Two Ways to Make Your Language More Conducive to Growth Mindset

Growth mindset is a thing. You can read lots more about it elsewhere, including Mindset by Carol Dweck, which has a 4.5 star rating with >500 reviews. I’m not here to explain in-depth what it is or why it matters. Enough people have done that. I’m here to show you how to do it—applied growth mindset. Importantly, this will include examples of fixed mindset that you can practice reframing to be more growthy.

But in case you’re unfamiliar, let’s start with one-sentence definitions, adapted from Dweck:

In a fixed mindset, people believe their basic qualities are simply fixed traits, and use their performance to document those traits.
In a growth mindset, people believe that their most basic abilities can be developed, and improved upon, which creates a love of learning and a resilience.

But it’s one thing to know how to answer all of Test Your Mindset questions so that you get “Growth” as a result. It’s another to actually operate out of growth mindset consistently.

Spirally, self-reinforcing mindsets

First I want to note that both growth mindset and fixed mindset have the delightful property of being self-reinforcing. People who have growth mindset will tend to improve, which will reinforce the idea that ability is learnable. People who have fixed mindset will tend to stagnate, which will reinforce the idea that they’re stuck with whatever ability level they currently have.

This is exciting, because it means that to some extent, you can get out of this just by deciding to have the other mindset, in part by recognizing that all of the evidence you currently have is determined by the mindset you have and is thus untrustworthy as evidence of “how things actually, fundamentally work”. That there’s an explanation for the-experiences-that-come-with-fixed-mindset that makes sense in growth mindset too. So you can reinterpret everything and switch mindsets.

And, it takes practice to actually operate from a growth mindset, rather than just conceptually understanding that it’s a good idea to do so. In my experience, a lot of this practice can happen on the level of reframing verbal expression, where you can shift your language from fixed to growth mindset. This in turn will shift your thoughts. That’s what this post is about. The practice of thinking growthily.

Explanations and examples

A. Skills, comfort zones: “I’m just not good at X”

That phrase is kind of the canonical example of a fixed-mindset thought. Others are listed in the left-hand column of the table below.

With a growth mindset, all absences of skill are understood to be temporary and malleable. You might not know how to do something, but you assume you could learn if you took the time. So, ways to express the same relevant information about your present lack of skill, without encoding it in a sense of defeatism. Instead, speak of how you’re not as skilled as you could be if you trained or practiced more.

The right-hand column below shows some sample reframes of the fixed-mindset thoughts on the left. These aren’t the only ways to do it, but they’re definitely improvements over the old thought patterns.

A
Fixed Mindset
Growth Mindset
A1 Some people are born to be singers—I’m not one of them. I didn’t start with any singing talent—I’ve had to learn it all.
A2 I suck at math. Math has been challenging for me.
A3 I’ll never be an artist. I feel really dissatisfied with all of the art I’ve tried to produce.
A4 I would never be comfortable offering hugs to strangers. I’m finding it really hard to imagine offering hugs to strangers.
A5 I never seem to be able to keep my notes organized. In the past, when I tried to keep my notes organized, I didn’t have much success.
A6 I’d really like to learn to juggle, but I just can’t. I’d really like to learn to juggle, though I haven’t started yet.
A7 I’m not good at origami. I haven’t learned how to do origami yet.
A8 I’m just bad at it, and I don’t care. Well, it’s not a priority for me to learn right now.

Notice how in many cases, the fixed-mindset phrasing is an interpretation, whereas the growth mindset phrasing is much more of an observation. Remarking on things you’ve observed or perceived doesn’t limit you in the same way that remarking something about your skills themselves can. A2, A3, and A5 are all like this. A6, A7 and A8 aren’t so much about observation, but they do retain the more objective quality of talking about your behaviour, rather than what’s possible.

B: Traits, habits, tendencies: “I’m really defensive about Y”

So growth mindset applies not only to “abilities” like public speaking or math or dancing, but also to traits or typical responses you have. It’s easy to hear about growth mindset and think, “oh yeah, I know that I can improve my skills, obviously I have a growth mindset!”

…not so fast. What about your traits? Descriptions not of what you can do but of what you tend to do?

The way to talk about these from a growth mindset is to put these tendencies in the past. Note that this is totally allowed even if they’re in the really recent past, like if you’re talking about a reaction you had just a few minutes ago. And, it doesn’t assume that you are certain it’ll never happen again. It just means that you’re not condemning yourself to that fate, but waiting to see and anticipating progress.

