Believing progress is possible has a strong impact on actually improving. What are you good at now which you never would have believed was possible? Maybe a skill which your teachers, your parents or friends told you was beyond your capabilities? Even though it might take some time to come up with an example most people will be able to find one. It could be riding a bike, playing a musical instrument, giving presentations to large groups of people, reading books, learning a foreign language or even doing maths. We’ve all learned skills that we weren’t very good at when we started. Skills we never thought we could achieve.

Actually improving

How did you learn to get better at it? What helped you to get better? When people reflect on these questions and on what helped them, they come up with these sorts of answers:

  • I just kept doing it and kept on trying when things got hard.
  • I asked for feedback from someone who knew something about what I was trying to learn.
  • I experienced small successes, which motivated me to continue.
  • I got angry inside and wanted to prove people wrong when they told me I couldn’t do it.
  • I reflected on my experiences and learnt from them.
  • I deepened my knowledge about what I wanted to get better at.
  • Someone believed in me and told me I could learn it and get better at it.


The interesting thing about these answers is that they all refer to behaviours that help to improve. They refer to what one does to improve and the process that underlies one’s improvements. So, what is mindset and, more specifically, what is the difference between a fixed mindset and a growth mindset? Carol Dweck introduced these terms in the ‘90s. She discovered that some people have a fixed mindset about their intellectual abilities and talents, whereas others have a growth mindset. These two different mindsets have consequences for people’s behaviour, feelings and performance. Here’s how that works.

Fixed Mindset

In a fixed mindset people believe that intelligence is innate and can’t be changed. They believe that everybody is born with certain talents and deficits and there’s not much anyone can do about it. If you don’t have talent or ability, you’d better accept that and focus on something you are already good at. Effort is inconsequential if you don’t have the intelligence, talent or ability to perform the task well. Your innate talent puts limits on what you can achieve in a certain domain. If you don’t have a talent for managing people for example, you can work on it as hard as you like, but it will never become your strength. Logically, people who believe innate talent puts limits on what one can achieve will tell you it’s better to focus on your talents and strengths than it is to focus on improving your weaknesses.

Effects of a fixed state of mind

Dweck’s research shows the effects of a fixed mindset on performance, feelings and behaviour. For example, in many different experiments she found that children with a fixed mindset became more and more anxious when performing tasks which gradually become more difficult.

Effort beliefs

When people attribute their failures and difficulties to a lack of intelligence, talent or ability, they don’t see the point of putting in more effort. Since intelligence, talents and abilities are innate it’s no use trying harder. So, the person gives up, feels anxious, flees from the task, shows a lack of interest and motivation and doesn’t overcome his problems. This lack of effort and strategy becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Due to a lack of effort, the person doesn’t improve, which strengthens his conviction he is not smart enough or doesn’t possess the required talent.


Some people think that a fixed mindset implies that you just accept who you are and don’t push yourself. They subsequently believe that a fixed mindset is a good way to have a relaxed life. However, that’s not the definition of a fixed mindset and neither is it relaxing when you have one. A fixed mindset is defined as ‘the belief that intelligence, talents and abilities are innate and can’t be changed’. Children with a fixed mindset are far from relaxed. They constantly feel a pressure to show that they are smart and talented, and their years in school are stressful. A fixed mindset further correlates with symptoms of anxiety and depression. A lack of motivation is often fuelled by a fear of failure. So, when children or adults say they find something that is quite difficult ‘boring’, it could well be driven by a fear to fail. The mindset theory distinguishes a fixed mindset from a growth mindset. What is a growth mindset?

Believing progress is possible

The growth mindset is defined as the belief that anyone, regardless of where they are now, can improve and that effort, effective strategies, feedback and help are necessary to get better at something. So, with a growth mindset you believe that what you can achieve depends on how much effort you put in, how effective your learning strategies are and how supportive people in your environment are.

No focus on talent

You’re not focused on innate talents or genes. You also don’t think your genes or innate talents have a definitive say in how skilled you can become. People with a growth mindset don’t worry about their current intellectual abilities, because they see their intelligence and abilities as something that can be developed.

Effort beliefs

People with a growth mindset see effort as a normal and necessary part of getting better at something. When they hit a setback or experience failure, they perceive their experience as a sign they should put more effort in, find new strategies and seek help. Therefore, they don’t shy away from the activity but engage deeply and process their mistakes. This has positive consequences for their performance, because effective practice leads to improvements. People with a growth mindset feel better whilst working hard at getting better. They don’t see effort as a sign of weakness and their
self-esteem does not depend on their performance. They enjoy themselves when they work hard to improve themselves and get better. Failure is never an enjoyable experience, but it’s not the end of the world either and it’s not an indication that you should stop because you’re not talented.


Some people assume that having a growth mindset means you frantically want to get better at everything all the time. That assumption puts them off, it all sounds so very tiring! However, having a growth mindset is not the same as putting yourself under pressure to constantly improve at everything you do. We must all make choices in life as to what we want to focus on. Choosing to focus on getting better at writing for example implies you have less time to focus on getting better at playing the piano.

Believing progress is possible has a strong impact on actually improving

To summarise; people with a growth mindset focus on the process of getting better at something instead of on showing how good they are. People with a growth mindset enjoy learning difficult things more than people with a fixed mindset do, Their learning is deeper and more effective. They perform better, because they put in effective effort and learn from their mistakes. Their self-esteem is maintained, regardless of their performance. A growth mindset is the belief that you can make progress, regardless of where you stand now. People can change their mindsets and situational factors influence people’s state of mind.