Powering Success with a Single Word

Mar 26, 2024
A bulletin board entitle Mindset Matters rephrasing limiting statements to demonstrate the power of a growth mindset.

Words are powerful, even a simple word like, “Yet.”  Notice the effect these two short phrases have on your body and emotions:

  • “I can’t do that.”  
  • “I can’t do that yet.”

The first suggests a fixed and final outcome. No room for growth or learning. The words reinforce a sense of inadequacy and incompetence and reflect what Carol Dweck refers to as fixed mindset in her book Mindset. The latter, on the other hand, suggests the potential for learning and growth. This phrase inspires the speaker to learn and try again. Dweck labels this growth mindset.

Your Conversations Matter

Conversations flow from our mindset. The conversations emerging from those with a growth mindset are distinctly different from those with a fixed mindset. People who have a fixed mindset often see a problem as a crisis; they experience failure as judgment about their basic intelligence. Instead of curiosity and interest, they grow defensive and protective. To counteract their experience of shame, they run from challenge, put those who don’t do as well as they did down, and make excuses for errors, often blaming others. Those who have a growth mindset see a problem as a challenge. They recognize their abilities can be developed over time, so they get curious and ask questions. They engage and work to process errors, learn, and evolve, staying open to their own growth. 

Watch Your Words: Placebo and Pygmalion Effect in Action

The subtle difference in the way you phrase something and the conversations you have with yourself and others can turn an otherwise competent student or employee (including yourself) into a failure or a marginally competent student or employee into a success. Mindset makes a difference. The Placebo Effect is the beneficial effect produced by your beliefs. A growth mindset can have a placebo effect on your success in any endeavor. The belief I don’t know how yet…encourages you to study, learn, and ask for guidance, believing that it’s just a matter of time until you get it.

When your teacher, partner, or manager also has a growth mindset, it further increases your chances of being successful. When others believe in your capacity to grow and learn, they behave differently and use words that are encouraging and informative. Their conversations with us are instructional. This reinforces your growth mindset and ability to grow. This is often referred to as the Pygmalion Effect.

Growth Mindset on In Schools

The importance of growth mindset and conversations that reinforce it are finding their way into many schools, hopefully in ways that will reverse education gaps between different student populations. In Chicago, students who do not pass a course receive a grade of “not yet” instead of an F. Can you feel the power of that?  C.J. Luckey, a hip hop artist, works with youth and has produced a jingle for elementary school children that teaches The Power of Yet. (Warning, if you listen, you may be singing this for the next couple of hours.) His efforts encourage student success by inspiring children to persevere.

Dweck’s TedX talk on The Power of Yet introduces her research on the remarkable power of having and encouraging growth mindset for children (and adults alike). Growth mindset has a significant impact on student success. 

Do Your Conversations Reflect Growth Mindset?

Check in with how you respond to yourself when you make a mistake. Are you quick to judge and reinforce incompetence? Or do you use that error as an opportunity to learn and grow?

How do you respond to your children, partner, colleagues, and employees when they make mistakes? Do your words inspire growth mindset? If you’d like to ensure you support a growth mindset for yourself and those in your circles of influence, get curious instead of judgmental when anyone “fails”. Consider asking generative questions, such as:

  • What information are they (or I) missing?
  • What thought process drove their (my) thinking and is there another one?
  • What did they (I) misunderstand?
  • What additional skills, knowledge, or experience are needed?
  • Who has expertise that can help them (me) learn?

These kinds of questions will foster learning and a growth mindset. Each one will generate a conversation worth having! To learn more about conversations worth having and asking generative questions, visit cwh.today.

Written by Cheri Torres, PhD. "I have seen countless times how a fixed or growth mindset influences wellbeing and outcomes for youth as well as adults. Facilitating teamwork and leadership using outdoor experiential learning was always an opportunity to see growth mindset in action. You give a group a seemingly impossible task and then they do the impossible. I was struck once with kids from a 12th grade remedial English class. As we always did, my co-facilitator and I simply repeated the instructions when they asked how to do it, we reminded the kids, "you can do this. What do you need and how can you provide it for one another?" At first they got frustrated but when they succeeded I've never seen people more excited that they did it on their own. They did what they didn't think they could do. One young man wrote in his journal afterwards, "My whole life people have told me I can't and I made do with whatever they told me to do. This is the first time I was actually a leader! I saved everyone from falling into the river! I know I can do more now."  That is a growth mindset.   


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