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Wellness > Mental Health

My Sneaky and Insidious “Growth Mindset”

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The opinions expressed in this article are the writer’s own and do not reflect the views of Her Campus.
This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at UCD chapter.

The growth mindset states that people have the capacity to grow their abilities. It’s well known in the education space, and it is absolutely aspirational for educators and students alike. People with a growth mindset are more likely to succeed in their endeavors, compared to those with a fixed mindset. Thus, educators try to cultivate this mindset in their students. One way is to have students fill out a questionnaire to see what type of mindset their students have, which is what my high school psychology teacher did. My questionnaire had statements like “No matter how much intelligence you have, you can always change it a great deal.” Then we would have to check whether we agree with the statement or not.

I scored high on the growth mindset side. I thought it was accurate—why wouldn’t I have a growth mindset? Of course, people can learn and improve their abilities. I also knew from my past experiences that there is no talent, only hard work. For example, in the past, I didn’t bother to try drawing, because anything I drew looked bad. When the pandemic came, I started drawing out of boredom; I improved immensely. Suddenly, I realized that the only reason I couldn’t draw was because I didn’t do it enough. I shamed my past self for denying myself the opportunity to learn and improve my skills. I had wasted so many years, admiring other people’s artworks and not even attempting to make my own. 

Looking back, I can tell that I didn’t truly adopt a growth mindset. My logic and my shame made me consciously believe that I did have a growth mindset, but my subconscious said otherwise. I still believed that there were things I couldn’t do; things that only others could achieve. I found myself believing that I could never be like “this person,” or I could never do “this thing.” My constant comparison to my talented peers didn’t help either.

Living with these subconscious beliefs is surprisingly uncomfortable. I say it’s surprising because we’re often taught that having a fixed mindset means staying in your comfort zone, and that should feel comfortable. Yet, the thought that I should be able to improve myself and the feeling that I could never improve myself weighed on my shoulders like an angel and a devil. I suppose that’s what cognitive dissonance feels like (thanks to psychology for teaching me that). I could feel the weight of the angel and the devil, and the unease it gave me. But my mind refused to actually acknowledge them. 

 On the first day of chemistry class, my professor showed us a handout her kindergartner got from his teacher about having a growth mindset. As my eyes perused the words on the handout, it dawned on me that there was something massively wrong about how I perceived myself and my abilities. That handout that was given to kindergarteners helped me identify the cause of the unease I felt for so long. It forced me to take a long look at the angel and devil arguing on my shoulders.

I did some digging, and this isn’t a unique experience. I had what is called a false growth mindset, and many people have it. It’s when you have a fixed mindset, but you say you don’t. After all, who wants to admit to having a fixed mindset? As I looked into it more, I learned that I never fully understood the growth mindset. The growth mindset doesn’t say that we can do everything and nobody can faithfully claim that they have a growth mindset. We’re all on a spectrum between the growth mindset and the fixed mindset.

So what now? As I am writing this, I cannot neatly wrap up this article by saying that I took action and now I’m a new person, since I would be lying. I can say though, that a lot of nuance has been lost in the conversation surrounding the growth mindset. The growth mindset was coined by Carol Dweck, and it was defined in an attempt to improve education. Though well-intentioned, the term has created unexpected consequences. It is in our psychology to want to be seen as good, and having a growth mindset is seen as a good thing. Therefore, people with more of a fixed mindset will claim to have a growth mindset. No wonder my self-report told me I had a growth mindset. I knew what the “right” answers were, and I didn’t want to choose the “wrong” answers.

Instead of trying to brainwash myself into having a “growth mindset,” I will try to minimize my fixed mindset. It’s unrealistic to expect myself to change my beliefs overnight, and that’s not what the growth mindset is about anyway. As mentioned before, one cannot simply have a growth mindset or a fixed mindset. Everyone has a mix of beliefs from both mindsets. It is important to accurately determine which ones are from a growth mindset and which ones are from a fixed mindset. Reading this article helped me identify what a false growth mindset looked like. I was surprised to find that praising effort can backfire and that open-mindedness is not an indication of a growth mindset. Though the article seems to be aimed at medical school educators, I recommend everyone to read it. Maybe it will open your eyes to your own misconceptions, like it did for me. Then hopefully, you will address these misconceptions instead of burying them. Acceptance is better than avoidance.

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