As experts in our field, we are accustomed to having a certain level of comfort and confidence in our capacity to provide high-quality care. The uncertainty or worry that comes with a new venture where the learning curve is steep is natural. When we consider expanding into novel areas of care, we might have increased doubts about our skills or competence, or we might stumble prior to finding our feet. Both of these experiences can be daunting.
As a group, veterinarians are high achievers. We have proven ourselves to be resourceful, intelligent and hard-working individuals. However, somewhere along the way, maybe because we’re accustomed to interacting with so many other high achievers, we have begun to doubt ourselves. Not all the time, of course, but perhaps when faced with a new or particularly challenging situation, we can experience imposter syndrome or overwhelming self-doubt.
One close-held belief that can fuel this doubt is that "fixed mindset" that we have a pre-set amount of knowledge or aptitude in any given area. If, at any point, we do not succeed, that is interpreted as us hitting the limits of our aptitude. Then, instead of persevering, we take the “hint” and direct our efforts elsewhere.
This reflects a fixed mindset, and it has a number of pervasive and performance- limiting impacts on our professional and personal lives.
What are Fixed and Growth Mindsets?
Carol Dweck is a psychologist who studies the power of people’s beliefs. Her theory of traits states that there are two ways people can view the malleability of a person’s basic characteristics: with a fixed mindset or with a growth mindset. 1
Those with a fixed mindset hold a belief that basic qualities, such as intelligence or musical ability, are fixed and cannot be changed. People with a fixed mindset frequently believe that talent— not effort—leads to success.
Those with a growth mindset believe that the most basic qualities can be cultivated with hard work and dedication; brains and talent simply provide a foundation.1
Interestingly, we can hold a fixed mindset for some traits, such as one’s social skills or athletic ability, while holding a growth mindset for others. The power of the mindset we hold is incredible. Dweck’s research has shown that one’s mindset influences one’s capacity for growth, perseverance and willingness to try.2 Given the impact of one’s mindset—as well as the fact that we can hold different mindsets for different traits—it is important to question what your beliefs are across different traits and situations.
Mindset and Self-Perception
The mindset that we hold strongly influences how we see ourselves. If we believe that talent leads to success, then if we struggle to learn a new skill or in a new endeavor, we might quickly perceive that as a failure and, consequently, quit or stop trying.
A growth mindset reduces the fear of trying a new thing, the fear of failing or the fear of making a mistake, because we hold the belief that we can always grow and learn.2 This is because one’s sense of self and identity is separate from the outcome.
To a certain extent, growth mindset embodies the Albert Einstein quote “You never fail until you stop trying,” whereas a fixed mindset makes one vulnerable to assaults on one’s sense of self. This is because the outcome of the effort is due to one’s innate capacity for that thing.
For instance, if one considers himself or herself to be an excellent surgeon and holds a fixed mindset about surgical ability, a surgical complication or adverse outcome might be perceived as a threat to one’s sense of self—you’re not as good as you thought, you are a failure, you are a bad surgeon. Conversely, if one holds a growth mindset about surgical ability, a failure or unexpected outcome is just that—it is not a comment about one’s identity.
Growth mindset facilitates constructive self-talk that is future-focused and centered around learning and doing better going forward. In other words, you made a mistake, but it’s possible to learn from it and do better next time. A growth mindset supports resilience by distancing one’s sense of self from outcomes. It keeps one’s identity and sense of self more secure and less vulnerable to threat. This is of particular importance in clinical practice, because many things outside of our skill and control influence the outcome of a given patient.
Mindset and Self-Talk
One of the most meaningful ways to embrace mindset on a daily basis is to use it to change your self-talk. We all talk to ourselves far more frequently than anyone else, and yet, often those voices are critical and unsupportive.
When we begin to embrace growth mindset, our self-talk shifts to become more motivating and encouraging.
Consider what you might say to yourself when having a tough time with a new skill.
A fixed mindset might sound like, “I’m bad at this. I’m just going to say ‘no’ the next time a client calls asking me to do it.” Whereas a growth mindset might sound like, “I wonder what I’m missing; maybe I’ll call the vet school and see what advice they can give me so I can do better next time.”
It might seem like a simple reframe, but when we label ourselves as not good at things, or select away from trying, it can be because we have a fixed mindset. Another shift would be to move from “stifle injections are so easy,” which is focused on the outcome, to “my hard work is really paying off,” which focuses on the process.
Using Growth Mindset with Clients
Another way to leverage your knowledge of mindset is to use it to contribute to your understanding of interactions with others. One’s mindset can act as a lens through which we interpret the actions and intentions of others, just like the mindset we hold of ourselves influences how we view our effort and its outcomes.
Specifically, the mindset one holds influences how one perceives another’s actions and motivations.1 If we hold a fixed mindset about a given characteristic held by a client or colleague, then we are unlikely to believe they are able to change. As a result, it’s less likely that you would dedicate time or energy to teaching that individual because you don’t believe change is possible. In these situations, it’s much easier to try and work around the client’s behavior instead of working with the client to gain new skills.
Further, the perception that an individual is unlikely to change might make it more likely that we will dislike him or her as a person, instead of disliking the behavior. Over time, this can erode relationships and influence how we feel about our workplaces and our clients.
Instead, if we hold a growth mindset, then we remain more open to working with others, we are more open to supporting those individuals toward mutual success, and we are more tolerant of mistakes and patient in the face of struggle. Thus, if a growth mindset is adopted, not only are you increasing your own resilience, but also your compassion and patience towards those around you.
Consider Your Own Mindset
The concept of growth mindset can be deceptively simple. One of its advantages is that the main thing you can do to adopt a growth mindset is to learn more about it (check out Carol Dweck’s TED talk or book for more information). In order to best leverage the power of growth mindset, some self-reflection and awareness goes a long way.
When I look back, I see a long history of fixed mindset—I used to avoid playing competitive sports because I wasn’t good at them. I avoided pathology as much as I could in vet school because I struggled with histology. I certainly passed along as many repro calls as I could. At the time, I told myself I was stewarding my energy and focusing on what I liked. While that was true, it’s also true that I didn’t like those things because I “wasn’t good at them,” and I didn’t think I ever would be.
Over time, I have grown better at reframing my thoughts and focusing on effort, not outcome. I actively remind myself that I can grow and learn a given skill if I so choose. My self-talk has changed.
Growth mindset is incredibly powerful. When we truly believe that we can do anything we set our minds to, we release ourselves from the fear that comes along with failure. We are able to try and try again until we meet our goals. We open doors that we might have closed long ago, or never opened. What would you try if you knew you couldn’t fail?
1. Yeager, D.S.; Dweck, C.S. (2012). Mindsets that promote resilience: When students believe that personal characteristics can be developed. Educational psychologist, 47(4), 302-314.
2. Dweck, C.S. Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. New York: Ballantine Books, 2008.