What Is A Growth Mindset and Why Is It So Important?

One great resource that I discovered early on in my Paleo journey was Mark’s Daily Apple, a blog written by Mark Sisson, who is a leader in the Paleo community and someone whose opinions and writing I greatly respect.  I like facts, science and research and (if you can’t tell from his blog posts) so does Mark.  If I am curious about any given Paleo topic, whether it is fitness, nutrition, mental health or lifestyle related, chances are Mark has written about it. And Mark will give the kind of pragmatic explanation mixed with data and personal experience that I’m looking for.

I don’t always have time to read his posts, so I have taken to listening to his podcast, “The Primal Blueprint” when I’m in the car or kitchen.  One of his recent posts was titled “How to Succeed with a Growth Mindset”.  I LOVED this post.  Mostly because I realized I had used a growth mindset intuitively in my own life, to help me succeed at many different points.

I know not everyone loves science and data as much as I do.  So I wanted to talk about what Mark wrote, how I’ve used it in my life and how any of my readers could too!

Mark starts out by explain a psychology study that was done on two groups of 5th graders.  Each group was given the same task.  Some were praised for being “smart”, some for their “hard work”.  After they received this praise, the kids were asked to choose another project.  Researchers found that the group that was praised for “hard work” was more likely to choose projects that were increasingly difficult, while the group that was told they were “smart” chose projects that were similar in difficulty or easier than their initial project.

Words are important, in all realms of life.  This is an example of how words can subconsciously reinforce the idea that we are either predestined for success (i.e.: smart) or we succeed because of our efforts, regardless of inherent skill (hard work).  And words effect adults just as much as they do kids.

I was a kid who was praised for being “smart” and “mature” far more than any other qualities I possessed.  I think that is why I relate to this study so much.  Those two qualities defined my sense of self for a very long time, and I was afraid of failing in school or being too ‘silly’ or ‘irresponsible’ because I couldn’t lose those two prime identifiers.  This meant that I didn’t experience a lot of failure because I didn’t often challenge myself or try things just for the sake of learning.  If I couldn’t learn how to do something… then I wasn’t smart anymore was I?  So I focused on the stuff I knew I could grasp easily and not the stuff that really would have made me grow as a person.

“…a growth mindset imparts continual optimism and simultaneous humility… The central truth is we’re defined by our action and not our impression.”  
– Mark Sisson

A turning point came for me when I wanted to do something that had no guarantee of success.  I wanted to work in the film industry and I wanted to move out of Iowa.  I had to mentally prepare myself for almost a year that there was a strong possibility that if I attempted this… with few connections, minimal savings and no real plan… I might fail and fail EPICLY.  Like have to call my dad and ask him to bail me out after six weeks because I couldn’t buy food fail.  But I wanted to be brave – I asked myself, “What will happen if you fail?  You might be broke and your pride will be wounded.  You might have to move back and admit defeat  But you will probably not die.”

So… I decided I would go. I was literally traveling a road not taken – I was cutting my own path on I-80 in my little white Corsica, packed with all my possessions.  I drove from northwest Iowa, over 1200 miles, without a smart phone and only a paper map to guide me, through six states, the Holland tunnel and into the middle of Manhattan.  I was Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz – I was not in Kansas anymore.

Working hard with a sprained wrist and trying to stay cool during an overnight in the subway in the middle of summer circa 2009
Working hard with a sprained wrist and trying to stay cool during an overnight in the subway in the middle of summer circa 2009

Being 23 years old, navigating New York City and how to break into the film industry… well there is a steep learning curve.  I learned that even if you don’t really know anything about the world you are trying to succeed in… people will always respect your hard work.  It was mostly my work ethic and not my brain that saved me when I moved to New York.  I showed up early, I stayed late.  I studied call sheets and scripts.  If there was a request made on set, I was the first person to fill it.  I was prepared, stocking my backpack with ibuprofen, tide pens, bandaids, tooth paste and 100 other random things that were occasionally and unexpectedly needed.  No job was beneath me.  I didn’t complain when I was tired (well, mostly… we all complained when were tired and then followed up the complaints with “Living the dream!”).  And that kind of work ethic made people hire me again.  And the more I worked, the better I got at my job… because I learned a lot.  I made it my job to learn so I could be better – the best.  I used my smarts but they didn’t define me anymore.

There came a day when I heard one of the best compliments I’ve ever received.  My uncle said of me, to his ten year old daughter who was asking about why I had moved to New York, “She is very brave.  It’s not easy to do what she is doing, to follow your dreams.”  Hearing someone call me brave, even if it was only one person, was so much better than being called smart a million times.

