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How the growth mindset underpins career success

In our earlier blog, we spoke about the importance of having a learning mindset in order enjoy a fluent career. Indeed, to be successful in a new job, we must be able to learn the ins and outs of the position including the processes, the relationships, the structure, the culture and the politics. The faster we learn these, the faster we can contribute to the business. This maximises your “payback” period to the company – your ROI – so to speak. Once you have been consistently delivering a high ROI for two years (and this will typically take you one to 1.5 years to get to ROI), you should be ready to move on to a higher job. Then the process repeats itself, bringing you to yet a higher level in the following 3 to 5 years.

Although it sounds simple on paper, this is not a walk in the park. We need to embrace the growth mindset as we navigate increasingly complex job positions. As you rise up the levels of hierarchy, your stakeholders increase, and the amount of negotiation, relationship-building and influencing also grows. You may find that what used to work in previous job positions may not work now for the higher levels. If you are unable to adapt to this complexity, you will find your fluency stops there. Now, that, of course, is an eventuality for all careers. Our career will probably rise to the level where we are either too tired or too contented to move on. (Some people would even say that is the point where we move from competence to incompetence. This is called the Peter Principle). So, if we want to keep the Peter Principle at bay, then we need to embrace the learning mindset, more popularly known as the growth mindset, and keep on moving.

The Growth and Fixed Mindsets

According to research by Prof Carol Dweck, there are two dominant mindsets: the growth mindset, and the fixed mindset. The growth mindset is one that embraces failure as learning. People who display this mindset know that they don’t know everything, hence it is up to them to uncover that. The best way to do it is to just do something and then see the feedback that we get from it. If the feedback is good, we continue doing it. When the feedback is not good, then we stop and understand what is not working, tweak that, and try again. It is the iterative nature of doing, “failing”, tweaking and doing again that defines the growth mindset. Notice the word “failing” in inverted commas; it signifies that while we use the word failure, we don’t actually recognize it as failure in the true sense of the word. Traditionally, when we say something or someone is a failure, we are saying that the person or the thing is not up to par. It denotes something of inferior quality or standing. However, in our context, we see “failure” as the means of success. Since no one is perfect, we cannot expect to know everything, nor can we expect that everything we do will be an instant success. Hence, it is more likely that we will not be successful (hence the term failure) in initial attempts than we will be successful. These “failures” point to the need to tweak the solution and to try it again. In fact, the “failures” allow us to be perfect, to be successful. Without them, we won’t know how to be successful. Can you see how important “failures” are?

Yet there are people who view failure with disdain. They avoid failure at all costs. This is because their self-construct is rather fragile, and they will not do anything if they know that there might be a chance of failure. Such people would do more research, get more data, and wait for the right circumstances to ensure success before they do something. Such people also have a fear of looking bad, of not knowing the answers, of being wrong. This fuels their aversion for stretching themselves beyond their comfort zone, preferring to stick to the issues they know well. By not striking out, they won’t know what they don’t know; and what they do know, shrinks against an ever-expanding societal knowledge base. And because they need to preserve their self-image, their shrinking dataset would hold them back even more from experimenting with new knowledge, thereby creating a vicious cycle that locks one in a paralysing microcosm. Such people are known to embrace the fixed mindset.

Which Mindset for Career Success?

As you can imagine, career success requires a bit of risk-taking since we cannot tell whether the job we take will eventually lead to career accomplishments. We therefore need to go in with an attitude of making it work, putting ourselves out there to create relationships, to embrace systems and structures, and apply ourselves to the tasks at hand. You will realise very quickly that the job description is only a means of understanding the role you have to play, but it does not map out what you have to do on a daily basis to get things done. Yet, at the end of the day, no one is going to assess your performance based on what is written in the job description, you will be assessed based on what you actually delivered vis-à-vis the requirements of the job. There will be many occasions where you will have to define the scope, plot your way, course correct, and arrive at the destination all by yourself. If you don’t have the pioneering spirit that the growth mindset provides, you may be frustrated and lost in your job. Multiply that several times with different jobs and you are well on your way in the opposite direction of career success! What this all means is that if you want to build a successful, fluent career, you need to embrace the growth mindset, take some risks, listen to people’s ideas, look deeper into situations, learn new perspectives, and if you fall while doing that, pick yourself right up and continue.

Do You Have the Growth Mindset?

But… do YOU have the growth mindset? If we ask people this question, they will obviously say they do. After all, who will admit that they had the fixed mindset if that is not the mindset to possess? As such, we need a more objective manner to assess our mindset. For this, let me invite you to take an assessment to understand your level of growth mindedness. Click here to do the assessment, and when you are done, return to this article.

Five Dimensions

As you have discovered, we have identified five dimensions that describe the growth mindset: learning, bounce-back, risk-taking, forward and pride. The “learning” dimension is one which assesses your tendency to learn new things, your ability to ask “Why?” and “How come?” The “bounce back” dimension is one which assesses your tendency to pick yourself up, dust yourself and move on. The “risk taking” dimension is one which assesses how comfortable you are at taking risks, to put yourself out there without being reckless. The “forward” dimension is one that assesses how focused you are in progressing, in moving ahead despite setbacks. The “pride” dimension assesses your tendency to view your past achievements as trophies you have to protect, to base your decisions on the strength of your past accomplishments. Obviously, the greater the tendency you have in the first four dimensions, the more of a growth mindset you possess. But the greater the tendency in the last dimension, the more of the fixed mindset you have.

Each dimension is scored on a scale of 0.0 to 5.0. The “0.0” score and the “5.0” score are both ideal. They do not exist. Any score from 3.4 to 5.0 is in the growth band; and scores from 0.0 to 2.3 is the fixed band. The score from 2.4 to 3.3 is what is known as the transitional band, that means it can be growth or fixed, depending on how high the score is. What this assessment shows is that different people are fixed and different people are growth for different reasons. In fact, a person can display a growth tendency in a certain situation, and then a fixed tendency in another situation. So, when you look at your assessment, you can now have a better understanding of which dimension may be growth, and which may be fixed, so that you can focus on those areas which hold you back, and develop a stronger growth mindset for yourself.

(We will discuss further the relative positioning of the different dimensions on the growth mindset, and how to develop each dimension in separate articles.)

No one ever said building a successful career was easy; but it is one of the best things you can do for yourself.

Here’s to your continued success!

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