The Building Blocks of Resilience: Growth Mindset (Part 3)

On November 27, 2018

The Building Blocks of Resilience: Growth Mindset (Part 3)

The Building Blocks of Resilience: Growth Mindset (Part 3)

I wrote in the first two parts of this series about two foundational elements of resilience: grit and mindfulness. Staying power, passionate pursuit of goals, and mindfulness are essential for any lawyer who hopes to find success in the legal practice.

Resilience, however, is not only about the ability to be mindful or to bounce back with passion and perseverance, but also about cultivating a filter that helps you engage in life with a sense of growth and curiosity.

This part of our resilience series focuses on growth mindset: the art of approaching setbacks, failure with an appreciation for learning, curiosity and growth.  For lawyers, who are, generally speaking, over-achievers, learning to fail is, well, hard. But changing your filter on failure is one of the best ways to let go of perfectionism, dig in on complex challenges and appreciate growth and learning in your life and practice.


What is it?

Studies show that success is determined by your view of yourself:  What we become and how successful we are begins with our approach to learning as a mechanism of engagement and growth–not a point in time measure of what we may or may not have learned.

This is a psychological principle developed by Carol Dweck. She learned there are two types of mindset: fixed and growth mindset. People with a fixed mindset tend to believe that people are born with ability, intelligence and talent (or not born with it) and that we can’t really do much to change how intelligent we are (effort doesn’t really matter). People with a growth mindset believe strongly in the power of effort. They believe that people are born to learn and that the mind is like a muscle—the more you work it, the more effort you put in, the smarter you become. And the focus in this effort is growth and an appreciation for the process regardless of the result. So the question becomes what did you learn, not what was the outcome.

Why does this matter?

The research says that people with a growth mindset are, as a whole, more successful in the end than people with a fixed mindset. In fact, even just learning that growth mindset exists and that your brain can actually get smarter with exercise has reversed long standing trends of poor performance.

For example, Dweck discusses one study of a population of 700 junior high math students who had decreasing math scores over a period of five consecutive years. In the study, all of these students were taught math study skills over a period of eight weeks. Half of these students were also given two modules (a total of fifty minutes) about growth mindset. In the modules, the students were told that their brains get smarter with effort and they were able to watch videos of the connections their brains made when they learned new information, even, and especially, when they made mistakes. The videos showed that our brains learn best from their mistakes and from constructive criticism–which is the learning process. When the study ended, teachers were able to pick out the students who learned growth mindset: those students increased their effort and reversed the trend in their math scores simply by learning this concept exists.

The potential impact to us as lawyers is exciting to think about: if every law student and lawyer believed that we can affect our own intelligence, that mistakes matter and are important to creating even better lawyers, we could change the culture of the legal profession which expects perfection.  We could build even more intelligent lawyers. If the bottom line is that people who have a growth mindset are more successful, are more resilient, take on complex challenges and end up happier, there is no reason to not have one.

How do I cultivate a Growth Mindset?

Bringing a growth mindset to your work isn’t easy, but it is possible with practice, lots and lots of it!  Here are some strategies for how to incorporate this concept into your work:

Hard work

Having a growth mindset is about the effort you put in and the growth you realize from your effort. This means learning to appreciate the growth that you achieved, even if the result isn’t perfect, and using that growth to get an even better result the next time. It is also about knowing when your strategy isn’t working and learning when to try something different. This is key: growth mindset is all about having a strategy, evaluating how it’s working, and adjusting it when it isn’t getting you what you want. Even when you’re feeling good about your growth or results, growth mindset advocates that you seek feedback: seeking input from others ensures we are continuing to grow!

Asking the right questions

Fixed mindset thinking is how most of us were raised and finds its way into our language.  If you’ve ever heard yourself or someone you know say:  I can’t do this, I’m not smart, I’m not good at math, I just don’t understand how that works, etc., these are all fixed mindset ways of thinking. They each assume that you have a certain level of talent or potential and that you can’t change beyond that measure. Changing to language to reflect the growth or the process can help you reorient your thinking.

Some examples of ways to change your language:

You’re so smart!  —— You worked really hard at that to get such a good result, nice work!

I can’t do this —— I can’t do this yet

I don’t get it —- I’m missing something, I might need help to see this a different way.

Changing language is a good start. You can also ask yourself the following questions to start thinking about how you already have used growth mindset in your life and to apply it to new circumstances:

  • Think about a time when you have improved or grown. How and why did the changes occur? – What about you and how you acted actually resulted in the change?
  • How can you apply that same effort or strategy to a current struggle?
  • And – to ensure you’re not just working hard with the same strategy – how can you change it if it doesn’t work?

For more on growth mindset, try reading:  Carol Dweck’s “Mindset: The New Psychology of Success” for an amazing examination of how growth mindset leads to success and performance across every industry.

Look for Part IV of the Building Blocks of Resilience!


Shannon Callahan is a LAP Illinois Task Force on Attorney Well-Being Committee Member, LAP Advisory Committee Member, and senior counsel in the Labor & Employment Department of Seyfarth Shaw LLP’s Chicago office.

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