When I decided to close the New York chapter of my life and move back to Iowa, I did not count it as a failure.  I counted it as an experience that taught me a lot – about myself, life, humanity, hard work and who and what I wanted to be and do with my finite time on Earth.  That represents a huge adjustment in perspective for a girl who once upon a time was too afraid to try new things because she didn’t want to look stupid.

The more I’ve grown into adulthood, the more I have learned to not be intimidated by the potential for failure.  The more I’ve learned that if you want to be better at something, you need to learn about it and then attempt apply that knowledge – without worrying about the results.  I used that “growth mindset” to teach myself how to sew (I made lots of ugly things but I got better), how to be the kind of cook who doesn’t need a recipe (I made lots of stuff that was edible but not amazing), how to be more athletic and active even though I have never thought of myself as an athlete (I looked silly and a mess doing burpies at my gym), and made myself healthier by making it my mission to understand Paleo – really understand the why and how behind it, rather than looking for a 3 step plan to a flatter stomach.

“I divide the world into learners and non-learners.”
-Benjamin R. Barber

Approaching something as a learner, with a growth mindset, gives you permission to re-evaluate… to have a journey that is not linear.  It’s not about how fast you can get from point A to point B.  It gives you permission to say, “This is working, but this isn’t, so I need to readjust.”  It doesn’t mean you are stupid, slow, or failing – quite the opposite.  You are gaining knowledge that you will always be able to use – even if it’s knowledge about what doesn’t work!  That is a success.  It allows you to admit when you are wrong without guilt or embarrassment or self-criticism.  And it makes outside criticism you receive infinitely less hurtful.

This mindset has had huge consequences in my journey towards better health, fat loss and gaining strength and fitness.  I’m eternally grateful that I learned in my early 20’s to not fear failure, I only regret that it took me so long to apply that philosophy to certain areas of my life.

Who among us hasn’t gone to the gym and done only what were were comfortable doing (or not gone to the gym at all)… because we didn’t want to “look silly” or embaress ourselves in public?  Because we thought we didn’t look like we “belonged” in a gym?  Or not signed up for a 5k because we thought we might not finish?  How many of us have silently tried to change our eating habits without telling friends or family because we are afraid of comments like “Oh, I hope it works out this time…” or of admitting to them that the scale hasn’t moved much?

We give ourselves a hard time for not being at the end vision we’re reaching for, which only makes it harder to conjure the self-affirmation to go after that vision. Should we call that ironic or just insane? How many times does this twisted cul-de-sac thinking keep us from even starting our pursuit – whether it’s for health, for fitness, for a better career, for a more adventurous or more balanced life – because we shame ourselves for being so far from our goal
– Mark Sission

That quote above is so dead on.  I’ve done it myself – shamed myself for being so far from where I wanted to be.  Stopped myself from starting because I was afraid of failing, being judged, disappointing myself or others.  But self-shaming isn’t very motivating.  It often turns into self-pity, and then a defeatist attitude that sends you to your couch with a container of Oreos.  “Just give up, you’ll never get there.”  “Ugh, you fell off the wagon AGAIN!”

Don’t go there people.  It’s not productive.

Words are important.  So start using words that will help you.  Praise yourself for your hard work.  Praise yourself for your determination.  Praise yourself for getting back up when you fall down.  Praise yourself for never saying “I give up.”

And don’t just create an internal monologue.  Verbalize your goals and achievements – make them public.  Mark is so right when he suggests making public declarations – on social media, interest groups, etc – because most people will want to support or encourage you, even if that just means a ‘like’ when you check into the gym.  Sure, a few people might find your updates annoying but those are not the people you need to concern yourself with.

Concern yourself with celebrating your growth and the fact that you are making positive choices. Surround yourself with the people who recognize that in you – and if you don’t have anyone to do that, go find your tribe!  Whatever it is you want to achieve, I guarantee there is a group of people out there who are going after similar goals and you live in an age where it is easier than ever to find those people.  You never know how watching your journey will effect someone else – that’s something I learned by writing this blog.  You never know, someone might call you brave, just for being honest about trying to learn.

Be a learner.  Don’t quit, don’t be ‘done’.  When you approach life from a growth perspective, you are never in a position to not start a journey toward what your heart aches for you to do.  Because there is always another mountain to climb, another thing to reach for – and that should excite you!  That’s what life is – learning, testing your limits and discovering that most of your limits… are all in your head.


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