Imagine you have a crazy morning; a power outage during the night causes your alarm to go off late, you’re greeted by a morning meltdown, courtesy of your children, you spill coffee on your shirt but you were sure the lid was on tight, and then, as if your morning wasn't frustrating enough, you pull into the train station and cannot find a parking spot, but it doesn't matter since the train has just pulled away. How might this affect your day?

Do you blame someone, do you think how you might avoid this in the future, are you angry with yourself, and will this affect your entire day? How you react and respond to this might give you some clues about your motivational beliefs. The terms “fixed mindset” and “growth mindset” are used to describe "the underlying beliefs people have about learning and intelligence," according to Carol Dweck Ph.D., an expert from Stanford University who pioneered this field. These terms do not only reflect one’s beliefs about learning and intelligence, but these beliefs also affect the way we respond to a variety of situations, such as how we perceive the crazy morning.

The terms “fixed mindset” and “growth mindset” are not an all or nothing belief, you can have a growth mindset in one aspect and a fixed mindset in another. Those who view the morning mayhem through the lens of a growth mindset, although disappointed by the events, will consider the true cause and how it can be avoided next time. In this situation, taking a “pro-active” approach such as setting the alarm on one’s cell phone could have been used in addition to the standard alarm clock or going to bed earlier so an alarm isn’t needed. The point is, a growth mindset will look at the morning as a rough start to a day with some glitches which can be easily fixed and hopefully not repeated. If you are more of a fixed mindset, your response is more “reactive”, and this series of unfortunate events might ruin your entire day. You might talk to yourself about how stupid you are or try to blame someone else, disregarding the possibility sometimes multiple frustrating events can and will occur.

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Why would I think any of these morning scenarios might be of interest to you? The concept of mindset is not just a theory, it shows up in how we approach tasks at work, school, and sports, in both the actions we take and the words we use. Have you ever done only the bare minimum to get by? Was this you as a student, your child currently, or yourself at work? Sure, sometimes projects at work or in school are just not interesting or you are not motivated, but, it could be you are afraid you might fail. What if you do exert effort and you do not succeed? Can the fear of failure prevent someone from the effort needed to succeed? If you believe your efforts can lead to success, you are more likely to put forth the additional effort. This is what a growth mindset is, the belief your hard work and efforts can lead you towards improvement and success.

A difference in mindset will lead to different behavior and actions, and inevitably to different results. If you believe your efforts will have no effect on the outcome, why would you exert the additional needed effort to succeed? If your child believes they are not good at math they are less likely to spend the additional time which will help them become better at math. How many hours does your child practice at dance or sports? Have they improved? Imagine the same amount of time spent on subjects they are struggling with at school. Has your child ever said “that kid is really smart!”, maybe they are, but maybe they spend more time on their schoolwork.

Let’s look from a different perspective; do you view someone who has achieved the highest levels of success in their field, someone like Tiger Woods, as having achieved his success by resting on his laurels, as a gifted athlete with exceptional natural abilities, or do you think his grit, determination and countless hours of practice contributed to his success?  As Tiger grew up his friends might have been playing Super Mario on Nintendo or PlayStation, he was most likely practicing and not playing video games. Did he practice the skills to impress other (fixed mindset) or did he work on the parts of his golf game which needed some improvement (growth mindset)? Did failure affect his effort to try? Absolutely not, he has lost many tournaments, just recently on a Pay Per View event to his nemesis, Phil Mickelson.

Tiger Woods has natural talent, but that alone does not guarantee success. Our genetics do not guarantee success, our mindset, our belief that our efforts can move us towards our goals, have a lot more influence over our innate skills and abilities. This is what mindset is all about!

Lisa Smith, M.A. DEVM, Teachers-College-Columbia University, is an Adjunct Professor of Psychology at Union County College and an Educational Consultant, specializing in study skills. She can be reached at Ljs2198@TC.Columbia.edu

For additional information on this topic, please see the works from the following;

Positive Psychology, a Toolkit

Mindset Works

Carol Dweck, Ph.D., Stanford University, Growth Mindset