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  • Writer's pictureAndrea Bari Levine

I Think I Can: The importance of a growth mindset.

I Think I Can. One of my favorite stories as a child was The Little Engine that Could by Watty Piper. If you don't know the story, a bunch of toys get stranded and need an engine to pull their train car over the mountain to the children. After asking three engines who refuse, the toys ask a little blue engine who has never been over the mountain before. Seeing the toys' tear up, the blue engine agrees to help and successfully pulls the toys over the mountain all the while saying, "I think I can--I think I can--I think I can." What we would call a lesson in optimism, Carol Dweck refers to as a "growth" mindset. And Dweck's research shows that our mindset around behavior change may be as important as the change itself.

"Growth" v. "Fixed" Mindsets. As Dweck explains, those with a growth mindset "believe their talents can be developed (through hard work, good strategies, and input from others)." Those with a fixed mindset, conversely, believe their talents are innate or unchangeable. You may not be surprised to learn that people who cultivate a growth mindset tend to perform better. This has been studied extensively in the context of education and test scores, but recent research shows that this mindset applies to well-being too, such as our ability to cope with stress or anxiety.

Positive Thinking and Intrinsic Motivation. Studies show that individuals who believe their traits are malleable tend to focus on learning rather than outcome, and choose more "positive, effort-based strategies in response to failure" such as increasing their effort or changing their strategy. (Implicit Theories of Intelligence. . .) These individuals exhibit greater motivation following a setback, such as seeking assistance from a teacher, and achieve more in subsequent assessments.

By contrast, those with a fixed mindset tend to feel helpless when they perform poorly and often feel compelled to prove they possess the traits that society values such as intelligence or generosity. These individuals tend to respond by spending less time on difficult tasks or use deception or cheating to convey competence. In neither case do these individuals try to genuinely enhance their capabilities.

Dweck's research reiterates something we've already talked about, falling in love with the process, not the outcome.

Cultivating a growth mindset. Fortunately, our mindset is not set and we can cultivate a more positive outlook that fosters improvement. And for those of you with children, this is a great opportunity to not just say but foster the belief that "the sky is the limit." In her TED talk, Dweck tells about a high school in Chicago that assigns the grade "not yet" to students who have not passed. This is a tactic I personally used when learning how to do an unassisted pull-up with proper form. By changing the thinking from "I can't" to "I haven't yet," we create a path forward for ourselves. We affirm that there is a day in the future when this will come to be.

So, if you are striving to do better--to sleep more, stress less, take more steps--like the little engine that could, you can do these things if you think you can.

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