Growth mindset

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6th May, 2020

How a growth mindset can help you thrive under COVID-19 and beyond

In this article, John Rives of the Growth Mindset Institute provides his personal account of the outbreak of COVID-19, and how applying growth mindset theory has helped guide his business through uncertain times.

No doubt, just like I did, you woke up a few months ago in an environment of constant uncertainty and threat — many of us have never experienced this level of change.

Daily infection statistics try to reinforce the message to stay home while planes are being grounded, borders are close, markets tumble and forecasts predict dire economic impacts.

The novel coronavirus COVID-19 has already influenced every detail of our lives: how and when we work, who we can see, whether the kids are in school or not, and much of what brings us joy in life has been cancelled.

Your business may have to hibernate, pivot to remain relevant or struggle to cope with unprecedented demand overnight. How you respond to these challenges can be heavily influenced by your mindset.

Mindsets are the lenses through which we interpret everyday events. When faced with a challenge, like we all are at the moment, do you see it as a threat, or do you see it as an opportunity?


Avoid settling into a ‘survive mentality’


Is your goal to survive this pandemic or is your goal to thrive during this period of immense change? The answer to that question is heavily dependent on your mindset.

For most of us, we think solely about getting back to ‘normal’. That means hunkering down and waiting out this period of isolation and business disruption in hopes that we can resume right where we left off. Our customers will return, our business partners will start trading again, our borders will open, and life returns to normal.

This is the ‘survive mentality’ and through it we fail to see the opportunity to emerge better and more capable than before. Our mindset is seeing this time as a threat to our way of life and our future selves.

One proven concept for helping you to thrive, overcome a fear of failure and instil in yourself a belief that you can realise a better future is psychologist Professor Carol Dweck’s work on growth mindset.

A person with a growth mindset believes that your talents, skills, abilities and personality can be developed through hard work, good strategies, learning from mistakes and getting input from others.

A person with a fixed mindset believes that your basic qualities like your intelligence, talents and abilities, are fixed traits. As in, you have a certain amount of talent or intelligence and that is that.

In short, when you have a fixed mindset about your ability, you find it more difficult to navigate through the challenges that you’ll encounter during these demanding and uncertain times. But, if you adopt a growth mindset, you’ll be willing to set challenging goals and persist even when you have a setback.

Research has demonstrated that people with a growth mindset have a greater ability to thrive in even the most difficult situations (Dweck 2008).


What does thriving look like for you?


“The hallmark of successful people is that they are always stretching themselves to learn new things.” — Dr Carol Dweck, psychologist.

Take a moment to think about your future. In the simplest sense, you always have just three possible selves regardless of where you find yourself in life:

  1. A future where you’re worse off — you feel like external events, that you believe are outside of your control, will determine your future. In this mindset you see very few options to avoid losing the things you worked so hard to build.
  2. A future where you can minimise the impact — it may take some time, but eventually you see a world that returns to normal. This mindset is about survival. You shrink down and hold tight hoping things will get better sooner or later, and with each new announcement of shifting restrictions, your anxiety and frustration increases.
  3. A future where you’re better off — one where you see this time as an opportunity to develop new skills, build new capabilities in your business or develop new products to meet the needs of your customers as the economy gradually opens back up. You can choose to thrive.

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The long road home from New York: A personal anecdote


I confess that for the first few days of this pandemic I had a survive mindset. I figured this event was something to be endured and, maybe with luck, it would be over quickly.

You see, the Growth Mindset Insitute (of which I’m a co-founder), derives 80 percent of its revenue from delivering training programs that help people to develop a growth mindset. We teach people to thrive. It’s been successful and we have seen strong growth year on year.

As things began to unfold, I was travelling to New York to deliver a program for a new global client. I had hopes that this pilot would lead to large deal and our first global licensing contract. I landed in Los Angeles to clear customs and catch my flight to New York. I checked my email and found one informing me that my client’s company had cancelled all international travel. The people I was planning to train were flying in from Stockholm, London and Singapore. Now, very suddenly, they were unable to attend.

So, we decided to pivot. I would train the local team based in New York instead and the training would go ahead. That was in early March 2020.