It’s even allowed if you’re talking about something that is basically happening right now. You can still talk about it using language that says “this is how things have been so far” which doesn’t exclude the present, but gives a lot of space to the future.

Present→past examples:

B
Fixed Mindset
Growth Mindset
B1 I always get worked up about religion. In the past, I’ve usually gotten worked up about religion.
B2 Money is a really touchy subject for me. Money has been a really touchy subject for me.
B3 I could never forgive someone who cheated on me. I’ve never yet been able to forgive someone for cheating.
B4 I’m usually off in my own headspace. I’m realizing that I have often been off in my own headspace.
B5 When we’re arguing, I feel like you don’t listen to me. In past arguments, I’ve felt like you didn’t listen to me.
B6 This subject makes me really anxious. I’m still working through some anxieties I have around this.
B7 He can be really obnoxious sometimes. He’s done some things that I’ve found really obnoxious.
B8 She tends to shut people out when she feels unsafe in a relationship. She has often had a pattern of shutting people out when she felt unsafe in a relationship.
B9 I’m a binge eater of sweets; once I have one cookie, I can’t stop until I’m full. I have tended to binge-eat sweets; it’s been hard for me to stop after just one cookie.

Sometimes this is as simple as just telling the story in the past tense, rather than in a kind of present tense I-expect-this-to-happen-again (even if you do). These are B1, B2, B5. Other times it requires a bit more awareness: being able to talk about the behaviour pattern without getting caught up in the reactive fixed-mindset interpretation of it. This is like A, except rather than behaviour being about skills, it’s about habits (or defaults).

In longer paragraphs

Speaking of story-telling, let’s check out some examples that are a bit longer than those short phrases above. These often show up in a context where someone is asking for help with changing something—they’ll describe how their current self isn’t behaving as their ideal self would. This is important information to convey. However, as I’ve been describing, I think that the language used often reinforces self-conceptions that the person is actively trying to break free from.

The following are a few verbatim examples, used with permission by friends/colleagues of mine, in their original form then reframed by me. If you want to get more learning out of it, I’d recommend pausing and modifying the fixed mindset paragraph yourself before reading mine.

Learning
Fixed mindset:

“These thoughts make it extremely difficult to learn. I start with burning curiosity, but every time I run into a formula I’ve memorized or a procedure I know neither how nor why to derive on my own, I feel a little more bitter and indignant. A little more angry that my calling was silenced by shitty teaching. And after not very long, my original motivation is gone.”

My growth mindset reframe:

“These thoughts have made it extremely difficult to learn. I would start with burning curiosity, but every time I ran into a formula I’d memorized or a procedure I knew neither how nor why to derive on my own, I’d feel a little more bitter and indignant. A little more angry that my calling had been silenced by shitty teaching. And after not very long, my original motivation would be gone.”

This is an example of the switch from talking about “how things are” to talking about “how things have been”.

Laziness & excuses
Fixed mindset:

“I suffer pretty badly from lack of drive and laziness. I lead a Comfortable Life – I’ve got a good job that pays well, a beautiful family, a reliable car, a nice house. I really can’t complain. But I use all that as an excuse not to drive myself harder.”

My growth mindset reframe:

“I have suffered pretty badly from lack of drive and laziness. I lead a Comfortable Life – I’ve got a good job that pays well, a beautiful family, a reliable car, a nice house. I really can’t complain. But I have been using all that as an excuse not to drive myself harder.”

It’s a subtle shift, but the second one makes it really clear that you’re on the way out of these thought patterns rather than stuck in them. You might also change “I really can’t complain.” to something like “I’ve felt like ‘I really can’t complain'”, to put distance between yourself and the thoughts that are have been slowing you down

Practice it yourself!

Go back up to the lists above, cover up the right-hand columns, and try to think of a growthier way to convey the same expression in the left-hand column.

Then, wander around an advice column and try reframing someone’s explanation of their problem so that it’s more growth-oriented.

You might also check out some official examples of fixed vs growth mindset responses to various situations here. In some ways, this post you’re reading is actually much more advanced (i.e. subtle) than the one linked here. So if you’re new to growth mindset as a concept, definitely check it out, and try generating some of your own examples based on Dweck’s.

Bonus: here are some other fixed mindset examples you can try converting. I haven’t explained exactly the reasons behind all of these, but maybe in a future post? This one is getting long.

  • Boys will be boys.
  • That’s just how he is.
  • It makes me sad that I’ll never be able to tell my parents that.
  • …I now have a lot of struggles relating with guys.
  • When a panic attack comes up, I have trouble breathing, and I don’t know where I am.
  • I’m annoyed by how sarcastic he is.
  • I use chocolate as a coping mechanism for stress.
  • I always bite off more than I can chew.

