Fixed vs. Growth Mindset - The Ultimate Showdown | Atanas Dzhingarov Fixed vs. Growth Mindset - The Ultimate Showdown | Atanas Dzhingarov

Fulfillment Highway & the Boulevard of Broken Dreams

“You haven’t changed a bit”, I said. It wasn’t a compliment. I’d been talking to the man sitting across from me for the past hour. He was a childhood friend of mine and we hadn’t seen each other in 10 years. During that time, he had stayed in the exact same position physically, mentally, career-wise. In every conceivable way, he was in a time capsule.

Now, don’t get me wrong – this isn’t a criticism (per se). But it got me thinking why it happens with some people and not others. Why do some people seem to stay in the exact same spot since the moment they finished high school, while others seem to grow and develop? Is this something we’re born with? Or is it something the environment is responsible for?

The jam on Broken Dreams Boulevard.

The entire problem starts at a very young age. When I was in the first grade, I remember there was this girl – Ellie (not her real name). Ellie didn’t know it, but she ended up being the protagonist of one very particular story, painfully etched into my memory. 

We were having arts and crafts class, and Ellie drew a beautiful wild horse. The drawing was mesmerizing. You could almost hear the hoofs clashing with the earth beneath the majestic animal as it was galloping faster than the wind.

Naturally, the teacher started praising Ellie’s skill and parading the work in front of the whole class. She started talking about how talented Ellie was. It was like she was trying to rub it in.  To my 6-year-old brain, things were clear – talent and results are all that matters. If you don’t have natural ability, then you suck.

What I didn’t know at the time was that Ellie had been taking drawing lessons since she was 4. However, when you haven’t seen the process leading to the result, it seems like talent is the only important factor. And since talent is something you’re born with, then the case seemed to be clear-cut. I was never going to be good at drawing. The teacher agreed and my enthusiasm about drawing was buried under a pile of shame and repressed memories.

It took me years to break out of this conditioning (thank goodness I was praised for my ability to learn). Later I realized that with enough practice, I could’ve learned how to draw well enough. Maybe not at a professional level, but at least I could’ve been competent. But the damage was already done. After talking to many super-talented artists over the years, I realized all of them essentially busted their asses to become this good. 

Now, where my interest in drawing was brutalized in a dark alley, my interest in writing never took a hit. So I consider myself among the lucky ones. But many aren’t so fortunate.

Since our entire education system is merely focused on utility, creativity is rarely nurtured. Welcome to the boulevard of broken dreams, where all that gets praised are results (i.e. grades) and a strict set of behaviours (because we need obedience at the workplace). All this creates a fixed mindset.

What is a fixed mindset?

A fixed mindset is a very dangerous thing. It is the idea that our personality, our traits, our characteristics and predispositions are ingrained. Set in stone. Fixed.

The reason this is so dangerous is because it completely kills your ability to grow. And there is an epidemic of fixed mindset thinking in our society.

Fixed mindset causes us to think we cannot change ourselves. So, if you’re impatient, you have a temper, or you’re lazy well – tough luck. You can’t change. This is complete nonsense. Yes, there are certain core aspects of our character that are very difficult to modify, but all in all, there’s not much we can’t work on.

The dangers of fixed mindset follow us into every aspect of our lives. This kind of thinking causes us to be risk-averse and stay within our comfort zone. Even when our comfort zone is a dead end job that causes us existential dread and questioning the point of our own existence day in and day out. If you hate Monday morning more than Garfield, but you’re not doing anything about it, it’s probably because of a fixed mindset.

Working with people who have this kind of thinking is incredibly difficult. They don’t respond well to criticism and if they run a business, they’d rather run their business to the ground than admit they were wrong. That’s why their businesses are never more than OK. To run a successful business, you cannot afford to have a fixed mindset. 

If you think this is bad, let’s go even deeper. Fixed mindset is the reason we stay in toxic relationships for way longer than we should. It’s the reason why we can’t walk away from toxic people, even when they’re slowly poisoning us (metaphorically speaking). It’s why we can’t even deal with our own toxic habits (like smoking, excessive drinking, and eating junk).

Let me reiterate – fixed mindset is the reason we hold on to people and habits that are slowly killing us (both literally and figuratively).

What’s worse, this kind of thinking leads you to believe that neither you, nor situation can ever get better, no matter how hard you try. So you might as well drop it.

Cultivate a growth mindset.

I wish I’d understood this sooner, but talent is overrated. We always say, “Hard work beats talent if talent fails to work hard”. But then, hard work rarely gets the spotlight, doesn’t it? No one congratulates you for working hard or being consistent. All everyone cares about is the result.

Hard work is the result of a growth mindset. The goal is to get better. It doesn’t matter if you’re not where you want to be because you know you will get there by putting in the work.

In some ways, being praised for your talent instead of your hard work can be detrimental. Don’t believe me? Watch the video below. 

This doesn’t seem like a big deal, but it is.

When I first started doing photography, I was terrible at it. Some people even told me so directly. “I wouldn’t keep wasting my time if I were you,” the comments would read. “Takes balls to share this garbage.” Those judgements stang at the time, especially since I was improving, but my growth didn’t seem to matter. And of course it didn’t matter to my critics, because these people had a fixed mindset. People with a fixed mindset appreciate the results. People with a growth mindset appreciate the process.

