Use a Growth Mindset to Help Overcome Life's Challenges

Research suggests that people with a growth mindset are better able thrive—even in the most difficult situations.

women comforting eachother

Updated on August 30, 2021.

As the pandemic wears on, the psychological endurance of millions is still being put to the test. The emergence of the highly contagious Delta variant and stalled vaccination rates are fuelling a surge in new COVID-19 cases.

Meanwhile, Hurricane Ida has left nearly half the state of Louisiana without power, including the entire city of New Orleans. So far in 2021, tens of thousands of wildfires have burned nearly five million acres in the United States. And many Americans are grappling with grief and outrage following the recent deaths of 13 servicemembers in Afghanistan. After being driven out of Kabul by U.S. troops roughly 20 years ago, the Taliban has regained control of the country, threathening years of progress in human rights.

For some people, lingering stress and prolonged uncertainty has contributed to feelings of anger, fear or sadness. Others grow numb, feeling empty or disconnected. Over time, they may feel stuck or worn out from a persistent funk that’s tough to shake.

Adopting a growth mindset could help—not only now but also down the road. This mode of thinking is usually applied to business or academics. But in these unprecedented times, it could benefit just about anyone.

What is a growth mindset?

The concept of a growth mindset comes from psychologist, Carol Dweck, PhD, who theorized that there are two different outlooks: growth and fixed.

People with a growth mindset believe they can get better at a task through hard work and perseverance. They see challenges as opportunities—not barriers. They also believe mistakes are inevitable and they’re willing to learn from them.

People with a growth mindset see life as a journey. They’re less concerned about their destination than the path they take to get there. It’s not about the end result. It’s the process that matters. Studies have shown people with a growth mindset are better able to thrive—even in the most difficult situations.

On the flip side, those with a fixed mindset perceive their talents and abilities as constants that are unable to be changed significantly. They tend to avoid new challenges out of fear of embarrassment or failure. People with a fixed mindset are also less open to criticism and learning from mistakes.

How a new outlook can help

Changing your mindset may be one of the last things you’re worried about these days.

How will changing your perspective help you find a job? How will it help you pay the rent or mortgage? How will it keep your loved ones safe?

It may seem like a leap but working to shift your mindset can help you cope with loss, adversity, disappointments and the daily disruptions to your normal routine.

Research shows that a growth mindset can also be an impetus for change. It doesn’t involve being unrealistic or looking at the world through rose-colored glasses. But it can be an effective tool to improve your outlook and help you feel unstuck—even now.

“Often, the way people understand themselves and interpret the world can impact their mental health,” explains David Stern, MD, a psychiatrist in private practice in Houston.

When you have a growth mindset, you believe that your actions matter. You feel less hopeless and you become more empowered and resilient. This doesn’t mean you won’t feel the stress that comes with adversity. Resilience involves responding to challenges in a more proactive way—facing them, adapting and moving forward.

Adopting this approach to life can help equip you to handle this year’s ongoing challenges and the unknowns that lie ahead. That’s because how you perceive yourself and your abilities shapes how you handle tough situations, according to Eric Storch, PhD, a professor and vice chair in the department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston.

“Those that can keep things in perspective and view the world with more hope and optimism often end up feeling better,” Storch says.

Growth mindsets in action

While scientists around the world are working to determine the best ways to manage COVID-19 and government officials try to ensure economic stability and quell geopolitical unrest, many people feel sidelined—watching and waiting (impatiently) for life to return to business as usual.

But there are people who respond to crises in whatever small way they can. For example, since the pandemic began, some people started making masks or organized meals for health care workers. Others donated blood or started running errands for the elderly. These people demonstrated a growth mindset.

And while their actions alone aren’t enough to stop the pandemic or other global issues, they could provide people with some sense of control.

“It’s about, how do I take this difficult situation and make something of it?” Storch explains. For example, his daughter likes setting up lemonade stands and donating proceeds to cancer non-profits. “We can’t do that now,” Storch points out. “But instead of saying, ‘We can’t volunteer,’ we’re making paintings and dropping them off at an old age home.”

Working to change your mindset

At a time when it’s so easy to focus on what’s been lost, is it possible that you’ve overlooked something positive?

Could you have discounted a valuable learning experience? Has this crisis forced you to appreciate what you once took for granted or changed you for the better in some way?

When moving to a growth mindset, ask yourself if your view of the world is the only way to experience it, Storch advises.

“Are there other ways to see this situation?” he asks. “Having that question in your mind can really be important. We can’t change the fact that we’re isolated and limited in what we can do, but we can change how we see it.”

Adopting a growth mindset will help you become more resilient when life takes a wrong turn or when you face challenges. Shifting your mindset from fixed to growth is possible—but it takes effort and patience.

Some steps you can take to help you adjust your outlook and how you approach life may include:

Find your purpose. What drives you? What gives you energy? Who would you like to help and how could you help them? What gifts do you have to offer the world? What is most important to you? As yourself some of these questions to help you find direction and stay motivated.

Rethink how you talk to yourself. Be mindful of the words you use when speaking to others or just thinking to yourself. Try to replace any dark or negative thoughts with more positive ones.

Accept imperfections. World-famous theoretical physicist, Stephen Hawking, once said, “One of the basic rules of the universe is that nothing is perfect. Perfection simply doesn't exist…Without imperfection, neither you nor I would exist.”

If you’re still having trouble adapting to a remote work environment or managing virtual schooling, don’t strive for perfection. Instead, focus on continuous improvement. Even slow, methodical progress is a step in the right direction.

And if you’re struggling with a difficult task, don’t give up. Instead, learn from your mistakes, persevere and remind yourself that you will improve over time with practice.

Be proactive. Rather than wait impatiently for the pandemic or other events to unfold, seek out ways that you can take action and make small improvements in your life or the lives of those around you. If you hit a setback, coax your mind into seeing this challenge as an adventure. Rather than dwell on problems, look for solutions.

Try to be patient. Lifestyle changes, such as improving sleep habits, eating healthier or increasing energy levels, won’t happen overnight. But those with a growth mindset believe motivation can be nurtured. If you continue to work toward adopting this approach to life, it could help ease your apathy and reignite some enthusiasm for activities, interests and goals that once mattered to you.

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Northwestern Medicine. “Do You Have COVID-19 Caution Fatigue?”
Harvard Business Review. “What Having a “Growth Mindset” Actually Means.” Jan 2016.
Ng B. The Neuroscience of Growth Mindset and Intrinsic Motivation. Brain Sci. 2018;8(2):20. Published 2018 Jan 26.
Yeager DS, Hanselman P, Walton GM, et al. A national experiment reveals where a growth mindset improves achievement. Nature. 2019;573(7774):364-369.
Wang S, Dai J, Li J, Wang X, Chen T, Yang X, He M, Gong Q. Neuroanatomical correlates of grit: Growth mindset mediates the association between gray matter structure and trait grit in late adolescence. Hum Brain Mapp. 2018 Apr;39(4):1688-1699.
Dweck CS, Yeager DS. Mindsets: A View From Two Eras. Perspect Psychol Sci. 2019 May;14(3):481-496.
Mayo Clinic. “Change your mind to grow.” Apr 2019.
American Psychological Association. “Transforming the mindset: Psychology professor Carol S. Dweck, PhD, speaks at the United Nations.” Mar 2015.
Harvard Business Review. “Why Organizations Don’t Learn.” Nov 2015.
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University of Minnesota. “What's My Purpose?”
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