“I have an idea.”
A few years ago I said this to my boss at the time, sweating bullets. There was an idea I’d been mulling over but I had no proof that it would net a positive result for our company.
But I saw it as something our community would appreciate, something that would set them up for success. I didn’t have any facts or data or proof. I simply had an instinct.
Traditionally, bosses don’t green light projects grounded in instinct. Traditionally, bosses don’t enable their employees to take on pie in the sky ideas.
He wasn’t a traditional boss.
After I explained my idea in detail, my boss told me that he liked it and thought it was worth exploring.
“But what if it doesn’t work?” I couldn’t help but ask.
“Then you stop working on it,” he replied. And with that, I was off to start putting the pieces together.
Little did either of us know at the time, that simple moment changed everything.
How I Used to Be Stuck in a “Fixed” Mindset
What happened that day was simple. My boss saw potential in my idea — potential in me to pull it off — and he trusted me enough to work on it without draining our precious few resources (namely, time).
In short, he gave me a chance.
But even more importantly, he gave me room to try something that might work or might not work. He gave me room to fail.
No one had ever given me room to fail before. I had never given myself room to fail before. I’ve always been my toughest critic and strove for perfection at every turn.
Now, years later, I understand that my striving for perfection was nothing more than acting in fear. I was living in a fixed mindset.
Have you ever heard of this concept before? Coined by psychologist Carol Dweck, the idea is that everyone either has a fixed or a growth mindset. The one you maintain can have a huge impact on your entire life.
A fixed mindset ties success and failure to your sense of self. A growth mindset keeps success and failure separate from your sense of self.
When someone in a fixed mindset fails, they see that failure as a reflection of who they are. But someone with a growth mindset sees the failure as an experience they were a part of, something that presents an opportunity to learn.
The same goes for success. Someone with a fixed mindset sees success as a reflection of themselves, thus making it imperative to protect that success (because to fail at any point — even after success — means they’re a failure). Given that, no risk can be safely taken.
Someone with a growth mindset doesn’t harp on success. Instead, they seek new challenges, always on the lookout for more opportunities to learn.
Here’s how I used to live in a fixed mindset:
- If I didn’t understand a new concept right away, I deemed myself hopeless in that subject.
- If I didn’t achieve a goal I was aiming for, I deemed myself a failure.
- If I wasn’t the smartest person in the room, I deemed myself wholly unintelligent.
The crappy thing about this (besides the crushing effect it can have on self-esteem), is how paralyzing it is. I only wanted to try things I knew I’d be good at so I could validate my intelligence (and if I couldn’t guarantee success before starting, I’d convince myself out of doing it).
If I needed to understand something but struggled with it, I would abandon any goal tied to a need for understanding that thing. And whenever I reached success, I had to tie myself to the top of that mountain — because to aim higher would mean I could no longer feel like a success if I were to fall.
Let’s compare this to a growth mindset:
- If someone with a growth mindset doesn’t understand something right away, they go out and do everything they can to learn it.
- If someone with a growth mindset doesn’t achieve the goal they were aiming for, they go back to the drawing board and see how they can do it again with more success.
- If someone with a growth mindset isn’t the smartest person in the room, they actually become excited to learn from the others.
People with a growth mindset aren’t paralyzed by setbacks. Maintaining a growth mindset means you thrive on challenges — because only through challenges can we learn.
People with a growth mindset never tie their self-esteem to a result like success or failure. They simply see success as a building block and failure as a learning opportunity.
Because of this, someone with a growth mindset is never limited. They’re not limited by their successes or failures. They’re not limited by their current state of knowledge.
Their desire to learn means they need challenges and risks to achieve growth.
The day my former boss gave me permission to try something that might fail was the day I began moving from a fixed mindset to a growth mindset.
How the Growth Mindset Improved My Entire Life
Like all mental shifts, my transformation didn’t occur overnight. I would continue to wrestle with my fixed mindset for years to come, but the incident still left me changed.
Before that day, I thought I would only be able to build a great career if I were perfect in every way. I gave myself no room for mistakes, which made me terrified to try new things.
I went from school (which thrives on a fixed mindset) to working in banking to working with lawyers. In all of these cases, perfection was expected.
But this job where my boss gave me permission to fail was at a startup — and startups need to be able to experiment.
Startups don’t have time to be perfect. They need to put something out into the market, study the results, and iterate to improve.
A startup can’t be perfect because the work is never done. There’s no milestone that says, “you’ve made it.”
Isn’t that much more reflective of how life really is? We spend our entire lives in an education system that pits us against each other and tells us to be perfect students, perfect athletes, perfect community members, or else we may never get into a good school and never have a future.
But once we graduate, there’s no more rule book. No one’s guiding us, telling us what to do next, helping us study for the exam of life. We get thrust into the real world and suddenly we have to figure it all out on our own.
There’s no right path. There are more paths than we could have ever dreamed of, which can leave someone with a fixed mindset in the lurch. Someone with a fixed mindset lives by the rule book, but that’s just something life doesn’t provide.
For the person with a growth mindset that thrives on challenges and learning, this is the best thing about life.
The day I was given permission to try without proof of possible success was the day I started to understand work and life better. Over the next few months, I continued to try new things, learned how to measure the results, and made changes as necessary.
I stopped tying my sense of self to the results. Instead, I tied my sense of self to my newfound creativity, resourcefulness, and resilience.
The switch was turned on that day, but the transformation itself was like a muscle that I had to build for years to come. I understand that the switch could be turned back off if I’m not diligent in maintaining this transformation.
That means I have to always be on the lookout for new challenges. I have to face my fear every day and win the battle every day.
And, most importantly, I have to realize that I am not my success and I am not my failure. These are things that I can facilitate, but they do not reflect who I am
How the Growth Mindset Showed Me Who I Can Be
Besides the fact that I led my life in fear and perfectionism, there was another thing that plagued me: I felt that I wasn’t creative enough.
When I was young, I always did creative things. I painted, drew, wrote books, wrote poetry, wrote stories, and read like crazy.
But my need to be perfect grew as I got older and my creativity diminished as a result. All I wanted was to be the creative person I thought I was — but my fixed mindset squashed it down.
On the day my former boss gave me a chance to try and maybe even fail, he also turned on the access to my creativity. Whereas before it was buried so deep inside of me I didn’t even know where to look, suddenly it was pouring out of me.
Even now, years later, it’s like a faucet has been turned on that I can’t even control. I have more ideas popping up in my head now than I could ever pursue.
Before, all I ever wanted was to be creative, to bring things into the world that could help make it a better place. And now, I finally feel like I can.
Sure, I’ll always have fear creeping up in the background (we all do), but now I know what I need to do to handle it. (And, for extra measure, I surround myself with people who can help me fight that fear.)
All it took was someone giving me a chance to create a ripple effect I still benefit from now. So, how can you give someone you know that same chance? How can you give yourself that chance?
All you need is permission to try, permission to fail. If you follow that up with learning from the results and iterating as necessary, you can have a life of creativity, growth, and achievement beyond your wildest dreams.