Did you know that it’s possible to categorize every single person on the planet into one of two groups?

It’s true.

According to the research of Stanford professor Carol Dweck, one of the nation’s leading cognitive psychologists, we all develop what are called ‘self-theories.’ Those with a ‘fixed mindset’ believe that talent and ability are largely determined by genetic endowment. Alternatively, those with a ‘growth mindset’ believe that it’s possible to substantially improve abilities and intelligence through focused effort and learning.

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Perhaps you already know the answer based on the simple explanation above. If not, consider this: Self-theories affect our choices and behavior. If you have a strong preference for activities that validate your abilities, and a strong aversion to those that might not, you probably have a ‘fixed mindset.’ People who scored high on standardized tests in school are particularly susceptible because they often become ‘addicted’ to praise for academic achievement and narrowly focus all their efforts to that end.

Sounds like a few lawyers I know…

Sounds like me.

But floundering isn’t failure! Instead, people with a ‘growth mindset’ – those willing to embrace the struggle – have a more positive outlook, see more opportunity, and accumulate a much wider array of life experiences.

Ironically, this is one of the most significant lessons I learned in law school, bastion of academic high-achievers holding out against the uncertainties of the real world. I now see that it was coalescing all through my twenties, but it took getting my butt kicked academically during my first year of law school to solidify the lesson. Here are the three most important points:

  1. You really can develop yourself – As it turns out, both self-theories are correct. Genetic endowment can be a powerful advantage, but unfortunately often becomes a life-limiting factor for those most intellectually gifted. Meanwhile, those willing to fail exhibit much more accurate self-assessment and enjoy a richer life experience.
  2. Don’t be afraid of feedback – While floundering may not be fun, we need accurate information about our abilities in order to learn effectively. Those with a ‘growth mindset’ seem to accept this inherently. For the rest of us, we need to accept that feedback is not either good or bad news. It simply marks one particular performance at a fixed point in time. More importantly, it provides a reference point for improvement.
  3. A ‘fixed mindset’ can be cured – Dweck’s research indicates that a person can actually change mindsets! How? Education on self-theories and the implications of affirmatively choosing to cultivate a ‘growth mindset’ equips you to make the choice.

If, like me, you struggle with having a ‘fixed mindset,’ take heart – you can choose differently. You can adopt a ‘growth mindset’ and start to enjoy the accompanying benefits. This doesn’t mean you won’t still struggle with an aversion to risking whatever reputation your natural talents have afforded. I certainly do. But it does mean that you can appreciate the choice to embrace it.

Next time the opportunity presents itself, remember: Floundering isn’t failure!

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