Growth mindset and grit
Deena Kara Shaffer
We all go through times of disappointment and occasionally face hurdles and failures. What’s important is to learn valuable lessons from each challenge to develop resilience.
How have you coped during a tough project? After a disappointing job interview? Following a lost opportunity? While hearing hard-to-take feedback? It’s much easier to receive praise, master tasks, get credit, and feel successful. But it’s also crucial to be able to learn and grow from life’s hurdles and failures. There have been times in my life when I’ve felt unlucky, thought of myself as less successful than I’d imagined I would be, and even looked longingly at the seeming ease and flourishing of others’ lives. There are moments when job-seeking, bereavement, my partner’s health challenges, and parenting have felt insurmountable. I don’t attribute my resilience and persistence to any innate dispositions or talents, but instead to two foundational approaches: growth mindset and grit. Borrowed from the education world, growth mindset and grit are powerful ways of thinking, being, and doing for well-being and success, however personally defined. Growth mindset and grit can help us persevere in personal and professional pursuits in the face of setbacks.
Obstacles and challenges will always arise. They are a part of being human. But so is being able to bounce back and rise. The great news is that growth mindset and grit are skills that can be learned, and can lead to persistence and resilience.
More important than adopting a glass-half-full attitude or donning rose-coloured glasses is to develop a growth mindset. Coined by psychologist and researcher Carol Dweck, a growth mindset prioritizes “healthy attitudes to risks, challenges, mistakes, and failure.”
According to Dweck, individuals with “a fixed mindset believe their intelligence is simply an inborn trait—they have a certain amount, and that’s that.” With a fixed mindset—feeling “naturally” smart or successful—comes a resistance to effort. Experiences of challenge can even throw off how we see ourselves with thoughts such as “This should be easy” or “I thought I was smart, but if I was, I would be excelling.”
Practising a growth mindset encourages seeking out and committing to meaningful pursuits, including accompanying struggles. Improvement trumps perfection.
In an interview with John Hannah, director of special projects in student affairs at Ryerson University, creator of Ryerson’s ThriveRU program dedicated to helping students flourish, and father of two boys, he described growth mindset as “the belief in the plasticity of our intelligence.”
He sees, again and again, that when students can bring a growth mindset to a difficult essay, failed exam, and challenging group work, they turn stress and thoughts of giving up into “hopeful effort toward achievement.”
Put simply, a growth mindset values effort. According to Dweck, someone with a “growth mindset may tackle [hard] work with excitement, whereas [those] with a fixed mindset may feel threatened by learning tasks that require them to stretch or take risks.”
Flying in the face of so-called “natural talent,” adopting a growth mindset urges us to see failures as a necessary and positive part of learning. It leads to receiving setbacks with grace and regarding criticism as motivating.
Andrew Lorrison, father of three girls, a master’s student, and a full-time high school math teacher in Toronto, describes growth mindset as “open-mindedness.” He describes how, instead of giving up in the face of misfortune and dead ends in his professional pursuits, he kept going, kept trying, kept at it.
“I took more courses, reached out to past employers, asked for feedback on interviews, started a portfolio, and opened myself to all feedback and insight.” Through developing a growth mindset, Lorrison says he now more readily takes risks.
“Whether it’s in the classroom or a departmental meeting, or in the discipline of doing an hour of lesson-planning and marking, then an hour of graduate work every night after my girls go to sleep, or in my parenting, I am increasingly willing to experiment with new ideas. More and more, I see mistakes as a way of growing.”
Was there an opportunity that you feel passed you by? A health issue that called upon persistence? A relationship that needed extra tending? Having a growth mindset dismisses the urge to prioritize the appearance of ease or success.
Fostering a growth mindset can empower us to see hope in hurdles and to acknowledge and accept all aspects of ourselves, including those that are not strengths, rather than hiding or denying them.
This is where grit comes in, brother to growth mindset. Grit means strength of character, or fortitude. To be gritty is to be dogged, tenacious even. It is “perseverance and passion for long-term goals.” Grit has been brought to the fore by psychology professor, Angela Lee Duckworth.
Hannah illuminates how Dweck’s growth mindset and Duckworth’s grit come together, reflecting upon his own experiences as a father and post-secondary professional: “To say, ‘I’m just not good at that,’ is a phrase of surrender, a phrase that justifies a lack of effort and imagination.”
Instead, Hannah sees the hopefulness within grit and growth mindset: they “counter the determinism of talent by demonstrating the importance of persistence in the equation of success. Good ol’ stick-to-it-iveness is now supported by a robust body of research.”
Duckworth asks, “Who … stays the course, running the race we committed to rather than choosing a different, new pursuit, after stumbling and losing ground? Who lives life as if it were a marathon, not a sprint?”
“If you make a mistake,” explains Lorrison, “and can view that mistake as helpful, it builds up persistence. You think, ‘Well, if that didn’t work, I’ll try it a different way. And if it still didn’t work, I’ll try another. And another.’
“If you’re in the midst of a mistake, if you’re confused, if you’re persevering, it’s a sign, at the very least, of being all in. Of being totally engaged. What’s more, the ability to persevere is transferable. If you persevere in one area, this proof can carry over to other challenges.”
Growth mindset shows how individuals can change, learn, and grow, instead of being rigidly stuck and stable. In-born traits and attributes are less important than what is malleable or learnable, through effort. This can help us not just reframe but deeply learn from setbacks by regarding them as opportunities. And this mindset can improve our day-to-day, family, career, and health experiences.
Mindset: affects behaviours and, in turn, outcomes; a change in mindset can lead to higher levels of achievement
Fixed mindset: the belief in innate talent, of mistakes as negative, and that success should come easily
Growth mindset: values resilience, perseverance, and grit
Grit: dedicated passion and persistence
Growth: “your propensity to seek and consider new ideas, additional alternatives, different approaches, and fresh perspectives”
Tip: From child development to management to leadership, growth mindset and grit in all realms of school and work are more powerful predicators of success than IQ, socio-economic background, and natural talent.