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The Growth Mindset Starts in the Brain


Wed Sep 10 2014

The Growth Mindset Starts in the Brain

I sometimes like to think of the training profession as going through an evolution similar to the path taken by the medical science more than 300 years ago.

Before we knew about microbes and viruses, we knew that certain diseases affected the human body. Through trial and error, we discovered things that alleviated symptoms or even appeared to cure certain diseases. One day, scientists like Robert Hooke started using a new device, the microscope, to investigate the way tiny microbes behaved and affected larger organisms like the human body. Almost overnight, our understanding of disease and our power to cure it exploded.


We are going through a similar transformation with neuroscience. Using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and other imaging techniques, we can now study the structures and functions of the brain in real time. These new views give us deeper insights into how we learn, what obstacles prevent or hamper learning, and how we can restore brain function when something goes wrong.

Once we understood microbes, it wasn’t long before the first vaccines were developed. Today, our emerging understanding of the brain has led to the discovery of the growth mindset—a powerful tool to help your employees become better learners.

What is the growth mindset?

In her book, Mindset, Dr. Carol Dweck shares her research into the different ways that people think about themselves and how these self-images affect our behavior and our ability to learn and adapt. She explains that there are two basic ways that we can view the world and our place in it.

A fixed mindset believes that our talents and abilities are fairly fixed at birth. This means that each of us has a hidden upper limit to what we can accomplish. People who have struggled in school may conclude, for example, that they just aren’t cut out for college. So they end up in a low-paying, non-engaging job that doesn’t stimulate their brain to form new connections. Their belief becomes reality because running that limiting statement over and over again created a very strongly enforced neural pathway, eventually reaching neurons connected to all parts of their lives.


On the other hand, an overly perfect “finished” view of oneself can be equally dangerous. This type of thinking establishes pathways that suggest that we are already perfect, so our brains become less adept and recognizing opportunities for improvement. Dweck identifies many CEOs and politicians with this type of thought pattern and it can lead to disastrous results when taken to the extreme.

To avoid becoming overly complacent about ourselves, educator Salman Khan recommends that we avoid telling our children how smart and accomplished they are and focus instead on their areas for growth.  A word of caution here, though, this does not mean that we should start telling everyone how stupid or unskilled they are—that would just be another unproductive fixed mindset.

A growth mindset, on the other hand, is a belief that we never stop learning and improving. This mindset appears to actually encourage the growth of new neural pathways, forming new connections that weren’t there yesterday, instead of running over the same pathway over and over again. Brains that are programmed to operate with this type of thinking tend to learn new information much faster. More importantly, they seem better able to connect one new thought or insight to another, allowing truly transformational ideas to emerge.

Neuroscience and the growth mindset

Much like the healers of prior days, psychologists used to have to infer how our mind works through observation and try to help us advance through trial and error. Today, we can actually test a theory like Dweck’s against what we know about Neuroscience and see that it holds up.


 The brain is constantly creating and destroying neural pathways, forming the thought and behavior patterns our brain uses to make decisions, choose actions and present us to the outside world. The pathways that are used get stronger; those that are under-used grow weak and eventually replaced.

When reviewed through this lens, Dweck’s explanation of fixed vs. growth mindsets makes perfect sense—it correlates with hard scientific data. You can actually watch this process in action in this amazing video post from a student at Sheridan College.

What does this mean to you?

As learning professionals, we have a shared responsibility to help our clients become the best learners possible. Helping employees adopt a growth mindset can make an organization more agile, more resilient, more creative, and even smarter. It is actually possible to use a growth mindset to enhance the Intelligence Quotient (IQ) of the individual and, by extension, the organization.

The good news is that you have already started to change the way your brain works, just by reading this article. Studies show that mere exposure to the concept initiates the formation of new neural pathways, even if you initially disagree with the premise. Our brains are pre-wired with a bias to learn new things. Somewhere along the way, some of us have actually learned to stop learning and we can unlearn those behaviors with conscious effort and repetition.

One simple way to encourage a growth mindset is to insert positive messages about everyone’s capability to learn and change into every training intervention we produce. We can rewrite learning activities to make people fail more often, which is known to stimulate much more neural activity than the successful completion of a new task. Finally, we can partner with leadership to encourage a new way of looking at ourselves and our employees as works in progress, rather than fully defined blocks with “strengths” and “weaknesses.”

A friend of mine has a credo that she shares and lives by: Learn something new every day. In a nutshell, that’s a sound plan for growth.

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