First attempts at “studio-style” photography with my phone.

Today, I can say I’m a competent photographer. I’m far from the best, but I’ve gotten among the top 1000 most seen contributors on Unsplash (out of nearly 200,000 photographers worldwide). And I’m regularly in the top 10% in both views and downloads, even though I rarely upload. I also had a photo shared by Atlas Obscura. Only 10 photos made it out of over 3,000 entries. None of this would’ve happened if I had a fixed mindset. I would’ve just given up, like people wanted me to. 

Watch product photography3
2 years and tens of thousands photos later.

You can clearly see the contrast between the two mindsets. Same person, same level of “talent”. But in the first situation, I had a fixed mindset (“I’m not talented, therefore I shouldn’t waste my time.”).

In the second situation, I had a growth mindset (“Sure, I’m crap now, but I’m getting better and that’s what matters.”). The act of growing was full of enjoyment. Every photo I took was better than the last and I could see myself improve all the time. The process became its own reward. But there’s a catch…

Riding on Fulfillment Highway.

Growth mindset is all about failure. Failure is the fuel of success. I had to fail many times before my photography started to improve. I even specifically joined a Facebook group to get my work criticized so I could improve. This meant every time I thought I’d done a good job, I’d upload it on the Internet for people to shred it. And shred they did. It felt like building a sand castle only for a wave to come in and destroy it. But I learned. And I grew.

As time went by, my castles got bigger. Stronger. The waves couldn’t destroy them anymore. Sure, they’d still hit (I’m not perfect), but the castle would be left standing. Therefore, you need to be OK with failing again and again in order to grow. This should be something natural to us, but it isn’t. We’re deathly afraid of failing. Failure is like the high school bully who beats the crap out of us, takes our lunch money and sticks us in our locker. It’s not easy to face in a direct confrontation.

It’s not entirely our fault, though. Society makes failure out to be this humongous, cumbersome, unbearable baggage. It again starts with the education system, where asking a “stupid question” means being laughed at. And where not knowing the answer means you get a bad grade and then you receive a stern-worded lecture by your parents about your responsibilities as a student. Year after year, well-meaning teachers thrust upon you the burden of fixed mindset. They do so not with malicious intent, but simply because they don’t know any better.

Once you get into the growth mindset, all of this changes. Failure is not something to fear, but cherish, because you know it’s getting you one step closer to your goals. Growing becomes a fulfilling process which increases both your value to others and your self-worth. You’re no longer shackled by the limitations of the fixed mindset. You skip the jam on Broken Dreams Boulevard. Instead, you ride freely on Fulfillment Highway.

So how can you cultivate a growth mindset?

The good news is the damage isn’t irreversible. The bad news is, like everything else that’s worth doing, it will require you to get up and get out of your comfort zone. You will need to work at it. And you’ll have to do difficult things and fail a lot.

Andy Frisella puts it beautifully – “Win the day” (shout out to my friend Tsvetan Velichkov for the reminder, since I hadn’t listened to this podcast in awhile). If you don’t have an hour to listen to one of the best podcasts you will ever hear in your life, then here’s the gist. The way to achieve growth is by winning every day. But winning is not some abstract, intangible thing you do.

No, the way you win is by creating a list of critical tasks you need to do for the day (between 3 and 5 – Andy does 5, while other people do 3). The number doesn’t matter as much as what those tasks are – critical tasks need to do if you want to move forward towards your goals. In case you don’t have goals, then you really need to start thinking about where you want to end up in life. Because, in the words of Chuck Palanhiuk, “If you don’t know what you want, you end up with a lot you don’t want.” 

Back to the list (Andy calls it “the power list”). After you’ve identified your goals, then you put things down in the list and do them over the course of the day. Don’t put down goals. You need tasks you will be able to do. If you complete your list, you’ve won your day. It’s simple as that (but that doesn’t make it easy – if it’s easy, you’re doing it wrong).

So, for example, let’s say your goal is to lose weight. Right off the bat, that’s a terrible goal. You need to make it more tangible and measurable. Losing one kilogram of water weight still counts as “losing weight”, but that doesn’t mean you’ve achieved your goal. So first off, make it concrete and add a deadline (“I want to lose 10 kg in 5 months”).

Next, think about what you need to do in order to achieve this goal. You need to train, eat right, and do cardio (ugh). So your power list might look something like this:

  1. Eat 5 healthy meals (you need to follow a regimen and be at around ~300 kcal caloric deficit a day);
  2. Do 30 minutes of cardio;
  3. Train for an hour at the gym;

That’s it for losing weight. You can add two other tasks that get you closer to another goal. When you’re done with all 5 – congratulations, you’ve won the day. Do it again tomorrow.

This is how you cultivate growth and get into the habit of winning. Once something becomes a habit, strike it out of the power list and add something else. For example, if you’re already working out, then it’s pointless to add it to your power list. Cool, you can “win your day” more easily, but the only person you’re fooling is yourself. The power list is there for the tasks you need to be doing to get closer to your goals, but you’re neglecting for some reason.

By using this method, you’re instilling a growth mindset into yourself. As long as you’re growing, it doesn’t matter how far you’re from where you want to be. But you gotta keep the momentum going. Growth is a lifelong journey. It’s a daily battle. The moment you shift to a fixed mindset (“I’ve made it”), you lose.

Till next time.  




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