Growth mindset was a concept that was initially researched and documented by Dr. Carol Dweck. She had initially commenced her research with the intention of examining how people coped with failure. She gave children a series of increasingly difficult puzzles to solve. Several of the children responded by being excited by their failure rather than frustrated. They looked upon failure as an opportunity. She had an epiphany about this and turned her attention to studying this phenomenon instead.
According to Dr. Dweck, two mindsets exist at all times in all people: Fixed mindset and growth mindset. It’s important to understand that one does not have only one mindset, but a tendency towards one or the other. The fixed or growth mindset will often dominate in different situations for the same person. Despite the terms, the other thing that we should remember is that there should be no negative connotation to either mindset.
Read the following statements:
- Your intelligence is something very basic about you that you can’t change very much.
- No matter how much intelligence you have, you can always change it quite a bit.
- You can do things differently, but the important parts of who you are can’t really be changed.
- You can always change things about the basic person you are.
Chances are that you identify with points one and three or two and four for most parts of your life. The odd numbers are consistent with a fixed mindset. Interestingly enough, many highly successful people display fixed mindset. Fixed mindset means that you want to succeed always—even if it means taking a safe route. Fixed mindset is risk adverse, because it means you might not succeed. Compare this to growth mindset, where one accepts and embraces the fact that the risk of attempting something where you might not succeed is not a failure at all.
So, this is all well and good, but what does it have to do with veterinary medicine? Let’s start off by first considering the population that applies, and gets admitted, to veterinary school. This is a population of perfectionists, who are used to achieving high grades, and who are not used to being wrong.
Interestingly enough, many of us have achieved what we have by adhering closely to Fixed Mindset, and in fact, we are rewarded for it. Sound familiar? How many of us like to make mistakes? How many of us are willing to admit to making errors? And how many of us can actually say that we look upon errors as opportunities for improvement? How do we rationalize stretching ourselves at the risk of a patient’s health?
So, perhaps the best way to look at the advantage of growth mindset is to consider how we respond to adversity. It’s interesting that when hiring astronauts, NASA looks for people who have suffered and recovered from adversity. Puzzles that we don’t understand, problems we don’t have solutions to can all be used as a means to grow and improve. We just have to be willing to consider that they are a positive impact on our lives rather than setbacks.
We all feel the pressures of making errors. Rather than feeling badly about them, perhaps we are best to ask “what did we learn, and how can we improve next time?” Would you have ever persisted in learning how to ride a bike if you gave up the first time you fell? Hopefully your parent (or the person responsible for teaching you) dusted you off and encouraged you to try again. Remember the feeling of intense satisfaction when you finally succeeded? Children have an inherent desire to take risks and learn. Somewhere along the way, for many of us, that desire is overtaken by a need to prevent mistakes and play it safe. As a result, we become fearful in the face of failure.
The suicide rate in veterinary medicine is disproportionately high compared to the general population and many other professions. We cite concepts like compassion fatigue, poor public perception of our profession, and an ever-changing and demanding clientele. A fixed mindset can contribute to an individual becoming desperate enough to consider self-harm because it can mean that we protect ourselves from failure at all costs. Growth mindset alone doesn’t do it, but it is another tool in our toolbox. We need to give ourselves as many tools as possible to continue to not only survive but to thrive.
So, change your vocabulary. Instead of being proud of getting the right answer, be proud of the journey you took to get there. Reward the effort of trying rather than the final result. Let’s embrace challenging situations and use them as a springboard to learn and grow.