Author: Alistair Cox, Chief Executive, Hays plc
Think, for a moment, about all the thoughts that play in your head as you move through your day-to-day life. Narratives like “I’m not a numbers person”, “I’m not good with technology”, “I don’t cope well with change”. These are thoughts that are subconsciously stuck on replay in our minds, whose voices never seems to quieten, gradually chipping away at our sense of self-belief.
In your mind, these stories are the truth, they’re gospel. In your mind, you simply have a realistic view of what you can and can’t do, what you are and what you aren’t good at. You’re just being honest with yourself, right? But remember this: who told you these things which are now the truth? Probably no one but yourself. So how certain can you be that they are in fact true?
What we’re actually talking about here are our self-limiting beliefs – beliefs that we all have about ourselves, to a lesser or greater extent in certain situations and in certain environments. They’re ‘self-limiting’ because if we let them control and dominate the thoughts we have about ourselves and our abilities, they can be hugely damaging to both our current and future career success, something I will come back to later.
The way you think has a huge impact on your propensity to learn
If you’re reading this thinking you always feel 100 percent confident and embrace every single challenge with vigour and tenacity, learning at each step of the way, then I hate to say it, but you’re probably lying to yourself.
In reality, we are all constantly shifting on a spectrum of two different mindsets or ways of thinking, 1. a fixed or 2. a growth mindset, as explained by Stanford University Psychologist Carol Dweck in her book ‘Mindset: The New Psychology of Success’. These two powerful mindsets ultimately impact the degree to which we feel a desire to push ourselves to develop a specific skill or how proactively we approach a difficult task.
So, to help us understand a bit more of the theory behind Dweck’s work, I’ve summarised the differences between the two below:
- If you have a fixed mindset, you believe that we are each born with certain skills – in other words, that we either have certain skills or we don’t, and there’s nothing much any of us can do to change that. Just think back to the stories or self-limiting beliefs I mentioned in the introduction to this blog – maybe you always think to yourself that you either can’t or don’t have to grow, manifesting in deep-rooted self-limiting beliefs such as, “I’m just not cut out to be a leader” or “I’m a natural at this, so I don’t need to work at getting better at it”. Those with a fixed mindset tend to avoid challenges, give up easily when they come across an obstacle, ignore or dismiss constructive feedback and often feel threatened by others or new situations. This mindset negatively impacts their propensity to learn. Perhaps this is driven by a belief that they must somehow always be perceived as smart in order to be successful. As such they cannot be seen to fail or not know all the answers, meaning they are far less likely to really push themselves out of their comfort zones and learn new things along the way – mainly for fear of failure or humiliation.
- By contrast, those with a growth mindset believe that skills are built, and that new abilities can be developed through practice and effort. They firmly believe in their own capacity to learn and grow, and that their intelligence can be developed. They tend to persist in the face of setbacks, take on board and even invite feedback and find inspiration from those around them. They tend to see life as an endless opportunity to figure out new things and appreciate that failure is part and parcel of learning and progressing - it’s necessary and therefore not something to shy away from. They also understand that mastery of a skill takes persistence, practice and time.
It’s important, too, to appreciate what a growth mindset isn’t. It isn’t about suggesting that anyone can do literally anything. Nor is it about denying that certain people may have a ‘natural’ passion and capability for something. What it is about, is acknowledging that for the most part, we can all improve our capabilities in a wide range of areas, areas we never thought we’d be able to get better at, if we adopt the right mindset, practice and don’t give up.
It’s also worth adding at this point that the research indicates that there’s simply no such thing as one person with a fixed mindset and another with a growth mindset. It’s just not as clear cut as that – in fact, as I said earlier, we’re all on a spectrum between the two, to a lesser or greater extent, often switching from one to the other in certain situations without even realising it.
In reality, you can transition from a growth mindset to a fixed mindset in the blink of an eye - for instance, when you’re confronted with a specific project, a specific challenge, or an interaction with a specific person that you’re not quite comfortable with. The fixed mindset that takes over in these sorts of situations could ultimately hold you back from learning and developing in important areas, thus potentially holding you back in the longer term, too.
I’m sure we can all think of certain areas of our working lives in which we probably have more of a fixed mindset than a growth mindset. You might have a mental block about using a new piece of technology, having told yourself that you won’t ever be able to master it, so why try? Perhaps the evolution of your role is now demanding you to take a more data-centred approach to certain tasks, and, you, left feeling overwhelmed by the prospect, have parked a specific reporting project for weeks now, never quite finding the motivation or the inclination to start it. Sound familiar?
Why it’s more important than ever to grow your growth mindset
The fact is that these situations are only going to become more frequent. Never before has the world of work been bombarded with so much change, change from all angles, change that means that businesses and the people that work within them must adapt, test, learn and challenge themselves on a near daily basis.
For most, this means operating outside of our comfort zones more often. It means a shift from working in set spheres in which we know we can perform well, spheres in which there’s no perceived risk of failure or of looking stupid. A move to dealing with different departments and external partners and suppliers more regularly, to interacting with people who we may deem more knowledgeable than us, people we are more likely to see as a threat.
