What is a ‘growth mindset’?
NATHAN WALLIS: I’d define Growth Mindset as a way of thinking that leads to positive outcomes, solutions, and opportunities.
What’s the benefit of adopting a growth mindset?
NATHAN: The advantages of having a growth mindset are that you’re less likely to be depressed, you’re positive about finding solutions that lead to better relationships and better outcomes – and that, in turn, leads to more possibilities. It also ensures greater resilience in individuals, because having a growth mindset encourages creativity and problem solving and allows risk-taking. So instead of feeling beaten when you get a wrong answer or experience failure, you’re instead propelled to continue trying in order to work towards finding solutions.
The opposite of a growth mindset is a fixed mindset; how is being ‘fixed’ in our thinking limiting or damaging to us?
NATHAN: Having a fixed mindset means we only see a set number of outcomes; either we can do something, or we can’t. Being fixed cuts us off from creative thinking; it limits our access to our frontal cortex and instead restricts us to the lower part of our brain – which means that we only have a limited number of possibilities. Having a fixed mindset literally ‘fixes’ us into black-and-white thinking (we can or we can’t, we have got that skill or we haven’t got it, etc.) instead of feeling like we have the potential to learn, to grow, to improve …
How does the way we think affect our brains and neural chemicals?
NATHAN: A depressed mindset, or a more negatively patterned brain, is more focused on survival; so when you tend to think that way, you’re primarily accessing the lower part of your brain. A survival mindset limits creativity; it greatly limits the possible outcomes – it doesn’t focus so much on growth and coming up with solutions, but rather a short list of possibilities so that it’s an easier, quicker choice. A positive mindset is associated with all the hormones that bring the frontal cortex online – which means that you then have access to much more creativity and better problem-solving.
So having a growth mindset means that you can come up with more solutions and therefore improved outcomes. And it means that you’re creating and cementing those neural pathways so that they’re there, and up and running, for future problem-solving as well. Growth mindset hardwires our brains for better, more creative thinking, and a wider, more positive range of outcomes.
What’s a good way of re-training our brains to reflect a growth mindset?
NATHAN: There are some useful mantras you can use to retrain your brain. Rather than saying that you can’t do something, you can say, “I’m learning to …” or “I’m improving my ability to …” or “I’m working towards …” We talk about ‘the power of yet’; just adding ‘yet’ to a phrase about something you’re struggling with can be hugely powerful. It makes an incredible, quantifiable difference when you’re able to switch out of that black-and-white, can/can’t thinking … “I can’t ride a bike … YET” or “I can’t read maps – yet” It takes you from a single, finite possibility to endless possibilities.
There’s also huge power in speech. The brain is voice-activated; it believes whatever’s coming out of your mouth. If you’re regularly saying, “I’m an awful student” or “I’m terrible at driving”, you’re not going to improve. When you make negative statements, it sort of closes off opportunities for improvement; again, it’s training your brain to look at a limited number of outcomes.
So when you see these videos with kids saying little mantras into the mirror like, “I’m brave, I’m kind, I’m helpful, I’m valuable” don’t just dismiss it as another gimmick. There’s power in that. And even if you don’t believe in yourself to any great extent – you can ‘fake it ‘til you make it’. Hearing positive things being said about you – even if it’s coming from YOU, and even if you doubt the truth of some of those things – can really open up possibilities and bring about more helpful results.
That’s the power of ditching a negative, fixed mindset. And we don’t always realise that. We don’t realise that we’re giving our brains instruction when we say things about ourselves – but it’s so worth knowing, because that way we can switch our thinking to lead to more positive outcomes. All of a sudden someone who ‘can’t read maps’ figures out things to do to make that work for them – because they’ve no longer made it a foregone conclusion that it’s impossible for them to do. We might be capable of reading maps, but if we’ve told our brains we can’t, then we become incapable of navigating that way. So embrace the power of ‘yet’ and the value of positive speech!
How do we respond when we recognise fixed mindset thinking in our children?
NATHAN: The best thing to do is to first validate and then encourage …
If they say, “I’m useless at xyz”, you can respond by saying something like, “I didn’t start out by being very good at that either, but then I tried this …” Just try to encourage them to think creatively, to problem-solve instead of just deciding that it’s a lost cause and giving up.
Don’t try to argue them out of it – if your child says, “I’m terrible at maths!” it’s not helpful to say, “No you’re not! You’re awesome with numbers!” They need you to empathise first, so they feel that you understand their struggle … and then you can move into curiosity and questions to encourage their problem-solving and internal motivation. Validate, and then encourage.
With all the recent work in neuroscience, are you seeing this spill over into the way we parent?
NATHAN: Absolutely. And in turn this shift in our approach to parenting, teaching, etc, can facilitate greater frontal cortex development. By training young minds to think beyond the ‘yes/no’ or ‘right/wrong’ answer, you’re developing those critical thinking skills that produce a wide range of solutions. And that’s when you’ve got innovation, sophisticated thinking, and real creativity – when you’ve really nurtured and developed that frontal cortex. When you focus on ‘right/wrong’ thinking, you never have the opportunity to bring that complexity online. Teaching growth mindset thinking – as parents and as teachers – is a hugely powerful gift for the next generations. And it’s never too late to adopt a growth mindset ourselves, either.
NATHAN WALLIS HAS DEVELOPED A REPUTATION AS A LIVELY AND ENGAGING SPEAKER. HIS HUMOUR AND PLAIN LANGUAGE MAKE THE COMPLEX TOPIC OF NEUROSCIENCE BURST INTO LIFE! FIND HIM ON FACEBOOK AND LOOK FOR AN EVENT NEAR YOU …