Image source: Pexels
“Will I succeed or fail?“, “Will I look smart or dumb?“, “Will I be accepted or rejected?“, “Will they see me as a winner or a loser?”
How many times have you asked yourself these questions before taking action?
Such queries reveal more than simple individual fears or insecurities; they unravel cultural stereotypes perpetuated across all levels of our society. As a society, we value intelligence, effortless success, and character. Nothing terrible to this point. But how healthy is it to hold them in such high regard? Why hide flaws instead of overcoming them – and taking pride in that while at it? Why seek friends or partners who become your echo chamber instead of ones who will challenge you to grow? Why seek out the “tried and true” instead of exploring opportunities that challenge you?
The propensity for stretching yourself and continuing the growing curve even (or, especially) when the process becomes particularly bumpy is actually the hallmark of the growth mindset. But embracing this manner of thinking calls for a shift of paradigm.
To help you grasp the cardinal concepts, I’ll discuss below:
- What growth mindset really is about;
- Manners of training and nurturing your growth mindset;
- Growth mindset at the company level.
2. A tale of two mindsets
At this point, I should introduce the two concepts I’ll be further analysing: fixed mindset and growth mindset.
The fixed mindset triggers the belief that your qualities are immutable, carved in stone. As a consequence, you must prove yourself over and over again. If you believe that you have a specific, immovable amount of intelligence, creativity, a particular personality, a definite moral character, and a set of values, you are strongly incentivised to prove them to their fullest. Assuming that your traits, skills, and qualities are static transforms the notion of success into an affirmation of those inherent traits. Thus, aiming for success and dodging any bullets of failure become the raison d ‘être, a magic recipe for a fulfilled life.
However, there is another mindset based on the philosophy that your basic qualities are not static but preferably ones that can be cultivated through your efforts, strategies, and aid from others. That is the growth mindset. Essentially, what this mindset professes is that regardless of the differences between people, all and every one of us can change and grow through effort and experience. A person with a growth mindset thrives on challenges and sees failure not as proof of unintelligence but rather as a stretcher of abilities.
We manifest one of the two mindsets (or, more frequently, a combination of the two) from a very early age. Unsurprisingly, the mindset we choose for ourselves dictates our behaviour, our attitude towards success and failure, and, ultimately, our capacity for happiness in both professional and personal settings.
But, given the right attitude, experience, and resilience, a mindset can be changed. We’ll come back to that.
Now, we saw what a growth mindset means, in essence.
But, specifically, what does it not mean? It does not mean merely being flexible, open-minded, or having a positive attitude. It does not mean that effort is overly praised or rewarded, either: while effort is encouraged, in the end, it is the outcome that matters. It is just that, for a growth mindset, the destination does not outshine the journey.
But growth mindset is more than just a mission statement to print and hang on the walls of your home or on the whiteboard in your office. It necessitates continuous efforts to challenge yourself and nurture those around you. And that is precisely why is not influential for a disengaged person or in a fixed mindset organisation.
It was the lifetime work of Dr. Carol S. Dweck to determine the what’s, how’s, and why’s of the growth mindset. Years of research have helped her distill the essence of this notion, as well as dissimilarities from a fixed mindset. What makes the growth mindset so engaging, Dweck found, is that it creates a passion for learning rather than a hunger for approval. People embracing this mindset know that qualities like intelligence, creativity, maturity, even love, and friendship can be nurtured and developed through effort and practice. Interestingly, people with a growth mindset don’t get discouraged and humiliated by failure but are somewhat challenged to overcome the burden and learn their lesson.
Upon conducting multiple studies, Dr. Dweck conclusively writes: “Why waste time proving over and over how great you are when you could be getting better?”
Pause for a second and think about that…
How profound are the implications of a growth mindset, you might ask? Dr. Dweck tries to answer this by citing a study she and her colleagues conducted on the correlation between different mindsets and depression in university students. The results were mind-boggling: true, while students with a fixed mindset showed high levels of depression, there were still plenty of people with a growth mindset that experienced depressive episodes. What was truly surprising, however, was that the more depressed people with a growth mindset were, the more they felt compelled to take action in tackling their problems by keeping up with their school assignments and with their social and personal obligations. Surprisingly, “the worse they felt, the more determined they became!” 
