How to Use Fixed Mindset to Discover What Matters Most

If you’ve ever had a 4:00 a.m. thought about something you’ve done and you cringe, you may be experiencing the “fixed mindset.” Maybe it comes back to you as, “I screwed up.” It’s personal. Recalling it brings to life good old-fashioned shame.

For a more than two years, I’ve been recommending Mindset to friends and colleagues. Carol Dweck’s research defines what many people experience: failure calls into question one’s talent, intelligence, and track record. So instead of relishing new encounters, and what we could learn from them, we treat them as pass-fail tests. (I’ll talk more about the fixed-mindset habits and their effect in another post.) I like to think I’m pretty capable, but I saw myself in the symptoms. Understanding the fixed and growth mindsets proved useful.

But I’ve also struggled to help people use the concept. I still recommend the book. The more you pay attention to signs of these mindsets, the more you notice the extent of your habit of proving your talent to yourself and others, or avoiding situations where you may fail.

Still, how do you fix the fixed mindset? What’s become clear to me is that our commitments are where we don’t want to fail. We want to be good parents, ready and able for advancement at work, engaged and active citizens, a good shortstop on the softball team. If we have a fixed mindset, that’s where we will see it at work. And that’s where it will constrict us most, dogging our steps as we try to advance.

Before we fix the fixed mindset, we need to see it. And where we see it, it reveals some commitment that’s important to us. Start from either end. If you are hell-bent to succeed and determined not to fail, that’s the fixed mindset. It’s keeping you boxed in more than you think.

Or, think about what’s important to you. Where do you strive hardest to succeed? In what areas do you protect yourself from even small failures? Underneath the good intention and the effort, there’s a commitment that represents an important element of your identity. Notice these and you’ll start to see them show up in new settings. Don’t worry. The fixed mindset is more typical than you might think.

Take time to get used to your mindsets and where they appear. They’re clues to the most important things you believe. And if you’re noticing them, you’re also feeling an impulse to move beyond their limits.

Parting: Lessons from Leaving

A few weeks ago, I stepped out of a group that I’ve belonged to for about eighteen months. It was not easy make the decision. I was nervous as I made the announcement. The group includes coaches and consultants striving to learn and serve our clients better. I did learn a great deal, but I did more than acquire knowledge. I learned to appreciate other’s points of view. And my own.adieu

With this group, I came to see more clearly that my point of view was limited. And while that’s obvious, working with and being challenged by others who see the world differently gave me pause. I stopped and listened. It was uncomfortable. It took real effort. I believe I’ve learned that a wider view is the best place to start most things. That openness is also the mindset to adopt when facing ambiguity and confusion.

But I also came to recognize that my own point of view is a solid home base. I don’t mean that my view is simply where I’m most comfortable. I didn’t conclude that I had been right all along. I found that I could trust my self as a learner, a coach, a teacher, and a consultant. As I write this now, I wonder how you’ll hear that.

Think of times when you felt at ease and could listen without busily working out what to say next. Think of the times when you felt your feet solidly underneath you and felt ready to move at any moment. That’s something of what it feels like to know your home base. If a memory of home base experience comes to mind, hold it there, notice how it feels in your body. That’s a footing to step onto when you’re feeling blown around.

I recognize that I owe those colleagues a great thank-you for their generosity. They challenged me to listen, most often by their example. And in turn they listened to me. When people really hear us, we recognize the sound of our own voice.

These are all lessons learned in parting. Not leaving exactly. I’ll be hanging with these folks in other ways for years, I hope. But the lessons of membership are different from the lessons of parting. It is a sweet sorrow because it is leaving and also pressing on, a future vision clearer every day. Marking these parting lessons is one way to bow in respect to the time and attention of those who were members with us. Imagine me bowing low and long.

