed, frustrated, or stressed throughout the process.
- Ask yourself questions. Outside of a specific goal, you can work towards embracing a growth mindset by changing your perspective throughout your day. Ask yourself things like, what do I want to learn today, or what did I learn today? When presented with new or difficult situations, try looking at it from a different perspective. What new strategies have you tried? How can you look at mistakes differently? If you’re working towards a goal, make sure you did something, no matter how small, to progress towards that goal. And if you didn’t, why not. Really dig down to find the answer and come up with a plan to overcome that obstacle tomorrow. Even asking yourself if you’re being open or closed to information, situations, or tasks can help you change from a fixed to a growth mindset.
- Learn to love the process. Learning is an on-going process. A fixed mindset might try to convince you that learning something new is an all-or-nothing experience. But you can be an expert at a subject and still discover new facts, perspectives, or ideas. Every time you learn something new, take time to appreciate that moment. Reinforce the idea that you can learn anything if you apply the right process to it. When you come across an obstacle or difficult task, ask yourself what process might exist that can help you overcome it. This also includes asking for help and seeking guidance when you don’t know the answer. Once you embrace the idea that there is always a way to learn, there’s nothing you can’t do.
- Get rid of timelines. You can’t always control how fast you learn or how quickly you reach your goals. And trying to adhere to strict timelines can be a sign of a fixed mindset. Try to embrace flexibility and adaptability. Be willing to go with the flow and give yourself the time and space to learn and change. Sometimes you’ll have to try new approaches or face a setback. Don’t view these as failures, but as part of learning. If fear, stress, or anxiety over your timeframe becomes difficult, take the time to unravel what’s at the heart of that fear. Changing your mindset can mean undoing beliefs that go back to childhood, and that doesn’t happen overnight.
Mindset is a valuable tool for personal growth and professional development. Being open to evaluating and understanding how your beliefs drive your behavior is key in unlocking your motivation and unleashing your momentum. Let go of your fixed mindset and embrace your limitless potential.