Avoiding complacency in the application of Growth Mindset

I really enjoyed speaking to an assembled global audience of actuaries last Friday, when I delivered a lecture on how research into Growth Mindset, coupled with research into how students learn effectively, can support the actuarial profession as it tackles the current and future issues for which it has immense responsibility. I have found it extremely stimulating to contribute ideas, thoughts and insights to the Institute and Faculty of Actuaries in a lay, non-executive capacity over the past 3 years; I have met (and continue to meet) so many interesting people, and the panel which followed my lecture on Friday was no exception: thank you to IFoA President Tan Suee Chieh, former IFoA President Nick Salter, and IFoA Council Members Kalpana Shah and Keith Jennings, for their remarks, views, and shared sense of challenge and possibility for the future!

The concept of Growth Mindset is simple – so simple, in fact, that its power can sometimes be underestimated. It is not ‘pseudo’ or ‘pop’ science – it is underpinned by reams of research conducted over the years by Professor Carol Dweck and her team – and its premise is that intelligence is not static (or something that we are just ‘born with’), but that it can be developed through effort. A fixed mindset – which is often encouraged, unwittingly, in young people and adults who do well in passing exams, because they receive praise for being ‘smart’, or for having ‘done a good job’ – can lead to a reluctance on the part of these young people and adults to take risks, to be entrepreneurial, and to stretch the bounds of possibility in their thinking and experimentation. And the one thing we do know about our world and its future – the one certain thing in a world of uncertainty – is that we need flexible, adaptable, experimentational thinkers and do-ers if we are to confront and solve – increasingly urgently – the global problems we all face. A Growth Mindset is needed now more than ever. 

The concept is so straightforward, however, that it is easy to fall into the trap of complacency. ‘I enjoy learning, therefore I must have a Growth Mindset’, I can hear you say … and the response to this is, of course, that a predisposition to enjoying learning is great, and to be welcomed. Amongst other challenges I set the IFoA and the wider profession on Friday, however, was the challenge to reflect on their own perceptions of themselves as successful professionals. I pointed out that if we still harbour the notion that we have been successful largely because we were born smart, then our growth mindset is not as strong as it could be. Similarly – and many women fall into this category, still – if we are harbouring a lack of confidence because we think we have ‘only’ done well because we worked hard, then we are not valuing the growth mindset which has in fact driven us; if we don’t value it, we won’t exploit it to maximum effect.

It is very easy to slip into the trap of a fixed mindset, and so we must catch ourselves – and catch others, challenging them when we see examples of a fixed mindset creeping in. Moreover, we need to change our language: as followers of Carol Dweck’s work will know, she talks and writes much about the power of the word ‘yet’, and how by adding this word to our sentences about achievement or progress, we can transform our relationship with the situation we are describing … ‘we haven’t been able to do this … yet’, or ‘it isn’t possible … yet’.

So … here is a challenge for you (whether actuary or not) … make a conscious effort to add the word ‘yet’ to as many statements and sentences as possible over the next week. Note how this changes your perception of the context, and note how it almost immediately opens a figurative door in your brain to a series of possibilities, for which you can now start planning. Enjoy the surge of potential, and the ideas that unfold; and resolve not to rest on your laurels – which, as you now realise, could perhaps be a precursor to you teetering on the brink of sliding into the complacency which you – quite rightly – might wish to avoid.

As Muhammed Ali once said, “Impossible is not a fact. It’s an opinion. Impossible is not a declaration. It’s a dare.”

Enjoy daring to grow …

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