This is my habit-of-the-week, and I’m noticing substantial changes in my thinking already, that I really like.


Update July 2016: Ozy wrote a great article called Two Corollaries to Growth Mindset, which is totally worth reading.

If you found this thought-provoking, I invite you to subscribe:    
About Malcolm

Constantly consciously expanding the boundaries of thoughtspace and actionspace. Creator of Complice, a system for achieving your important goals.

Personal Website



13 Comments

Xycho » 24 Jul 2014 » Reply

Growth mindset seems perilously close to suicide, in the sense that if you change yourself that drastically, the person who decided to change is well and truly deceased by the end of the process.

    Malcolm » 25 Jul 2014 » Reply

    Huh, interesting.

    I’ve been thinking about this on-and-off for the last day or so, and I think that the reason I don’t feel fear or anything around this is that, in my understanding… I am the process. I am the growth, the change.

Count » 8 Nov 2014 » Reply

Thanks for this 🙂 I have been putting off creating my own blog for a while, and will take your words as motivation and aide.

Xycho: you can never step into the same river twice anyway, so ..

John » 20 Aug 2015 » Reply

Did you convert these examples? (Had a quick look through your website but couldn’t find anything)

Boys will be boys.
That’s just how he is.
It makes me sad that I’ll never be able to tell my parents that.
…I now have a lot of struggles relating with guys.
When a panic attack comes up, I have trouble breathing, and I don’t know where I am.
I’m annoyed by how sarcastic he is.
I use chocolate as a coping mechanism for stress.
I always bite off more than I can chew.

    Malcolm » 21 Aug 2015 » Reply

    Ahh, nope, I haven’t. I am still planning to write another growth mindset post, but probably not for a little while.

      John » 21 Aug 2015 » Reply

      Hi again Malcolm. Could I use your examples in a blog post? Both those ones and the ones on the two tables above? Where did you get them from, incidentally?

        Malcolm » 22 Aug 2015 » Reply

        Sure—I’d appreciate a link-back. I generated them all on my own.

Sameer » 19 Sep 2015 » Reply

This is really great. I’ve read about growth mindset before and wished the stuff I was reading / watching went into a little more detail about how to achieve it. It’s not rocket science, but having that concrete guidance helps. Thanks for posting this!

David Howard » 6 Jan 2016 » Reply

I really like this technique on how to develope a growth mind set. it really empowers a person, especially when i have grown up in an environmennt that encourages a person to have a set mind.thks

Robert L. Stevens » 24 Jan 2016 » Reply

Malcolm,
I, like many people had been beating myself up for years for past failures & non-accomplishments of opportunities past. One day spent reading both Carol Dweck’s theory of why we do this,& your additional, actual formula on what & how we can change why we do it is like a death sentence being lifted. I am not perfect yet, but I am now more capable of becoming capable in my eyes & therefore in my life.
Thank you
Robert L. Stevens
This is taking some privilege but, this in the vehicle I used to make my escape.
ALL MY GOODBYES
I’ve said all my good byes, my how & my why’s, have all been made good
All of my hopes & my schemes my losses & dreams, turned out just as they should
Where I go from here whether far or near is not good or bad,
but what is most important is the life that I’ve had.
So, who sees the real me? The timber of my tree, the heart of my soul?
Not, did I lose or win, where I’ve gone or where I’ve been,
judge not just the sin, but the whole.
The great truth of life, be ye man or wife, daughter or son
We will all come to the day when the soul will tell the truth, of what we have done
And when that day comes, only then can you say that you lost or you won.
Only then can you say that you lost or you won.
So, I’ll say all my good byes,because my how and my why’s have all been made good
All my hopes and my schemes my losses and dreams turned out just as they should.
Written by Robert L. Stevens

Christopher Hope » 25 Mar 2016 » Reply

For years I’ve struggled with feelings of inadequacies when it comes to my mathematical inability to grasp the problem solving issues which made me feel inferior to others, now I know it was my fixed mindset that hindered my progress. now I can address the problem, seek solutions, and move forward. Thanks and I look to hear from you real soon.

Hosting » 4 Jun 2016 » Reply

Great insights on fixed vs growth mindset. As a high school teacher, I see how these mindsets correlate with student behavior and student success.

Have your say!

Have your say!

Message

Name *

Email *

Stay focused on what matters
Check out Complice, a web-app that I built to help people achieve their personal & professional goals. Complice logo