- People with a growth mindset view intelligence as fluid, something that grows and develops throughout one’s life.
- In contrast, a fixed mindset views intelligence as predetermined and success the realm of the naturally gifted.
- Research shows that a growth mindset furnishes many lifelong advantages, such as improving learning outcomes and offsetting stress.
Those who believe that their intelligence is something they are born with, something fixed at birth, tend to fear and avoid the unknown. They see success in binary terms and view their own abilities as interminably limited. They view the horizon at their own edge of knowledge with a sense of doom. As a result, they experience feedback on what they don’t yet know as criticism and with a deep sense of failure. They believe that effort is pointless, so they give up easily.
At the same time, they are plagued by a desire to prove that they are naturally gifted. Their motivation is externally driven with an eye toward external validation, such as winning awards or achieving a certain level of recognition. They see themselves only in relation to others, to their comparative ranking, and perceive those who score higher as inherently more valuable. They are threatened by the perceived success of others. They see little value in learning.
By contrast, those who believe that their intelligence is incremental, something that develops throughout their life, see life as full of learning opportunities. Mistakes and setbacks are challenges to improve knowledge. Feedback, even criticism of blunders or weaknesses, is encouragement. So too is others’ success, because it shows a better way forward and highlights opportunities for course correction. Those possessing this kind of mindset see learning as the most essential part of being human. They embrace it as an exercise regime to support their brain.
The differences in outcomes from these mentalities are striking. Nearly a quarter century of research in fields as diverse as psychology, neuroscience, and intelligence has proven that adopting a growth mindset leads to better knowledge acquisition, learning experiences, and test and performance outcomes.
The benefits of a growth mindset, from students to CEOs
For families, a growth mindset has proven to improve outcomes for parents as well as children, especially in the areas of parental and child well-being and kids’ test scores. Comparing parental and child mindsets has shown that children adopt parental mindsets, and those who see their own lives in terms of scores, endpoints, and failure transfer that to their kids, thereby slanting their outcomes downward. Even very young children have been shown to hold fixed versus fluid notions of their own intelligence, and as a result, have performed better or worse on exams and mental tasks.
The research in parenting suggests that children who are exposed to a growth mindset view their world with hope and appreciation, and that perspective allows them to embrace learning from the outset, which further supports their own neuroplasticity. With a love of learning for the sake of learning, and with the experience of the joy of the process of learning, young children are able to develop healthy patterns of knowledge acquisition and avoid stress.
Education research has also proven that students who believe their learning will enhance their minds, or that it will lead to mastery of a subject, learn more and perform better on tests, even IQ tests, and are more likely to complete courses compared to their score-minded peers. Likewise, students who approach learning with the goal of mastering a subject over their lifetime, as opposed to scoring high in the immediate moment, do better later in life in higher ed and career outcomes.
In addition, research shows that people learn best when they direct their own curriculum based on their personal interests — setting priorities, goals, and even assessments themselves. In other words, the learner who looks around themself and determines what will become the window into new knowledge, who learns because they are invested in their own personal growth, is the one who truly succeeds.
Educators have found that even just an hour of growth mindset training can improve students’ grades in difficult subjects like math. These principles have also been shown to confer benefits during particularly challenging moments in life — such as the transition to middle school or high school. Students who were taught to develop a growth mindset performed better throughout the course of their new education. Low-performing and at-risk youth have been particularly helped by adopting a growth mindset, leading many education systems to adopt Dweck and other researchers’ teacher and student training programs.
In the realm of business, a large body of human resources (HR) research has similarly proven that training leaders in a growth mindset leads to better leadership outcomes, including enhanced leadership awareness, effective leadership strategies, and productive leadership action. Research into employee effectiveness and engagement also has shown upward trends in workplace commitment and satisfaction as well as career outcomes as a result of growth mindset training.
There are now a number of corporate programs dedicated to growth coaching, organizational citizenship, and work engagement. Large-scale companies like Microsoft have been training employers, managers, and employees using growth mindset technologies for almost a decade, demonstrating just how an entire company culture can be shifted to embrace growth, and how that culture rooted in growth can translate to overall market success.
Your brain on growth
In biological terms, there is another value of challenging yourself to rethink your intelligence and your journey: reducing your stress levels. Attuning your brain to the iterative and generative nature of life, and the ever-present potential of learning and improving your mastery of knowledge, helps your brain respond to the environment with positivity and hopefulness. In high-stress moments, it’s easy to fall into an all-or-nothing mentality and dread the consequences of making a mistake. But our inherent neuroplasticity tells us that life is not a one-shot goal. Implementing a fluid, processual sense of intelligence allows you to align with the journey of learning while removing the pressures of the endgame.
Stress research has shown that students who saw intelligence as fixed had higher cortisol levels when their grades were declining, and they had sustained high cortisol levels when day-to-day academic stressors came their way. Meanwhile, students who saw their intelligence as fluid not only coped better with academic stress, but were also able to let go of stressors immediately, thereby reducing cortisol levels and ensuring proper HPA-axis functioning.
Other studies have demonstrated that growth mindsets predict higher psychological well-being and school and work engagement. Studies focused on setbacks have shown that those with a growth mindset cope better with setbacks and are motivated to achieve better. Stress research in workplace settings has also shown that a growth mindset not only mediates job stress but even reduces the amount of “counterproductive workplace behavior” in an organization, such as aggression, harassment, and absenteeism.
Most of the research proving the ways that a growth mindset offsets stress examines people living in situations that are relatively normal to them. But since the onset of the COVID pandemic in 2019, researchers have also studied how a growth mindset can help during exceptionally stressful times. Studies have shown that focusing on the mind’s flexibility and one’s unending supply of intelligence, creativity, and ingenuity has rescued many from the psychological distress and post-traumatic stress of essential work, loss and grieving, and even loneliness. Health-care providers and biomedical scientists have found that adopting this way of thinking can reduce depression, substance abuse, and self-injury and increase healthy habits such as quality sleeping, eating, and exercise. Even substance abuse programs initiated in the pandemic have shown better outcomes when patients in recovery have adopted a fluid notion of their own intelligence and begun seeing their recovery in terms of a lifelong practice.
This research shows that, without a doubt, growth mindsets allow our brains to flourish and at the same time they lower our stress levels, and reducing stress is key to maintaining a healthy epigenome. So, in addition to giving you a more realistic picture of what’s really going on with your brain and your intelligence, seeing your potential for growth allows your body to turn on the genes that are beneficial to you. As Dweck says, every moment that you challenge yourself, your brain makes stronger connections within itself. Seizing the learning moment takes this growth beyond the brain to your wider physiological systems, empowering you to live out your true potential.