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Growth Mindset for Creatives

How an innovative educational framework can support your creative process

Illustration: Lucia Pham

As we approach the end of the year with its inevitable summaries, projections and resolutions, things tend to become a bit daunting. Have I done enough? Was this past year everything I wanted it to be? How do I make sure I succeed in the year to come? 

Asked through judgmental eyes, these questions have the potential to bring about a sense of dread and incompetence. However, frame them with a different attitude, and your perspective changes completely.

Our perspective and framing of reality isn’t only affecting occasions such as the looming end of the year. Having a positive attitude, one that is geared towards evolution and advancement, has the power to transform the way we experience daily occurrences, and amongst them - our creative practice. 

A theory rooted in education 

This idea has an official name: Growth Mindset. The theory behind it was developed by Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck who began researching the fields of motivation and mindset during the 1980s’. Her research was focused on education through experiments carried out with young students. It was during her observations that she made the distinction between fixed mindset and growth mindset. In her 2014 TED talk The power of believing that you can improve Dweck tells about a highschool in Chicago which gives the grade ‘not yet’, rather than ‘fail’ - making it easier for students to understand and internalize than they are on a learning curve: that whatever it is they don’t know or haven’t mastered - they have done so yet. Meaning - they will get there sometime, giving the students a clear path into a better future. 

The power of ‘Yet’; The tyranny of ‘Now’

Dweck goes on to explain about her research: “I wanted to see how children cope with challenges. I gave 10-year-olds problems that were slightly too hard for them. Some of them reacted in a shockingly positive way, saying things like “I love a challenge!”. They understood that their abilities could be developed - they had what I call a growth mindset. But other students felt it was tragic, catastrophic. From their more fixed mindset perspective, their intelligence had been up for judgment, and they failed. Instead of luxuriating in the power of yet, they were gripped by the tyranny of now. In study after study, those fixed mindset students kept running from difficulty. Scientists measured the brain of fixed-mindset students compared to those of growth mindset students while facing a challenge: the brains of fixed mindset students hardly show any activity - they run from errors, and don't engage with it. Growth mindset students on the other hand, engage deeply, process the error and enjoy being in the ‘yet’. Their brains show high levels of activity as they learn from their errors and when faced with challenges.” 

Resilient kids become resilient adults

Described like that, Growth Mindset sounds like something we should all aspire to. But more often than not, it feels like our culture diverts us away from it, pushing us towards a fixed, fearful mindset. As Dweck asks in her talk: “Are we raising a generation of kids who are obsessed with getting A’s? Kids who are afraid to dream big dreams? Are they carrying this need for constant validation with them into their future lives?”

This inquiry leads to another: how can we direct ourselves and our communities towards cultivating a Growth Mindset? Is it even possible? As Dweck claims, we have the power to do exactly that. Her theory emphasizes how we, as a society, should incorporate these ideas and values in the ways we raise our kids, be it in the formal education systems, or our own households. 

Dweck explains that fighting this way of thinking—which leads to a fixed mindset—is by building a bridge to ‘yet’ with kids: “Praise wisely - do not praise intelligence or talent, rather praise the process kids are engaged in. Praise effort, strategy, focus, perseverance, and improvement. Kids need to know that when they push out of their comfort zone and learn something new and difficult, the neurons in their brains can form new, stronger connections, and that this is how over time they can get smarter. We need to instill in them the belief that being smart is in their hands.” 

Applied to all disciplines 

These tools and ideas are relevant way beyond the years spent as young students, and unlocking the potential of Growth Mindset and the opportunities it opens up isn’t reserved just for kids. We have the power to use these values and ideas at any age, throughout any experience - including a creative process. 

Dweck's theory can be distilled into a few key principles. Let’s have a look at the characteristics of each one and how they can be applied to creativity: 

1 / Intelligence can be developed 

Under a fixed mindset the belief is that intelligence is static - the intelligence you’re born with is what you have at your disposal and that’s it. A growth mindset knows this is not true. We can grow our brain’s capacity to respond to complex problems, and we’re strengthening our ability to do the work every time we face a challenge. In a creative practice, this translates into the idea of talent. It is not something you are born with a limited amount of. If you keep creating and keep evolving, so will your talent. Much like learning new skills, our brain also grows when it tries to create new things. Creativity often requires connecting unrelated things or looking at a problem from different perspectives. When you find creativity hard, it’s a sign that your brain is stretching, making new connections, and learning to get better at it. 

2 / Embracing challenges 

A fixed mindset runs away from challenge, refuses to engage with it from the fear of failure. However, the only way to have the experiences that truly help you grow is to embrace challenges. Growth Mindset encourages us not to take the easiest path, rather the one that will make us stronger and more prepared for the future and to view challenges as opportunities for growth and learning. When we apply this to our creative practice, the idea is to approach challenges with a sense of curiosity and a willingness to persevere, whether it’s learning a new skill or tackling a complex project. Creativity, by definition, depends on non-conformity. To foster creativity, you need to provide yourself with opportunities to think independently and come up with original ideas and perspectives. By exploring ideas outside of mainstream norms and through facing creative challenges, you build creative confidence.

3 / Persist in the face of setbacks

The Growth Mindset theory explains how experiencing setbacks is much like building a muscle. To physically grow a muscle, it must sustain micro-tears — essentially, damage — then it grows back stronger. You develop your muscles intellectually and emotionally, just as you do physically. Therefore, failures may be the experiences you learn and develop from the most.If you feel this one to be especially hard in your practice, try and establish clear goals for your creative pursuits and break them down into manageable steps. This helps maintain motivation and provides a sense of direction for your creative endeavors.

4 / Effort is a path to mastery

Many people believe that if they have to work too hard, it’s a sign that they don’t belong. That perhaps the profession they chose for themselves isn’t right, otherwise - why is it so hard for them to progress? Growth mindset recognizes that working hard is how you get to success: hard work is the pathway, not a sign of a problem. Next time you catch your inner critic raising its head and telling you you’re not good enough or that something is too hard - remember this is the only way to evolve. 

5 / Learn from criticism

A fixed mindset makes us feel withered by criticism, as though it is a failure. People with a growth mindset however, are exhilarated by criticism (assuming it’s not hurtful or shameful of course!): it’s a chance to learn, grow and get better.In your creative practice, try to welcome feedback from others, whether it’s positive or constructive. Use feedback as a tool for improvement, not as a judgment of your worth.

6 / Find inspiration in the success of others 

When we are under the constraints of a fixed mindset, we see other’s success as something to be jealous of, as a marker of our own less-than position. Within a growth mindset, instead of comparing yourself negatively when you see someone else succeed, or produce a creative project you admire - use them as role models. Learn from their project - process, delivery, whatever it may be - as inspiration to carry you forward.


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