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Growth Mindset and Sustainable Healthy Lifestyle

At one high school in Chicago, students had to pass a certain number of courses in order to graduate. Instead of giving failing grades to those who did not pass, the school simply wrote “not yet” on a student’s report card. These two little words - “not yet” - gave students hope that they could pass if they tried again, motivating them to keep trying.

Interestingly, giving a failing grade to students not only made them more likely to give up, it also encouraged them to cheat the next time, or to look for someone who did worse to make themselves feel better!

Sound familiar? Whether we’re talking about high schoolers and grades or adults and our healthy lifestyle goals, this story resonates.

Brain lifting weights

In this post, we’ll cover:

Also note, if you prefer to watch a video of this information you can do so here:

“Growth Mindset” and “Fixed Mindset” Defined

First, let’s get clear on what these concepts mean. Growth Mindset and Fixed Mindset are incredibly important, because they impact our perception which in turn creates our reality!

Over 30 years ago, Carol Dweck, American pscyhologist and Stanford professor and researcher on mindset, motivation and personality, coined the terms Growth Mindset and Fixed Mindset while studying those students in Chicago and others around the United States. She and her colleagues had become interested in students’ attitudes toward failure. They noticed that while some students rebounded rather easily in the face of failure, others seemed devastated by even small setbacks.

Dweck coined the terms fixed mindset and growth mindset to describe the underlying beliefs people have about learning and intelligence. She states:

In a fixed mindset, people believe their basic qualities, like their intelligence or talent, are simply fixed traits. They spend their time documenting their intelligence or talent instead of developing them. They also believe that talent alone creates success—without effort. (Dweck, 2015)

meanwhile…

In a growth mindset, people believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work—brains and talent are just the starting point. This view creates a love of learning and a resilience that is essential for great accomplishment. (Dweck, 2015)

Neuroplasticity Research

Hisotrically, there has been an assumption that our abilties are rather fixed by the time we reach adulthood. Recent advances in brain plasticity (neuroplasticity) research, however, have shown that the brain is far more malleable, or plastic, than we ever realized. We now know that connections between neurons can change with experience. Neural networks grow new connections, strengthen existing pathways, or weaken those that are not used regularly.

These neuroscience findings demonstrate that we can literally rewire our brains! The implications for our healthy lifestyle goals are huge. We can explicitly choose to let suboptimal habits weaken through disuse, while cultivating new neural connections and strengthening positive habits through practice. Over time, by letting the negative habits get weaker and instead focusing our time and energy on the positive habits, we can make healthy changes in a sustainable way. Intentionally learning new strategies, asking better questions, practicing new skills, and practicing healthy habits surrounding food, fitness, and sleep can and will strengthen positive neural pathways and improve our health and wellbeing!

Examples of Growth vs Fixed Mindset (Fitness and Food)

Some of the differences between fixed and growth mindset may appear to be a simple issue of semantics or word choice. But, it turns out words really matter in framing how we view ourselves, particularly when it comes to our ability to set and work towards goals related to sustainable healthy lifestyle!

For example, let’s say we’re talking about lifting weights, and you literally go to failure in your last set of squats. You absolutely cannot do another rep, your body has “failed” you.

A fixed mindset would say “That’s it. This is the limit of my abilities. It’s all I can do (and maybe: it’s all I’ll ever be able to do)."

A growth mindset might instead suggest "Today, this is the best I can do. I wonder how I could prepare differently for a different outcome next time?" (maybe taking into account how much you slept hte night before, your hydration level, what if any food you took in before the workout, etc and tweaking variables in a logical, intentional way to learn more about what works best for you - notice this is also a much more long-term mindset!)

Growth Mindset vs Fixed Mindset

To take another example related to food, perhaps you’re following a new way of eating that you’re pretty excited about. You’ve been at it for about a week and your sleep has been better, your energy level is boosted, and your outlook is just generally more positive. Then the weekend comes and you relax a bit to enjoy some quality time with friends or your partner and, sure enough, by Sunday evening you’re in complete shame and regret mode thinking ahead to how you can get back on track next week.

A fixed mindset would say “I’m just not good at sticking to healthy eating. I’m frustrated that I always mess up and can’t stay consistent. I give up!"

A growth mindset might gently suggest “I did a GREAT job last week with my new way of eating. I felt and slept better. I also know that I can learn to do anything I want. In this case, I want to learn how to eat more healthily in a more sustainable way. Weekends seem to be a bit more challengeing for me, but, I know that my effort and attitude make a big difference in my outcomes. “Failure” is another opportunity to grow. How can I reflect on this weekend to set one small goal for the week ahead?" - notice that the growth mindset celebrates the good and acknowledges the areas for growth and reframes the challenge in a positive way.

Takeaways and Food for Thought

You can have a fixed mindset in one area of your life and a growth mindset in another. I sure did! As a classroom teacher, I always believed my students could grow and learn with sustained effort. Yet, I often found that when it came to myself and healthy lifestyle goals, I told myself stories about what I could or couldn’t do and easily gave up on myself and my healthy goals far too easily. I could never do a chinup or pullup! Or, perhaps: I could never give up pizza!

Turns out I could do both. Not being able to do a chinup or give up pizza were just self-limiting stories I was telling myself and they kept me stuck. Once I chose to believe a different story, ask the right questions, learn the right information, and apply and practice it, I met my goal and overcame a life-long challenge in a way that worked for me and it was incredibly empowering!

It’s also true that growth vs. fixed mindset is more of a spectrum than a dichotomy, and that it’s dynamic and always changing. You may go through a season of growth and flourishing when you seem able to reframe every failure as a chance to grow and learn. Then, other times may feel like a slog of being stuck in the mud and just not having the skillset you need to progress. This is all totally normal. Frustratingly, growth is very rarely linear.

Setbacks will come. That’s a fact of life. You’ll break a leg and not be able to work out. You may struggle to lose the baby weight after your first child is born. The way of eating you’ve been following could stop working for you when you unexpectedly hit pre-menopause earlier than anticipated. A global pandemic will unexpectedly pop up and you’ll lose your job or have to pivot professionally on a moment’s notice. *It’s not the setbacks that matter. It’s how you respond to them. Practicing a growth mindset, come what may, is the mental exercise you need to get stronger in every aspect of your life - phsyical, mental, emotional.*

What do you think? Do you tend to have more of a fixed mindset or a growth mindset? Or, like me, do you have a growth mindset in some areas of your life but catch yourself defaulting to a fixed mindset in others?

If you enjoyed this post, you may also enjoy reading the posts below and trying some of those strategies to carve out mental space for reflection on how to apply a growth mindset in your life. This week, I challenge you to try to catch your fixed mindset in action. Try to subtly shift your story from “I can’t do that” to “I can’t do that yet”. See what difference it can make for you!

Mindset Matters: Journaling for Optimal Health

Finding Comfort with Uncertainty through Meditation

Why Walk? Finding Stillness through Mindful Movement