The growth mindset applied to my life (part 1)

Sep 22, 2014

I am now a firm believer in the growth mindset. When someone has a growth mindset, they believe that their basic abilities (intelligence, talent, strength, etc.) can be improved through hard work and practice. This is opposed to a fixed mindset: the belief that basic abilities are "fixed" and cannot be improved upon.

For most of my life, I have had a fixed mindset. I'm trying to change that. I want to take a moment to look back at my life and see how the different mindsets have impacted me.

My academic life

I had a fixed mindset from early on in life. I always used to think of myself as an "intelligent person". In primary and secondary school, I thought of myself as a person who was good at maths and science and bad at English and art. My grades reflected that and I never improved in the subjects I thought I was bad at.

In college, I took only maths and science subjects. I did well. Very well. I was usually among the top of the class. In my second year, I chose to continue all five of my subjects. I was the only person to do so, with everyone else dropping to three or four. My final A-level results were very good.

  • Maths: 95.8%
  • Further Maths: 95.8%
  • Physics: 95.3%
  • Chemistry: 95.5%
  • Biology: 82.8%

I was very pleased at the time. I'm now starting to realise that it may have done me more harm than good.

You see, I had an incredibly good work environment at college. I talked constantly about the work with friends, both in classes and outside. The teachers and physical environment were also excellent.

However, I simply "found" myself in this great environment. I took advantage of it without really realising what was going on. I thought I was doing well because I was smart. Now, I realise it was because of my environment.

University

I got accepted into Cambridge to study Natural Sciences. I found the lectures to be completely different to the classes at college. Instead of actively participating, I just sat there getting bored. I was often too tired to really listen and ended up skipping a lot of lectures.

Cambridge's supervisions really saved me. I had to do a significant amount of work for each (3-8 hours, four times a week). We then got to talk about it for an hour (with two or three students per supervisor). I worked hard out of a desire to please my supervisors.

Again, I simply accepted my environment without trying to influence it. Still, it wasn't that bad. The supervisions and hard work "forced" me to learn. I scored about average in my first year exams.

In my second year, I switched to Computer Science. My behaviour continued. I labelled myself as a "software person", not a "hardware person". Subsequently, I failed to improve at all in any of my hardware-related subjects. I could have done much better if I had had a growth mindset.

The same story continued throughout my third year. I got a 2:1 in the final exams, scoring only slightly above the median. I had worked hard in my supervisions and had been predicted to get a first. That made me complacent, I thought I was "smart enough" to succeed with little further effort. I procrastinated and literally did not start revising until two weeks before the exams.

Read part 2...