Leaders listen to feedback from all sources

“Whatever it is that’s happening in your life, that goes into the voice. And it becomes your instrument.”
– Cassandra Wilson

When we operate from the neck up at work, we’re missing a lot of data. In a meeting recently, I noticed that I was hunching. It was a good meeting. I didn’t notice my posture right away. But I began to wonder why I might be tight or anxious. What was muscle memory telling me and what did hunching express? It may reflect a story, a dimly remembered experience, a pattern of expectations and assumptions, a thought. It definitely carries some meaning. It confirms the principle that our experience is stored in the body as reactions and states.

When Cassandra Wilson says, “Whatever is happening in your life, that goes into the voice,” she’s stating a fact. Experience shapes us. But she’s also describing a purposeful practice she engages in: I shape experience. She goes on to say, “I’m just singing my life.” This is a great goal, rather than to have found at last that our lives have sung us.

Imagine the impression people were getting of me. My face is telling one story: I’m alert, interested, and comfortable. My posture says I’m anxious. Objectively, I didn’t have a care. But enough familiar conditions came together and I hunched. It’s the effect of some cause. It’s worth saying again: our habitual reactions are coded into physical responses and stored in the body. I didn’t think about hunching, I did it.zlata_contortionist_8

A lot of leadership advice might focus on managing anxiety and leadership presence. For straightforward impression management, that may do the trick. But developing tactics may be solving a problem we only partly recognize. My aim as a coach is to help people recognize the settings in which our response is a habit and a different one is needed. The more we notice the clues, the more options we have. They’re the key to real, intrinsic change. And for most of us, the discovery alone is liberating. It takes a lot of energy to maintain habits like the one I’ve been describing.

It also takes a lot of energy to manage them when they take over. Think of times when you’ve been exhausted by what seemed like little real effort. It may be that the effort lay in some version of controlling yourself while the body was seized by low-level fight, flight, or freeze reactions. Think of what you could do with that energy if you weren’t investing it in reactions that don’t serve your purpose.

Instead of breaking habits, pay attention to them

It’s been about 21 days since you started new year’s habits. How’s it going? Still tough? Me too.

First, research shows that there is no basis for the much repeated 21-day transformation period. It may take you longer to establish new habits. Some people needed nearly 250 days. Of course, picking up socks is easier than changing lifelong eating habits that contribute to high cholesterol. The average number of days to change a habit was 66. Cut yourself some slack if you’re not there yet. Don’t give up either.

Habits are forgotten patterns
Habits are patterns we no longer notice

It’s easy to talk about the habits that frustrate our efforts and seem set against us. I should exercise more. I should definitely sit at my desk less. But what about all the habits that I don’t notice? They’re the strongest. We think of them as part of who we are. In fact, we don’t think of them.

For example, I noticed that when someone compliments me, I deflect it and compliment them. It’s a small thing, but I could accept their generosity. My habit is has something to do with being uncomfortable with the compliment. Sure, it’s polite to return the favor, but it may look insincere. It may be insincere. I’m still thinking about what I’ve noticed and what it means. But I notice that it’s a habit that takes me over in certain situations.

The research also shows that changing the environment is crucial to changing habits. Environment not only facilitates the habit, it activates it. What we miss is that we are part of the environment. Our bodies become accustomed to experiencing the habit. Sitting down to my computer with a cup of coffee in the morning seems trivial, but I miss it if I have to go without it for a few days. I notice it’s absence on my thinking and my mood. I have tried to start my day other ways, but body and mind resist it. My body feels the comfort and reassurance of the habit. And for now, at least, this habit still serves my purposes.

To determine whether to change a habit, first notice the habit. Here are some ideas for noticing:

  • Disrupt a pattern. See what you like and dislike about it: take a different way to work, put your phone away at a moment when you’re likely to check it, turn off the car radio, have breakfast in another chair or room, start meetings differently.
  • Who’s that guy (gal)? Review any meeting or family meal. What did you do? What did you think? What did you feel? Is that usual for you?
  • Ask three people you trust about that thing you do or say: They already know your habits. You could ask, “If you were going to tell someone how to recognize, what would you say? ‘He’s the guy who typically_______?'”