The training program was scheduled to take place on Wednesday, 11 March. Feeling a sense of relief, I flew on to New York only to receive an email on Monday afternoon that the company had declared an immediate work-from-home policy.

The program wouldn’t be going ahead.

I’d some other meetings in New York, and I stayed to pursue those opportunities. Every meeting I’d scheduled was either cancelled or conducted through video conferencing (all of which I could have done back in Australia).

Each day, the city became more desolate. They announced that Broadway would close and cancelled the St Patrick’s Day parade for the first time in over a century. I was alone and developed a sense of foreboding as events escalated around me.

My business partner rang me later that week. Before I’d left Australia, we had a full schedule of workshops for March and April. It was going to be one of our busiest and most profitable periods. Now, clients were cancelling. By Friday afternoon, we didn’t have a single workshop left.

The day of my flight home finally arrived. It was Saturday, 14 March. I flew out of LA bound for Melbourne wondering how things had changed so dramatically in a week.

My goal was to get out and meet with our clients. At that time there was no lockdown. I would start to line up work on the other of side this ‘brief’ period of disruption.

While I was in flight, unknown to me, the Prime Minister declared all international travellers would have to self-isolate for 14 days commencing Monday, 16 March. I landed at 5am that Monday morning to hear the pilot telling us that we were all required to self-isolate for 14 days.

I spent several days anxious, frustrated and afraid of what the future held. I clung desperately to the idea that this would be over quickly. I just wanted life to get back to normal and our business could get back on its feet. You see, the power of our fixed mindset is that it wants to avoid challenges and fall over when we have a setback. And it had me firmly in its grasp.

I woke up on Wednesday realising my mistake. I’d fallen into a survive mentality and was blaming everyone else for my misfortune. People were overreacting, I’d thought, and it was unfair that they cancelled work on us.

I rang my business partner and we started to apply our work to our own business.

What could we do to thrive? What would that look like for us? For me it wasn’t about learning a new skill, although I believe this to be a very good strategy for many. We started talking about how we could use this time to emerge more competitive with new and better products and services.

How would we protect ourselves from the next downturn?

We made three key decisions:

  1. We would develop a version of our services that could be delivered remotely. This would make us relevant during an extended work from home period and we could sell into overseas markets more effectively.
  2. We had been struggling to develop a new product due to the demands of managing a growing business. We would finish that product within six weeks, and it would have offline capabilities.
  3. Our partner in China had been asking us to translate our products into Mandarin and to get our online mindset assessment deployed on servers in China so that they could sell it their customers. We would make that happen.

None of these ideas solved our immediate cash flow problems, but they would make us more competitive than ever before if we could achieve them.

The thrive mindset gave us hope and a focus on building a better future.

On 21 April our business partner delivered their first virtual workshop in China, including a Mandarin version of the online mindset assessment deployed on servers based in China. It would have taken us a year to deliver that during business as usual. They now have a full pipeline for May even before China emerges from lockdown.

The client I flew to New York to train is going to complete our new virtual workshop on 11 May, and our other clients are starting to book our virtual programs as well.

We’ve made good progress on or new product and it should complete the design phase by mid-May.


Maintain a growth mindset for stability in an unstable world


Your mindset is powerful whether you realise it or not. It’s influencing your thoughts, your habits, your business success and your relationships every day.

Unfortunately, when you don’t actively choose which mindset to apply during challenging times, you’re more likely to have a survive mindset. But, if you take a moment to reflect and to coach yourself to have a growth mindset, to see challenges as opportunities, you can develop a thrive mindset.

Times have changed. Possibly forever. Which mindset you choose is up to you.

Fortunately, there is strong evidence that mindsets can be changed by developing self-awareness in people about their fixed mindset triggers and assisting them to recognise when they are at play.

Once a person recognises their fixed mindset triggers, they are able to develop strategies to manage back toward growth. This accelerates personal and business performance and acts as a multiplier for investment in innovative business models.

Research demonstrates that a growth mindset is essential for learning and development (Dweck 2008). A fixed mindset undermines attempts to thrive by creating a psychological barrier to learning. Overcoming this barrier is critical to developing people’s capacity to change and have the self-efficacy to persist through a challenging transition.

If you found this article of interest and would like to learn more about growth mindset, then consider visiting the Growth Mindset Institute’s website or sending John an email