Yet… it’s only got three letters, but it’s a word with power.
I use it again and again in my psychotherapy. The client’s struggling with something. Whether it’s breaking a repetitive pattern of behaviour, expressing a difficult emotion or feeling able to go out and about, they feel stuck – “I I just can’t do it”. They can’t make eye contact as they say it. They’re worried what they might see in my face. But when I say ‘yet’ they look up and very often smile. It’s as if there’s suddenly some hope. There’s a belief in the potential for something different.
It’s akin to what Dr. Carol Dweck termed the growth mindset.
A growth mindset is built on the belief intelligence can be developed and has a desire to learn running through it. People with a growth mindset get excited about challenges. Obstacles are there to be navigated, not barriers that stop you. Criticism is valuable feedback and hard work is the route to getting it right. Every time you step a little outside your comfort zone, your brain evolves. Neurons fire together and new neural pathways develop. The result is higher and higher levels of achievement.
The opposite of the growth mindset is the fixed mindset. With this mindset, you’re much more likely to believe you’ve either got it or you haven’t. However hard you work you’re unlikely to get there and criticism and the success of others can feel threatening. A challenge is to be avoided. It’s definitely not an opportunity for growth.
My personal goal is to live with a growth mindset and in the past 10 years or so I’ve moved significantly in that direction. But I know my mindset is heavily influenced by my environment. If I feel comfortable with the people around me and supported, I have a growth mindset. Making mistakes and giving it another go is exciting and engaging. But if I feel judged in any way or believe the other is quietly hoping I get it wrong I have a fixed mindset.
I have often heard people talk about the need to adopt a growth mindset, as if making the switch is easy, just a matter of choice. But as you can see from my example, it’s not that simple. If it was, wouldn’t we all do it?
My psychotherapeutic work is rooted in the knowledge our way of being (how we see ourselves, others and the relationships we have with them) develops in early infancy and childhood and is wired into our neural pathways. Brains are plastic. They change and adapt as a result of experience. They are most plastic when we are young. They double in weight in the first year of life, getting heavier as more and more neural pathways form. Early relationships, therefore, are incredibly influential. But brains remain plastic throughout life so there is always the potential for change.
Dweck highlights our approach to praise as a key factor in building a growth mindset in children. She says instead of celebrating their ability to get the maths sum right or their natural running speed, we need to praise their effort. Essentially, we celebrate yet. Her research shows this builds perseverance and resilience. Children are more likely to engage with challenges that stretch them, come up with new strategies and keep going until they get there. And with such plastic brains, children are likely to get the message pretty quickly and develop the neural pathways that mean it will be their way of being.
With our less plastic brains we might be slower, but we can change as adults too. One of the biggest barriers is our approach to past experience. Denying or ignoring experiences of the past is only likely to increase their grip. Resistance to change gets stronger and the belief change is impossible gets firmer. In essence, the fixed mindset gets more fixed. So, explaining the theory and its relation to the individual is interesting but not that effective. As has long been understood in the world of psychotherapy, insight alone does not lead to lasting change.
In my psychotherapy, I aim never to tell a client simply to do something different. Put myself on the receiving end of that and I would probably feel the challenges I face have been ignored. I might feel belittled. I would almost certainly feel misunderstood and I’d be unlikely to trust the person. In short, my mindset would get more fixed. Instead working collaboratively, we validate and explore the barriers. They are there for a reason and by acknowledging them we can gently unpick and remove them, brick by brick. In parallel, we openly acknowledge how the client feels, the difficulty of the process and celebrate their commitment to staying with it.
The same is true in the workplace. Any leader who wants to develop their own growth mindset or foster it within their team members needs to accept, understand and work through the barriers while focusing the reward system on the process. Then they can step back and bask in the growth in achievement.