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The Happy Academic

What all academics should know about the growth mindset: your science-based superpower for success

Many practices in academia show and reinforce fixed mindsets in ourselves, our workplaces, and in our students.


Do you see yourself more as a growing resume than as a growing person? This question cuts to the heart of your mindset: the highly cohesive cognitive meaning system (“mindset”) that not only influences your beliefs, goals, actions, and efforts across different situations, but your capacity for sustained and sustainable success in work and life too.

Let that sink in. Right now. Today. You have a science-based superpower that is already in you to improve your performance, abilities, and success across any facet and irrespective of your situation. Moreover, you can tap this superpower to improve your students and other staff. Too good to be true? Science shows: on the contrary.

We may well ask why academia is lagging far behind K-12 education in embracing mindsets. But while science increasingly shows your mindset influences many of the very things you hold most sacred, most of us remain either unaware or unappreciative of the true and deep impact that mindsets have on realizing our potential over time.

Building on Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck’s research with children, your mindset in any particular situation varies on a continuum, from fixed (the entity theory of intelligence) to growth (the incremental theory of intelligence) — varying around the central notion of whether you implicitly believe that intelligence, abilities, and talents are “fixed” or can “grow” over time.

While your growth mindset may dominate in some situations (such as learning to use your new cellphone or about research methods), it can be fixed in others, such as improving your listening or how to lose and maintain weight. However, neuroscience shows that we each have a dominant mindset that not only shapes our actions and even thoughts across situations but is both reflective of and shapes connectivity in the learning centres of the brain. This underlying neurological wiring makes shifting your mindset particularly hard.

Your mindset originates in childhood from your interactions and feedback from authority figures. Fixed mindsets become established when feedback is person-focused – when your performance is linked to the presence or absence of your ability or talent: “You’re a smart kid” or “You’re just not good at math.” Conversely, growth mindset interactions focus more on process: “I can see the effort you put into that assignment” or “Keep working on it since you haven’t figured out that concept yet.

Mindsets are pivotal to success and failure because when successes happen to those with dominant fixed mindsets, these are taken to be verifications of underlying talents and abilities, which is very psychologically reassuring. Conversely, when those with fixed mindsets either fail or face situations they believe they are likely to fail in, they can experience confidence crises because their mindsets don’t accommodate the notion that learning to get better is the most important thing. Consequently, those with fixed mindsets in such situations tend to set less aspirational goals to falsely achieve more moderate successes or to spin failure away.

Conversely, growth mindsets steer individuals to view success and failure not from an outcome or validation of their talent or ability (or lack of), but from always trying to learn, no matter what transpires. This is crucial because this mindset is associated in large meta-analysis studies with sustained improvement in abilities, performance, and outcomes over time – irrespective of gender or personal confidence. In short, this is the “success paradox”: to be more successful, you must prioritize learning over success.

This is encouraging for many of us who work in higher education – who if not us should embrace learning? However, artificial growth mindsets are everywhere in academia. We demonstrate countless actions that reflect dominant fixed mindsets: from our people and talent-focused feedback and workplace celebrations of successes of new grants, papers, and awards, to our tendencies to be open to learning in safe areas (like method or substantive knowledge) but not others. From project management, to having better relationships with those who hold different values to us, the opportunities for an authentic growth mindset abound.

While mindsets influence your likelihood of success over time, they can also influence those of your students and other colleagues or staff. This follows because people with fixed mindsets tend to perceive that others automatically hold fixed mindsets too. Thus, a professor who believes they have been successful in their field because of their talent at analysis is more likely to perceive their students dichotomously as either being able to develop this too or – crucially — not. Startlingly, this is then reflected in the students’ subsequent sense of their own ability to improve. Fixed mindsets in teachers cause fixed mindsets in students, who also then experience poorer performance and the perceived lack of ability to improve this because of their beliefs about an underlying lack of talent.

While most people reading this will still believe they have dominant growth mindsets, unless you devote at least an hour a week to your personal growth, be careful of this conclusion. Instead, drawing on some of the work from the NeuroLeadership Institute, focus on doing some simple things that can help your brain develop its growth mindset superpower.

From proving to improving

Remember that the fixed mindset is hungry for you to prove yourself, whereas the growth mindset focuses on you improving yourself. Identify areas of your work and life you feel less strong in that are holding you back. Develop a learning plan to improve in these areas. Try not to derive confidence from your last success, like an accepted paper or enthused class, but from your ongoing commitment to reflect and improve.

From better than others, to better than before

Fixed mindsets love comparisons with others. Next time you catch yourself feeling better about yourself based on a social comparison with someone else in academia, stop, catch yourself, and focus less on how you’re better than others, but instead how you can become better than you were before.

From demonstrating to developing skills

While it feels really good for others to acknowledge how well you are doing, change your emphasis to reflecting on and improving yourself. Being overly conscious of showing others how successful you are — whether in humble brags in corridor conversations, to publishing more, but in predatory journals – this preoccupation with success actually leads to lower aspirations and success over time. Instead, seek to “never arrive” and always be devoting actual time (at least one hour per week) to developing your skills, especially in areas of weakness.

From failing to succeed to successful failure

Academia involves rejection in spades. The growth mindset provides a constructive means to better attain future success and protect our mental wellbeing by rendering failure to be in your control in many very uncontrollable academic processes. While we can’t control whether reviewers choose to accept our paper or our grant, we can always control whether we choose to learn in situations involving failure. Failure is inevitable in academia, but wasting it is not.

Academia needs more of us to shift to our growth mindset. Our upbringing, brains, and our working cultures can make this very difficult. While we continue to luxuriate in reassuring ourselves that we embrace learning, many practices in academia both show and reinforce fixed mindsets in ourselves, our workplaces, and in our students. Yet, our cultural preoccupation with talent holds us back en masse from the very successes we seek. If you truly hold a growth mindset in response to this state of affairs, what would you do?

Bailey Sousa & Alexander Clark
Bailey is associate vice-president of planning, quality and assessment at Athabasca University. Alex is president of Athabasca University. They are both founders of The Effective, Successful, Happy Academic, and the authors of "How to Be a Happy Academic" (Sage: London, 2018), they share a passion for effectiveness and aspiration in academic work.
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