On Point | What a growth mindset can teach us about thriving in times of uncertainty

by Directioneering

The current COVID-19 crisis has already spawned a whole new language of its own and terms like “social distancing”, “panic buying” and “elbow-bumping”. Who would have thought that when we heard someone say, “flattening the curve”, they would be talking about the curbing of a previously unknown but deadly pathogen that had the planet in its grip, rather than some boring economic precept. 

Discovering growth mindset
Reflecting on this made me think about how quickly we humans adapt to changing circumstances when we must. Many of you will be familiar with the concept of “growth versus fixed mindset”. If not, ask your kids or any other young person in your life about it. It is the ground-breaking work of psychologist, Carol Dweck, and has been taught in schools for years and is now practised in organisations around the globe. It is premised on the belief that ability and talent are not fixed, but can be developed through effort, practice and incremental improvement. I have found it reassuring to see so much evidence of a growth mindset in the way the general community has largely responded to this brave new world, and I think the tenets of the model have much to teach us about coping and indeed, thriving in these uncertain and difficult times.

For myself and many of my colleagues, applying a growth mindset has been instrumental in helping us adapt quickly to working from home, or “WFH” to put it into COVID-19 parlance! When I look at the key principles of the growth mindset model, I think I’ve experienced all of them multiple times over the past several weeks. Reframing my self-talk from statements like, “I can’t do this” to, “I can’t do this, yet and, “that didn’t work – I’m giving up!” to, “that didn’t work – what do I need to do differently?, has really helped me to overcome feeling overwhelmed at times. At the heart of a growth mindset is the presumption that if you BELIEVE you can do something and you’re prepared to keep working at it, you are more likely to be successful in doing it. I just need to apply this same thinking to performing TikToks!

I’ve set out some of the contrasting characteristics of a growth versus fixed mindset in the following table:

So, how do you develop a growth mindset?
I’ve put together my top 6 tips for cultivating a stronger growth mindset to help you cope better during this challenging time and beyond.

Tip 1: Tune into the state of your current mindset
When you look at the self-talk examples in the table above, which of the statements seem more typical of the way you’re thinking at the moment? Is your default thinking more aligned with a fixed or growth mindset? Noticing and becoming aware of your self-talk is the first step towards fostering a more growth-centred and constructive outlook.

Tip 2: Reframe your thinking
If you find your default self-talk tends to resonate more with a fixed mindset, try to reframe your thinking using the growth mindset language. For some of us, this needs to be done intentionally when we’re faced with a situation that we find challenging or uncomfortable. For example, if you have to sit a video interview for the first time and you’re feeling anxious about it, check in with your self-talk and try to reframe any fixed mindset thinking in a more solution-focused way. You’ll be surprised at how this intentional reframing can change the way you’re feeling which in turn, changes what you say and do.

Tip 3: Re-assess difficult or negative situations
Re-assessing difficult situations in a way that reduces any perceived threat can be a helpful strategy for regulating your emotions and keeping you grounded in solution-focused thinking. Stress in our bodies tends to allow problem-focused thinking to take root and results in unhelpful feelings which can exaggerate our assessment of perceived threats. Using your rational brain to moderate any catastrophising or over-inflation of risk can be important when you’re feeling overwhelmed or anxious. By taking a step back and applying a more rational filter, we can disarm fixed mindset thinking. You can also apply this technique in situations where things or people don’t fall into line with what you want or expect. Try not to get too wedded to your own version of how things should be. Let your default position be one that assumes positive intent on the part of others and seek to understand where the other person is coming from.

Tip 4: Take the role of wise counsellor
Taking the role of wise counsellor is all about adopting a different perceptual position. It involves looking at your own situation from the perspective of someone whose advice and counsel you trust. This is another way to practice the reframing technique I spoke about earlier. Imagine that you were giving advice to a good friend or colleague who was facing the same circumstances that you are facing. What advice would you give them? How would you encourage them to see things through a different lens in order to help them make a better decision? Tapping into your own brains-trust in this way can help to dispel self-doubt and avoid getting ‘stuck’ in the problem or the unhelpful feeling.

Tip 5: Prioritise learning over approval and value the journey, not just the end result
We’ve heard this many times before and it’s something we’re always telling our kids, but in this results-driven world, it can be tough putting it into practice ourselves. I’ll always remember my Year 8 maths teacher telling me that feeling uncomfortable was a good sign because it meant that I was learning something new. Now, whenever I’m in a new situation and start to feel uncomfortable, I remind myself that I must be learning something. This helps me to surrender a little and go with it. Nothing teaches us better than failure, so when something doesn’t turn out the way you planned, reframe it into a learning experience.  Learn to value the process too, trying not to get too attached to the end result. Detaching yourself from the outcome while still remaining focused on it, can be an effective way to keep your stress under control and leverage any learning opportunities that might emerge. And if all else fails, fake it till you make it! For more about this tried and true life-hack, check out the wonderful Amy Cuddy, 
Your body language may shape who you are | TED Talk.

Tip 6: Learn to tolerate the taste of lemons!
If you’ve read Mark Manson’s best-selling book, “The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck”, you’ll know what I mean here. Mark puts a much more pragmatic spin on the well-worn cliché, “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade” and says instead, “When life gives you lemons, learn to tolerate the taste of lemons. I really like this. It speaks to another growth mindset principle which is about learning to cultivate grit. One of Carol Dweck’s favourite phrases is “not yet”, which means that if you haven’t mastered something, it just means that you haven’t mastered it yet. So, keep going!

If you’re interested in reading more about growth mindset, check out Carol Dweck’s book, “Mindset: How you can Fulfil Your Potential”.

Realistic optimism – a useful paradox
Aside from the growth mindset model, another philosophy which I’ve found helpful lately, particularly when I start to feel my anxiety levels kicking in, is the notion of “realistic optimism”. Realistic optimism is about maintaining a positive outlook while being aware of, and prepared for, life’s challenges. It combines an optimistic outlook with a pragmatic assessment of the challenges you’re facing and then envisaging the steps you’ll take to overcome any barriers. It’s also about anticipating unexpected events and maintaining confidence that you have the inner resources to deal with any set-backs that might come up. I think it was Eckhart Tolle who said that we need look no further than inside ourselves to find all the resources we need to deal with whatever life throws at us. I find this thought very comforting, even when I struggle sometimes to believe it! Focusing on taking action, even small, easy steps, is a great strategy for moving forward.

The power of distraction
Another great technique that I’m using almost daily, is to check myself when I start catastrophising or dwelling on things that invoke stress or anxiety. A great antidote to this, is distraction. Doing things that you love or activities that put you “in the flow”, recharge your emotional batteries and take your mind off ruminating. Being kind to yourself is really important right now. I’ve started learning to play the piano again and have a knitting project going with my daughter, Rosie. So whenever I feel my stress rising, I jump on the keyboards or get out the knitting needles! Work out what helps you to switch off stress and switch on serenity. Focus on simple things that give your mind and body a break.

Well, that’s it for this week’s On Point. I hope you find some of these tips and tricks helpful for getting through to the other side. As always, please reach out to your coach for support whenever you need it. Take good care and stay safe and well.