Another of her studies tackled the issue of self-awareness. Granted, most of us do not excel at estimating our abilities. But it was the people with a fixed mindset that missed the shot by far. Surprisingly, people with a growth mindset were astonishingly accurate. Come to think about, it sort of makes sense: if you are willing to learn and develop, you are undoubtedly interested in a precise radiography of your current status simply to know what to improve. Otherwise, your efforts will be fruitless and inefficient. On the other hand, if the fixed mindset is your mindset of choice, you’ll be so obsessed with the image you have to display, that you lose sight of your capabilities and pain points. Your mindset affects your capacity to objectively assess your potential.
To sum up, while the fixed mindset acts as a barrier to development and change, the growth mindset acts to the opposite, propagating the idea that abilities can be cultivated and developed. It is not an end, but mainly a means: it does not tell you out-front what you need to change or how long it will take. What it will show you, though, is how to see the change, how to look around corners, and how to train your mind into working for you instead of sabotaging you.
3. “The Power of Yet”
Our brain is fairly malleable, recent studies found. Studies of brain plasticity have demonstrated that connectivity between neurons can change with experience. Practice grows new neural network connections, strengthens existing ones, and forms protective insulation that facilitates transmission of neural impulses. To put it briefly, the latest neuroscientific discoveries indicate that our actions such as right strategies, asking pertinent questions, nurturing curiosity, exercising, and following proper nutrition and sleep habits, all increase our neural growth.
Why this scientific-charged digression, you ask?
Well, by the time the discoveries above hit the spotlight, researchers begun to understand the connection between how the brain works, on one hand, and mindset and achievement, on the other. Turns out, your belief in your brain’s capacity to morph triggers a swift in behaviour. “Does that mean“, researchers inquired, “that mindsets can be changed? If so, how?” These questions created a turning point: upon further analysis, they discovered that we can indeed change a person’s mindset from fixed to growth, and this adjustment brings high levels of motivation and sense a of achievement.
Primarily, it all comes down to how we see the learning process.
The way we learn and relate to the learning process plays a vital role in our success rate and in building our values. How, you ask?
I’ll give you an example.
A school in Chicago had a unique grading system. Students had to pass a certain number of classes to graduate, and if they didn’t pass one class, they’d be assigned the grade “Not Yet.” Come to think about it, this is brilliant. Getting a failing grade makes you believe that you are unworthy and unintelligent. But if you get the grade “Not Yet”, you’ll get the message that you are on a learning curve.
Students traumatised by grades or generally stuck into a fixed mindset will try everything to prove their worth, too afraid to lose face in front of others. Dr. Dweck found in another study that, should they happen to fail a test, they are more inclined to cheat next time instead of studying. Another study revealed that, following a failure, students looked for others that did worse than them, so their ego be properly satisfied. All studies concluded towards one direction: students with a fixed mindset run from difficulty and rely to a dangerous degree on external validation.
These students become adults of tomorrow. Instead of being bold, creative, and honest, they become obsessed with getting A’s so much so that they’d do anything to get that A. As brutal as it may sound, this might actually be because they are insecure and feel that their worth is dictated by other people’s opinions.
Interestingly, we are not born with this thirst for validation, but grow into it. Carl Segan, a well-known American astronomer, cosmologist, astrophysicist, and astrobiologist, observed this phenomenon: “Every now and then, I’m lucky enough to teach a kindergarten or first-grade class. Many of these children are natural-born scientists – although heavy on the wonder side and light on skepticism. They’re curious, intellectually vigorous. Provocative and insightful questions bubble out of them. They exhibit enormous enthusiasm. I’m asked follow-up questions. They’ve never heard of the notion of a ‘dumb question’.
But when I talk to high school seniors, I find something different. They memorise ‘facts’. By and large, though, the joy of discovery, the life behind those facts, has gone out of them. They’ve lost much of the wonder, and gained very little skepticism. They’re worried about asking ‘dumb’ questions; they’re willing to accept inadequate answers; they don’t pose follow-up questions; the room is awash with sidelong glances to judge, second-by-second, the approval of their peers.”
It appears that the more we are accustomed to societal rules and taboos, be they justified or not, the more we relinquish our innate individuality and curiosity.
How can we avoid that? Simple: stop praising intelligence or talent and appreciate the work ethic instead: the effort, the strategies, the focus, the perseverance, the improvement, the curiosity, the courage. This way, we create hardy and resilient individuals.
We see that people can be influenced by their mindset.
How about the companies? Do they crystallise a mindset in the first place?
