It is What It Is, or Is It? How to Shift from a Fixed to Growth Mindset

“I can’t turn little Johnny into a Stanford bound student,” said one school principal when I was meeting with him.  “These parents expect us to take a B or C student with a 21 on the ACT and create Ivy League individuals. I get all the hype about growth mindset,” he said. “It is everywhere in my world, but the truth is, I can’t take your five-foot-nothing kid that can’t jump and turn him into Michael Jordan no matter what I do.”

I get it. Some goals are realistic and some are just delusional. He was quite funny sharing these thoughts, and although I agree with his point, I think he’s missed the point about what growth mindset really is.

What is it, anyway?  As we wrote about in a previous post, growth mindset is “the idea that skills and abilities can be improved, and the development of skills and abilities is the goal of the work you do.”

One of my husband’s favorite phrases is, “It is what it is.” It’s his catch-all response when he wants to bring my glass half full mindset down to earth or when I blame myself for things not being better than they are whether it be our kids’ behavior or my progress on tackling a task and getting it done.  It’s his way to try to tell me that things (or people) don’t change, so don’t worry yourself over it.  It is what it is.

It is a classic fixed mindset thinking. Thinking that says we are born a certain way and we can’t get better or worse at much. We are what we are. Our behavior is what it is.

But is it? Can we change things through our mindset?

In the War for Kindness, the author asks the same questions about what most people see as a fixed trait- empathy.  Many of the things that govern our behavior we see as traits, he says, things that are relatively fixed over time and situations.  But he argues that most things are actually skills instead of traits.  Things we can practice and get better at doing and feeling. Even empathy. We can apply principles and practices to strive to be more empathetic and when we do, we become kinder individuals. Doing the practice is the focus.

We’d be well served in education and in the workplace to realize this.

So how do we do this? First, we can think, “If this, now what?” in our thoughts and questions, changing our mindset from a fixed one to one focused on growth. And as leaders, we need to do this and model it in order for others to do it too.

For example, “I don’t really like to do business development. I don’t know how to do it and I’m not good at it,” is a fixed mindset approach.

You may honestly not like to do business development work. It may not come naturally to you, so it’s hard. But is it what is? Do you leave it at that?

A growth mindset, by contrast, would acknowledge the difficulty but would say now what? For example, “I don’t really like to do business development and I’m don’t feel like I’m good at it, but if I practice it, I will get better at it.  I’m going to ask two new contacts to lunch this week to tell them about our products and services.  And I’m going to keep doing that every week for the next quarter and see what results I get.”

You can acknowledge your current reality, without it limiting your future one.

And as this practice shows, it’s often the way we frame our thinking that helps us to become more empathetic or a better performer at work within the range we have to work with.  The thinking has to come before anything can change.

So the kid that is striving for the Ivy League may not get into the Ivy League school of their choice, but by focusing on growth and practicing to get better they may raise their ACT or SAT score several points.  And the process of that may teach them more about grit, resilience, and perseverance than the academic subjects on the tests.  In the process, that leads them to be a better student and get more out of college, even if it is “only” at a great state school.

How can you acknowledge “If this, now what?” instead of settling for “It is what it is?”

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It’s a Long Term Game, not a Short One


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Mary Ila Ward