We Can Do Hard Things

C-3PO: Sir, the possibility of successfully navigating an asteroid field is approximately 3,720 to 1!

Han Solo: Never tell me the odds!

— Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back

You can do hard things. When you read that statement, what is your reaction? Reflect not only on the thoughts that arise but also on the emotion it generates and what you feel in your body.

If your reaction is negative, and you disagree with the statement, you may be reacting with a fixed mindset. If your response is one of agreement, eager to take on the next challenge, you may be reacting with a growth mindset. In The Empire Strikes Back, Han Solo demonstrates a growth mindset as he plunges into the asteroid belt in the face of terrible odds. He can do hard things, and so can you.

The Growth Mindset

Dr. Carol Dweck introduced the growth mindset in her book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. This concept is foundational to success in work and life.

Dweck creates a distinction between a fixed mindset and a growth mindset. When we hold a fixed mindset, we believe our capabilities are fixed and cannot be improved. For example, suppose you consider your intelligence score (IQ) to be the definitive measure of your intelligence, and nothing you do can shift your intelligence over time. In that case, you are employing a fixed mindset. If you view excellence in a sport, like golf, to be primarily dictated by your innate ability at birth, you are employing a fixed mindset. The fixed mindset constrains our beliefs and discourages effort:

  • What’s the point in practicing my golf swing if it all boils down to the genetics I was born with?
  • If I have a below-average IQ score, I better set my sights on modest achievements because that score means I’m incapable of excelling. 

In contrast, when we hold a growth mindset, we believe we can learn and grow in any situation:

  • My IQ score is merely a measure of my intelligence score. Hard work, not a score, allows me to do hard things.
  • While some individuals may have a genetic predisposition that helps them excel at golf, I believe the most important factor is the effort I put into practicing and refining my skills.

Examples of the Growth Mindset

Dweck reviews countless examples of individuals who demonstrate either a fixed or a growth mindset across sports, business, relationships, and parenting. One of the most iconic examples of a growth mindset is Michael Jordan. Jordan is the greatest player in basketball history. Many of us think of Jordan as a naturally gifted athlete. It would be easy to excel at basketball if we had Jordan’s natural abilities. The truth is that Jordan’s success was the product of a growth mindset. He willingly admits to failing time and time again. His secret is learning from those failures, doubling down on his effort, and always striving to improve. This Nike commercial paints a vivid picture of Jordan’s growth mindset.

Another example I love is Ed Sheeran. If you have seen him perform, you understand what a fantastic artist he is. It has always been the same when I have seen him in concert: just Sheeran, his guitar, and his sound equipment. For each song, he records several loops for background vocals, then performs the music, bringing in the loops he laid down where appropriate. It’s magical. When people comment on Sheeran’s natural talent, he has a surprise for them. He pulls out a recording of himself from his teenage years when he was abysmal. It’s hard to believe it is the same person.

Shifting Our Mindset

The great thing about the growth mindset is that it can be learned. Even if you find yourself in a fixed mindset today, with practice, you can shift your perspective to a growth mindset and help others shift as well. Remember what countless studies tell us – effort is a far better predictor of success than talent. Think of the “talented” athletes you’ve seen over the years who lacked the work ethic and team attitude to achieve success. Contrast them with the athletes at the top of their game – you’ll find time and again that they are there not because of raw talent but because they know hard work and determination is essential to their success.

Think about something you are not good at today. Perhaps you tell yourself you are not strategic. Or you are not a creative person. Or you lack organizational skills. Do you tell yourself this is just how you are wired and is out of your control? It isn’t.

When you tell yourself I am not strategic, you avoid strategic conversations. You defer to others you think possess the “gift” of strategy. You probably favor the books on execution and pass over the books on strategy. Your fixed mindset reinforces the mental model you have built over the years that you are not strategic.

Shift to a growth mindset. Consider adding “yet” to the end of your statement. I am not strategic yet. How can you build your strategy muscle? You could look for the top books on strategy. You could set up a mentorship with someone you think is particularly gifted with strategy. You could develop a strategy and seek honest, candid feedback to learn how to improve it.

Helping Others Shift Their Mindset

Dweck outlines many techniques for encouraging a growth mindset with others, most notably for parents raising children. Many of these can also be adapted for leaders working with their teams. Pay attention to your comments and whether those comments encourage a fixed or a growth mindset. Are you talking about ability and talent or effort?

  • Fixed Mindset: How could you get a B in math – you are better than that!
  • Growth Mindset: I am proud of how hard you worked on your math. What areas do you want to focus on to learn more?
  • Fixed Mindset: Jim doesn’t have the talents to succeed in management.
  • Growth Mindset: Jim isn’t delegating effectively with his team. What resources do we have to help him learn better delegation skills?
  • Fixed Mindset: It’s not my fault we didn’t hit our sales target. I did everything I could.
  • Growth Mindset: Let’s look into why we fell short of our sales target. What can my team and I learn from this to improve in the future?

The fixed mindset closes your possibilities, while the growth mindset opens new ones. Pay attention to your mindset and the mindset of those you work with, and look for every opportunity to steer away from a fixed mindset and toward a growth mindset.

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