Why is it that some people flourish under fire, remain positive in the face of adversity, grow and become stronger through difficulties?

In her book Mindset: The new psychology of success, Stanford University psychologist, Carol Dweck, argues that how we deal with the challenges we face in life is determined by our beliefs, or the mindset that we adopt.

Dweck’s research shows that much of what we think of as our personality grows out of our ‘mindset’ – the belief we have about ourselves and our abilities. This belief, claims Dweck, permeates every aspect of our life and determines how successful we are at fulfilling our potential.

There are two basic mindsets – fixed and growth. The fixed mindset is characterised by the belief that our qualities and abilities are fixed or carved in stone. It is a genetic endowment from which we can’t escape. We are dealt a certain hand in life and there is little we can do to improve this – for better or worse we’re stuck with what we have in terms of our intelligence, capacities, and personal qualities.

However, this runs counter to what research now shows about how the brain works. Neuroscience shows that the experiences we have in life constantly re-shape and change our brains. Nothing is fixed in us, not even intelligence. Through conscious cultivation, effort, practice, and engagement, we can develop the personal qualities, strengths, and attributes we desire.

The growth mindset is characterised by this belief that our qualities are not fixed or immutable but that can be developed:

“This growth mindset is based on the belief that your basic qualities are things you can cultivate through your efforts. Although people may differ in every which way – in their initial talents and aptitudes, interests, or temperaments – everyone can change and grow through application and experience”.

The growth mindset is essentially an optimistic and resilient attitude that sees challenge or even failure, not as a threat, but as an opportunity to learn, grow, and develop:

“The passion for stretching yourself and sticking to it, even (or especially) when it’s not going well, is the hallmark of the growth mindset”.

If we believe that our qualities and capacities are fixed, any failure is going to feel like an eternal negative evaluation of who we are as a person. If we believe that our qualities are fixed, it means that if we fail there is no possibility of improving or developing – the failure is a final judgement.

On the other hand if we see every experience as an opportunity to learn and grow, if we know that through practice we can cultivate and develop qualities, skills, and abilities in ourselves that we may be lacking, we approach challenges and difficulties with a more open and curious mindset.

We are not threatened by the experience, but rather relish the challenge and see in failure the opportunity to grow. We welcome negative experiences to see what we can learn about ourselves and savour the challenge of working on ourselves, by cultivating the qualities we need, through practice, to become a better person.

The growth mindset has a humble quality to it. It is a ‘beginner’s mind’ approach. We don’t think of ourselves as the finished article but recognise that we are a work in progress. As human beings, we realise that we are constantly learning. The growth mindset is the learning mindset – and so has an inquisitive, exploratory, creative, and playful quality to it. These qualities are a prerequisite for any learning to take place.

Of course, currently having a fixed mindset does not mean you are stuck in this mode. To develop a growth mindset is simply a matter of choosing to change our belief and attitude about our potential and what we are capable of. We can develop a growth mindset by recognising that we have the ability to grow and develop in more profound ways than we thought possible.

By adopting the growth mindset, everything in life becomes an opportunity to learn. We value these learning opportunities because, even if they are uncomfortable or painful, we know that it is through learning and growing that we enrich and enhance our lives.