The more you notice habits, the more you notice them. And that’s the foundation of considering how well they serve your goals and the people around you.

See The New York Times article that includes key research findings on habits here.

What’s all this pushback about?

I was talking with a friend recently who explained that everything was going just fine. In fact, he felt that he was positioned for great things. But he was struggling.

“I push through the day,” he said. “I’m confident I’m doing the right things, the big ones and the small ones. But it’s all stretch. It’s work. And I don’t feel much certainty about it at the end of the day. It leaves me feeling tired and disoriented and as though I hadn’t done much.”

One thing he has going for him is clarity of purpose. He doesn’t doubt his direction, though he sometimes doubts himself. “But I’m all in,” he added. Given what he can know now, he’s sure he’s on the right course.

So what’s wrong?

I encouraged him and said: “You’re on the verge.” He’d taken big, if planned, risks with his work. He’d begun to lead his own projects, and not everyone welcomed it. “I’ve stepped out front,” he said. He felt somewhat alone there, but confident that his experience and expertise had laid a good foundation. He can see capacity for leadership taking shape. “You know what’s wrong?” he said. “Nothing.”


Here’s what we decided might serve him best:

Dig in

First, the facts: Acknowledge that the hard work of sticking to his plan and its goals will continue to be hard work, and that that will change over time.

Recognize that the challenge will tax him in ways that make him feel like something is wrong with him. He’ll feel like he’s not himself. But he may be becoming more like himself.

And he should be prepared to step back and take a break from time to time. Then dig in again.

Watch and listen

When is it difficult to face the work toward those goals? When is it almost unbearable?

Notice the thoughts and feelings in those moments at the verge. The resistance we feel when developing new abilities feels like we’re going in the wrong direction. We may look around for someone to blame or take responsibility off our shoulders. But resistance is crucial feedback that reveals our learning edge: where current capability ends and learning opportunity spreads out like the night.

My friend’s edge is full of information about what it will mean to step out. Watch for the little lights winking on in the darkness. Listen to what you tell yourself at the verge and be prepared to doubt that it has always been true or that it will always be true.


Resistance follows from challenging ourselves. If we’re pointed in the right direction, not fooling ourselves, it may take more than bliss to lead us to a deep and satisfying destination. So keep one eye on yourself and test where you may be telling yourself only what you want to hear. Then turn back to the resistance. That’s the frontier.

So, nothing is wrong. My friend’s purpose and goals led him to this verge. And they are changing him. He didn’t know that was going to happen. He didn’t suspect it would call on resources that he’s still developing. But even in the face of uncertainty and resistance he says, “I’m in. I am so in.”

Keep looking for the openings

Insight for practical tailored solutions

A friend recently quoted this advice to me. She’s right. When we’re aiming at a goal, the route between A and B is rarely clear. The way forward requires determination. But there will be openings that help confirm that we’re on the right track.

When we’re building something new – expertise, a project, a business, a movement – we’re changing our interaction with people, organizations, and markets. And they’ll talk back. The wisdom in looking for our openings is that there is data in the encounter. It holds out clues about the conditions for success: preparation, offerings, expectations, supporters, communications. It also points to you: what you thought, what you intended, what you aimed to accomplish, and how you reacted. What you hear when you listen to the response become the germ of guiding principles.

But the openings we look for are the ones we’re able to see. Once we’ve seen an opening or two, we keep on looking. We want determination to carry us forward without narrowing our view. The openings are clues. They may be just out of view to the left.

Experience and openness to learning will show us more windows and doors. Now we’re really headed for daylight.

Step back, folks! The need for review and reflection – Part 3

Reflection may not seem like a powerful problem solver, but as we said, it expands our view of the present and can reveal the wide angle mirrorunderlying story propelling hard-to-change behavior.

