f you’re dialed into the entrepreneurial, social media sphere, you’ve heard an influencer or two say how applying a growth mindset vs a fixed mindset has helped them boost their business and skyrocket their productivity. But these same accounts often make the growth mindset sound convoluted and elusive by skipping over the details of how to pivot your thinking.
Put simply, a growth mindset is a way of reframing how you look at stress and challenges. People who employ a growth mindset focus on how they can improve their abilities when they experience setbacks, instead of fixating on their shortcomings or failures.
For example, if you miss the mark during a sales presentation, you’ll hone in on the areas you can improve your public speaking and negotiation skills to turn the upset into a learning opportunity.
“We like to think that we are good at something or perhaps many things, but it turns out that the kind of praise or feedback that we receive that attaches our identity to performance can actually undermine our performance,” Neuroscientist Andrew Huberman, Ph.D., says in a recent episode of his Huberman Lab podcast.
“Growth mindset is the process of distancing your identity from performance and rather attaching your identity and your efforts and your sense of motivation to effort itself,” says Huberman.
Huberman breaks down how a growth mindset can enhance your cognitive performance—which can decrease your stress and may boost longevity—and how to switch from a fixed mindset.
Growth Mindset vs. Fixed Mindset
If growth mindset is a way to open yourself to reframing challenges, having a fixed mindset is its stubborn (and more popular) cousin.
“A fixed mindset is one in which you’re trying to look smart, and you’re not so focused on effort. Your response to setbacks is to give up, and your academic and other forms of performance tend to be low,” Huberman says. “Whereas in a growth mindset, your goal tends to be to learn. You tend to value effort more. You tend to respond to setbacks by working harder and your performance is higher.”
Research shows that most people who are dealing with setbacks fall into the fixed mindset camp. University students who persistently struggled in a course tend to believe that intelligence as a stable trait that can’t be changed with effort, according to survey results from a 2020 study (1). Students with a fixed mindset believe that their struggle was due to an inherent lack of intelligence around the course’s topic.
If those same students pivoted to a growth mindset, they would focus instead on putting an effort into improving their skills to use the challenging class as a learning opportunity.
“We all suffer from fixed mindset when we get things wrong, especially when there’s some embarrassment or shame,” Huberman says. “That fixed mindset can really hijack our emotional response.”
Huberman notes a 2006 study that found that individuals with a fixed mindset were more likely to have a larger emotional response to being told they got something wrong (2). Participants were placed into two groups—fixed and growth mindset—based on their beliefs about intelligence. Then both groups were hooked up to ERP electrodes to measure their brain’s response to getting questions wrong or right. When the fixed mindset group was told that their answer was incorrect, they experienced a spike in P3 brain waves.
“A P3 wave is just a little blip in neural activity in the brain correlated with when people were told, nope, you got that one wrong,” Huberman explains. “The location of that activity was above a brain area called the ACC, [which] tends to correlate with emotional responses.”
Having an emotional response to negative feedback over and over again can make you shut down—which can create a huge roadblock in developing your skills and continuing to learn.
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Easy Ways to Apply a Growth Mindset
Adopt a stress-is-enhancing mindset
Even Huberman acknowledges that nothing about being stressed out over a task screams, “this is enhancing my performance.” But research shows that if you think stress improves your performance, success is more likely to follow than if you believe stress blocks how well you do something.
He references a 2013 study in which participants were separated into two groups: one that was told stress diminishes performance, and the other that was told that stress will enhance their performance in a task (3). The study’s authors found that the group who was informed of the positive effects of stress significantly outperformed the other group at completing a task.
“This is not the placebo effect. We’re talking about two different conditions,” Huberman says. “One condition where people are exposed to information that is true about how stress can diminish performance. And another condition in which people are exposed to information that is also true about how stress can enhance performance.”
Use verbs, not labels
When you’re good at something, it’s easy to start identifying with labels (e.g.: “I’m a good musician.”) But if you experience a setback in the task you’re proficient in, you’ll take a major blow to your ego.
“If you internalize a sense of identity around performing well at something, and then at some point you don’t perform well, you will also attach your identity to that diminished performance,” Huberman says. “Whereas if you attach effort, verbs to why you got good at something, as well as why you are not good at something, well then there’s only room for improvement.”
Instead start framing your experience with a task using verbs like “effort,” “practicing,” or “persisting,” to adopt a growth mindset.
For example, reframe a setback from “I’m a horrible musician” to “I’m going to put more effort into practicing that song on the piano, so that I nail it next time.”
Huberman recommends writing a letter to yourself as if you were explaining how to apply a growth mindset to a task that you are struggling with. By re-teaching this mindset to yourself, you’ll have an easier time adopting it as second nature.
It’ll sound something like this: “Yeah, I lost my cool when the client asked me a question I didn’t know the answer to. Instead of getting stressed, I now have a better understanding of what might be asked in the future. I know where to focus my effort.”
“That simple exercise has been shown to improve one’s own performance and to do so in dramatic ways, not just in the immediate term, but also in the future,” Huberman says.