So, to be successful in today’s world of work, and in the future, we must all get far better at flourishing in these sorts of challenging situations, instead of letting the narrative in our heads take over. We must get better at persisting with those problems we would have once stalled over – giving up in the end. We must get better at seeking inspiration from the people we would have once shied away from. Essentially, we must all shift our mindset to see the world and everything in it as a never-ending opportunity to learn. Because, when we do, we’re far more likely future-proof our skills and expertise.
Employers are recognising this too, with many seeking to attract candidates to their businesses who are clearly willing to invest time and effort into developing their abilities, rather than those who believe their skills in certain areas are fixed, never to be expanded and improved. After all, these are the people who can really help them drive their businesses forward.
So, how can you move from a fixed to a growth mindset, and become more employable in the process?
How to switch your mindset and become more successful
I’m no expert in this area, but having read around this topic and reflected on my own experience, I think there are a few things you can start doing today to grow your growth mindset, and help secure your future career success:
1. Become more self-aware: Reflect on what your typical response is when faced with certain challenges, what triggers you to transition into a fixed mindset and how can you return to a position of growth? Do you worry about not being ‘good enough’ or doubt your ability to find a solution to a problem you feel you don’t have the skills to solve? Do you feel overwhelmed and fear failure, so focus your attention on other tasks, tasks which you know you’re naturally good at? When given feedback, do you feel your defences go up? What I’m trying to say here is that you need to think about how you feel at those key ‘trigger’ moments, listening to the voice in your head and what it’s telling you. When you do, you’ll be able to pick out those unhelpful self-limiting narratives going around in your head, narratives that you’ll need to silence if you are to move from a fixed to a growth mindset in any meaningful way.
2. Understand that your brain works like a muscle, it can be trained: This phenomenon is known as neuroplasticity, as has been explained by Professor and Neuroscientist, Michael Merzenich, the man widely acclaimed as the father of the concept of brain plasticity. Experiments have shown that not only is the brain designed to change, but also it’s functioning can be improved at any stage. Merzenich explains in this video that the human brain works much like a muscle, requiring challenges in order to grow. You therefore can’t expect your brain to grow if you’re constantly doing the same things, and not challenging it. Instead, Merzenich says that you need to stay in ‘challenge mode’. Just think about the process of getting fit; it takes reps and practice to build muscle, the brain is no different. To develop skill in a specific area, understand that it’s not your brain that’s stopping you from doing just that, it’s your mindset.
3. Consistently choose challenging tasks rather than safe ones: Overcome your fear of failure or looking stupid, ignore any self-doubt you have, and focus your time and energy on those tasks you perceive to be more difficult than others on your to do list. When you do, try to interpret and tackle these from a mindset of growth. Yes, you might fail. But in the process, you’ll learn something about yourself that you wouldn’t have done otherwise – including what you can do next time to ensure you do better in the future. With a shift in mindset and practising adopting this mindset, you can quickly expand your skills as you’re starting to approach every new challenge with enthusiasm and confidence, instead of with avoidance and fear.
4. If you think someone is better than you, don’t see them as a threat: Instead, change the way you think to consider how you can learn from them. This person you perceive to be threatening or intimidating might have technical expertise that would help you to make a breakthrough on one of your projects that’s been on standstill – or maybe they just have a certain way of doing things, of obtaining answers to a problem that you had never thought of before. Start to shift your thinking to realise that everyone you encounter is an opportunity to learn something or see things from a different perspective - that’s not something to feel threatened by, that’s something to embrace.
5. Understand that you’re not going to master a new skill overnight: Remember we’re never as good as we possibly can be at a given skill as soon as we start practising it – instead, it takes work and time to master. So, whenever you take on a new challenge or embark on learning a new skill, stop putting so much pressure on yourself. Instead, understand that you will encounter struggles at the beginning. Pick something that you can’t do at the moment – that one thing that you’ve always had some kind of mental block about. Spend time practising it. Don’t worry about not being good at it straight away, or about someone else being better. Just focus on your own learning journey, starting small and building your skills bit by bit from there. Over time, you’ll start to see progress – this will reinforce your inclination and confidence when it comes to learning, meaning you’re far more likely to continue on that journey, rather than bailing out at the first hurdle.
6. Make a conscious effort to dedicate time and effort (and don’t give up): Just think of all the skills you could have under your belt, that your fixed mindset is stopping you from developing – those things that could have won you that promotion earlier or are so crucial to growing your company. Don’t make the excuse that you “don’t have enough time”, to develop them, or “that’s someone else’s job”– instead, carve out the time. The highest-achieving people in history appreciated this. Just look at Albert Einstein, who observed that “it’s not that I’m so smart, it’s just that I stay with problems longer.”
So, for the sake of your own career success, now is the time to shift your way of thinking, to block those damaging thoughts that circle in your mind, those thoughts that have the potential to rob you of the opportunity to build new skills - skills that could help secure your future employability.
Thank you for reading! For more useful advice and insights about the world of work, visit our dedicated blog page here or click on one of the links below.
- If you want to be a great leader, learn to be a better manager
- 4 steps to discussing your salary expectations
- Register your CV and browse current job vacancies
- Hays and Manchester City's strategic partnership
- Market intelligence: All the latest market reports from Hays