Third, reflection answers the question, “Who am I now?” You may not be asking that question, but the challenges of living in the 21st century seem to conspire to make life difficult. Circumstance presses in and asks the question for us.

Daily frustrations, constant demands, and occasional real tragedy test what we’re made of. It can be a puzzle to understand what it is adding up to. All that trouble isn’t a roadblock. It’s our ally. Sure, it’s unwelcome, but it calls on us to grow up. Here at BIG IDEA we focus on “grow.” It’s depth we need, not simple persistence.

Step back, folks! The need for review and reflection – Part 2

In part one, we said that reflection isn’t an idle look back. It’s a way of expanding our view of the present.wide angle mirror

Reflection can also focus on what happened to understand what it means. If you work with people who believe in learning from experience, you’ve autopsied the past to identify what went well and what we would do differently. It’s a good endeavor. But if you’re like me, you also know that it’s very difficult to do things differently next time. We have to remember, then recognize that it’s happening, and then do it.

So, we recommend looking back to uncover the story that helped produce the results we intended and those we didn’t. We can reflect in this way on past or present action. There’s always a story propelling it. And if two people are involved, there are at least three stories.

Step back, folks! The need for review and reflection – Part 1

Reflection often sounds like armchair philosophizing in the coulda, woulda, shoulda vein. wide angle mirror And if reflection were compared with other ways of getting results at work, it probably will not show up on the list. But speed has become a primary measure of how to solve problems. It’s important, but it can make action wrong, or just plain dumb.

First, reflection is real-time review. It’s looking at what’s happening now to see a bigger picture.

In the bias-for-action world in which we live, we often move to solutions before we have given them the consideration they deserve. They may prove to be the seeds of much bigger problems. The practice of reflection can help us anticipate unintended consequences, unexpected complexity, and the limits of our own perspective.

We believe that a bigger view is a better view. Reflection ensures we take that bigger view now, before we have to undo seemingly good solutions that we landed on today.

Two ways to find inspiration to get stuff done

The challenge for you and me, knowledge workers with unlimited information (and distraction), is knowing how to tap inspiration when it’s lacking.

Maybe “inspiration” should be “motivation.” You choose.  I mean “the intrinsic energy and meaning that keeps you going.” After all, there is no shortage of work and most of us want to be known for getting stuff done.


We can lose sight of the reasons our contribution matters. When no one else is noticing that we’re advancing a project, our mostly digital work seems invisible. What people tend to notice is errors and problems.

Your source of inspiration lies in doing the work and tracking your own progress. Measure against standards that are meaningful to you. If you’re like me, you’ll want to find someone to bounce the work off of. I ask, “This clarifies, or advances, the work in this way. Does it do that for you?”

When I’m asking for a reality check, I’m not asking for feedback. I’m looking for a “yes” or “no” answer. With that answer, and a sense of progress to bolster me, I may ask for feedback. My feedback rule: Ask for the feedback you want and if you get more than that, don’t worry about it. It will wait. Say thank you.under a rock


Most of aim for a job, a role, or a project because we believe in it.  We believe it will give us something we want, whether a short term win or a noble objective. In the challenges of getting stuff done, we can lose track of what we believe in or what we set out after.

  • What do I care about?
  • What animates me?
  • What do I believe in?

Even if you didn’t choose the project, if you have doubts about the work, you can choose to mine it for meaning. Sometimes, it’s all uphill. But within the experience, it’s within our power to change our minds. We can seek some meaningful purpose in our action the playing field. There will come a time to evaluate whether you’re always running uphill. You may want to change that pattern.

But now, while you’re in the middle of the run, watch your stride, keep the gain foremost in mind (rather than the pain), notice your progress, and encourage other runners. You’re not alone in digging deeper for purpose in what you’re doing right now.

What do you do to measure your progress and confirm accomplishments?
How do you uncover purpose in the face of day-to-day challenges?