Enron Corporation – a most US promising company – went bankrupt in 2001. Upon analysing the causes, the specialists concluded that, in the end, it was the company’s mindset that sowed the seeds of its demise. According to Malcom Gladwell, The New Yorker columnist and bestseller author, American corporations had become obsessed with talent. Most self-respected American firms, Enron included, recruited A level talents, usually people with fancy degrees, and rewarded the employees accordingly (this might ring a bell with some legal professionals). While not a bad thing in itself, Enron made the mistake of creating a culture that placed talent higher than anything else, thus forcing the employees to look and act extraordinary talented. Essentially, the employer forced its employees into the fixed mindset. As already seen, the problem with people with a fixed mindset is that they do not correct their deficiencies and, by building up their image as innately talented, they don’t cope well when their model is threatened. “They will not take remedial course. They will not stand up to investors and the public and admit that they were wrong. They’d sooner die”, concludes Gladwell.
Therefore, it’s not only the employees that must profess and encouraged a growth mindset, it’s also the company itself. For efficiency, this philosophy must be delivered across the company, top-down rather than bottom-up. That means that the growth mindset of leaders is of paramount importance. Sadly, believe it or not, this is not so common of a treat in leaders. In fact, as observed by Warren Bennis, a pioneer of the contemporary field of leadership studies, “too many bosses are driven and driving but going nowhere“. Leaders must encourage their employees to develop their professional skills, to be creative and bold.
Luckily, there are positive examples of leaders who don’t talk royalty but instead talk journey. One such example was the late Jack Welch of General Electric. From an “arrogant, couldn’t take criticism, and depending too much on his talent instead of hard work and his knowledgeable staff” type of man, Welch went on to learn that true self-confidence is “the courage to be open – to welcome change and new ideas regardless of their source. Real self-confidence is reflected in your mindset: your readiness to grow“.
Why is a company’s mindset important? Easy: a company that cannot self-correct cannot thrive. And a thriving company is vital for the well-being of its employees, stakeholders, customers, and even for a healthy economy. That is why, perhaps even more so than with people, companies have a responsibility to commit to growth and development from other than a purely economic perspective. Companies must undertake this task both at the structural level and at the level of their employees.
In the legal industry, while all law firms encourage their lawyers to raise their game so far as legal skills go, only a few of them understand that lawyers need to develop into fully T-shaped, Delta model-based ones. But this is about to change.
When people – couples, coaches and athletes, managers and workers, parents and children, teachers, and students – change to a growth mindset, they pivot from a judge-and-be-judged framework to a learn-and-help-learn one. The commitment is to grow, and growth requires plenty of time, effort, and mutual support to achieve and maintain.
The propensity to learn more, free from external constraints, while being bold and creative when implementing the know-how thus acquired could, in fact, indicate that the effort put into embracing a growth mindset is well justified. The world itself and the legal industry, in particular, is in desperate need of people that are courageous and eager to learn, adapt, and develop.
At the time of writing, the planet is swept by a pandemic. Businesses are shut down, labourers are forced into unemployment, and people are scared.
The present epidemiological context will inevitably change the way people learn, work and think in terms of innovation. More and more people, opinion leaders included, have begun to understand that distance learning has a major potential. Online education platforms such as Coursera, Udemy, Khan Academy, or Skillshare are not only increasingly successful, but they also offer solutions on how the future learning process should look like. That is because these online platforms demonstrate once more that “education is a process, not a place“. But this is just one aspect of the matter. Whether the aftermath will see a surge of the gig economy or merely a reshuffling of the old ways, one thing is certain: the future world will be infused with some radical changes. We are all expected to adapt swiftly to these changes, embrace long term learning and develop novel skills.
Do you think there is any merit in embracing a growth mindset? How do you relate to this process? Is your company a growth mindset oriented one?
Get in touch, and let’s discuss. And thank you for reading. 😊
This material is based on the inspiring works of Dr. Carol Dweck, especially on her landmark book, Mindset, which I highly recommend.
I also found this TED talk of hers on the Power of Yet particularly useful:
For a more elaborate discussion on the concept of growth mindset, I recommend this edition of Talks at Google featuring Dr. Carol Dweck:
Enjoy! Stay safe! Stay curious! 😊
 Dr. Carol S. Dweck, “Mindset,” Robinson, 2017, page 16
 Dr. Carol S. Dweck, “Mindset”, Robinson, 2017, page 38
 Dr. Carol S. Dweck, “Mindset”, Robinson, 2017, page 11
 Carl Sagan, “The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark”, Ballantine Books, 1996, page 322
Dr. Carol S. Dweck, “Mindset”, Robinson, 2017, page 127
This post is a part of the series called #FutureProofLegal in which we describe the skills and roles/jobs that future legal professionals (lawyers and beyond) shall acquire.To learn more or read other articles in the series go to our #FutureProofLegal page.