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The growth mindset is not positive thinking

I received an email last week from someone that went this way, “Hi! I am teaching people about positive thinking. I believe that the growth mindset is the same as positive thinking. What do you say?”

I admit that this email got me thinking, yet again, of the misconception between the growth mindset and positive thinking. Indeed, this misconception has been around for some time now. So today, I shall provide what I hope is the definitive guide to the growth mindset and why it is NOT similar to positive thinking.


As the name implies, positive THINKING is a mental process that focuses on the positive outcome of a situation. The Mayo Clinic says that, “Positive thinking means that you approach unpleasantness in a more positive and productive way. You think the best is going to happen, not the worst.” According to NLP guru Tony Robbins, “Positive thinking is an emotional and mental attitude that focuses on the good and expects results that will benefit you. It’s about anticipating happiness, health and success – essentially, training yourself to adopt an abundance mindset and cultivate gratitude for your own successes and those of others.”

I can quote more such “definitions”, but one thing is clear, positive thinking comes from within you. It is something you design, it is something you create. It is the EXPECTATION of something good out of the situation.

In all intents and purposes, positive thinking is a good thing, because one focuses on favourable outcomes than unfavourable ones. I am sure you too would feel sapped of energy whenever you talk to people who keep on saying, “No…. that would not work….”. After a while, you lose interest in that person.

But is the converse a good thing? Is the converse the growth mindset? The short answer is no, and here is where the two diverge…

(1) THE GROWTH MINDSET DOES NOT WORK ON EXPECTATIONS Instead of hoping for the best, the growth mindset works on what is. If the situation does not go according to plan, there is always a reason for it; and the growth mindset works on those reasons to pivot and try something new. Hence, there are no expectations on the outcomes of the “experiments”. It is what it is, and the growth mindset deals with the outcomes.

(2) THE GROWTH MINDSET WORKS ON FAILURE From my understanding of positive thinking, they eschew failure, since they are focused on the positives, the successes. The growth mindset is just the opposite. It is not that the growth mindset deliberately tries to fail at everything; but it embraces failure because it knows that that is when we learn the most. The growth mindset is cognizant that we don’t know what we don’t know, and when we fail, we are uncovering what we don’t know so that we can enlarge the structures of what we do know.

(3) THE GROWTH MINDSET IS A RISK-TAKING MINDSET Since positive thinking expects success, it is not geared towards taking risks. But the growth mindset will risk being wrong, will risk stepping back, will risk one’s personal reputation all in the name of learning and growing. Mind you, it is not reckless, and will not take unmitigated risks - that is not the growth mindset, that is the gambler’s mindset! But positive thinking stays clear from risks and only expects the best to happen.


This is not to say that positive thinking is not action oriented – those of you who have been to Robbins’s fire-walking shindig will attest to its very action bias; however, the output of positive thinking is not specifically to take action, it is to inoculate one’s view against the vagaries of negativity. But in the case of the growth mindset, the focus is on action because it is only in doing that can we uncover the limits of our knowledge and then to move towards enlarging those limits.


The hypothesis-driven process is a fail-forward mechanism that allows one to fail fast and fail cheap. The construct is to test the boundaries of what works and what don’t work, and from there to formulate the right process to move the innovation forward. Contrast that with positive thinking that expects all actions and activities to be successful. This will cause them to either remain in a process that does not work much longer than they need to (because they are expecting that reality be different than it actually is!) or they will avoid the areas where they suspect they will fail, so as to maintain the element of positivity. Both of these are not useful in an uncertain and ambiguous environment, things which define the sign of the times.


Finally, the growth mindset is very much grounded in reality; it adopts the learning-by-doing modality in innovation or program management, and seeks to uncover what one does not know so as to enlarge the knowledge-base to arrive at a better solution. Expectations, on the other hand, are ungrounded notions of something that may be better than it is. Positive thinking suffers from hindsight bias; they expect the best to happen, and when it does, they attribute that to positive thinking. Unfortunately, when the situation does not turn out to be as positive as they had expected, they will double down on it, leading to a stasis of action. When that happens, they might lose sight of truth, creating an alternate sense of the reality.


This is not to say that positive thinking is bad; we all need a dose of it to keep ourselves from losing heart, especially in the face of constant failure. If our fail forward activities lead us to more failures and less forward, we can sometimes be overwhelmed by it and start questioning our purpose and resolve. At times like these, a little bit of positive thinking will help us embrace the growth mindset better. Yet, to say that the growth mindset is the same as positive thinking, is a stretch.

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