My Ego’s Personal Journey from a Fixed to a Growth Mindset

I’ve been blessed with awesome opportunities, abilities and success in life. However, this didn’t come without imprinting some pretty messed-up messages in my brain.


Growing up, I came to believe 2 things:

  1. I had the good luck to be born with some natural abilities. Sweet as.
  2. Those abilities were genetically fixed in me (and by projection, others’ traits are fixed in them). Yikes.

This belief system is symptomatic of a fixed-mindset. This idea was explored by motivation researcher and psychologist Professor Carol Dweck of Stanford University. Her book “Mindset” was published in 2006 but Prof. Dweck has actually been working on this for more than 30 years.

A fixed-mindset believes that one’s abilities, talents and intellect are fixed at birth. Those with a fixed-mindset value natural talent over hard work. They might even look down on people who practice or study because they can’t do it effortlessly. They hold in high regard the naughty genius who would go out clubbing the night before his or her final exam and still get 99%. “That 1% misfire was the hangover”, the genius might nonchalantly remark. (One of my beloved law school friends is this guy. What a douche. Sure, a charming and infuriatingly brilliant douche. But still, total douche).

Messages that reinforce this

So back in the day, what would happen was this – after an achievement, I would be rewarded with praise or an award (as well as the customary sledging from my classmates). After a “failure” (which, by the way, the range of things that were scoped into this term were eclectic and, at times, totally unreasonable – like a “Distinction” instead of a “High Distinction” in English Literature), I’d be punished in the form of shaming, disapproval, corporal punishment (as was the custom in my day) or contempt and scorn for my lack of ability.

The messages leveled at others reinforced what had, over time, become my fixed-mindset paradigm. When a child achieved success, I would hear: “isn’t he a natural footballer?!”;  “She’s a natural leader” and – dangerously – “I wish I had [name’s] brains”. The last one of course led me to wishing I too had the brains of the far more intelligent beings I know. This is the opposite of having gratitude. And it promotes unhealthy self-esteem, achievement anxiety, imposter syndrome and fear of failure.

The messages were equally unhelpful for kids who didn’t do so well in tests or sport. The following messages are utterly devoid of understanding that people simply don’t learn in the same way or have the same interests: “You haven’t got it already? Are you thick?”; or on the footy oval: “You’re so unco!” (that’s Aussie playground slang for un-coordinated). Or the dreaded: “Why are you trying to get into uni? You’re sporty mate, not smart”. As if there was some invisible pigeon-hole that people mustn’t escape from lest they descend into the subversive pursuit of being multi-dimensional.

My fear of failure was definitely not assuaged when a girl during my year 11 physics class once got caught giggling at a note (we passed those around in class; don’t tell anyone) instead of waiting with baited breath on our professor’s mathematical reveal. His advice was “don’t bother trying at this class – you’re better off dropping down into early childhood studies, so you can actually do it.” Yeah, so much casual marginalisation going on there. Not only did that statement imply this girl’s talents were fixed and no amount of hard work would improve her physics performance (which was rubbish, she got easily distracted, but she was smart); it also said something about what that professor thought about early childhood studies.

The unfortunate side effects of a fixed-mindset

My fixed mindset inspired in me:

  1. perfectionist tendencies
  2. absolutely no desire whatsoever for my status as “smart” or “talented” to be debunked
  3. achievement anxiety
  4. a tendency to over-commit as I didn’t want to say “no” to anything as that would make me look “weak”
  5. imposter syndrome when I was given great opportunities to make an impact because I didn’t believe I was worthy
  6. a fear of failure, and
  7. inevitably – because, you know, I am human – many actual failures.

My CV of failures

There’s honestly not enough pages on the internet. Where do I start?

  1. Do you want to know about the time I was convinced I would be appointed the Managing Director of my year 10 Young Achievement Australia Company? I lost by a handful of votes to someone I didn’t think was half as capable as me. What had happened was she was also half as obnoxious as me, and therefore twice as appealing, to our peers. I was incensed about the outcome, which is exactly why I wasn’t ready for it.
  2. What about the time I got the academic marks to get into medicine at UWA but failed the Undergraduate Medical Admission Test and therefore couldn’t pursue my lifelong dream of being a doctor like Zach Braff in Scrubs? Again I was obnoxious with poor self- and social- awareness. At the time, I thought it was the end of the world. But, obviously, it was just the beginning.
  3. Or what about the time I was elected President of the Australian Law  Students’ Association. It is the peak body for over 31,000 law students nationally. The President leads a Council and Executive Committee of 75 law student society presidents who were all formidably brilliant, eloquent, politically savvy and damn confident. I didn’t do the role justice because – and I’m recognising a pattern here – I had poor emotional intelligence and was unable to constructively wear and respond to the criticism leveled at me. I hadn’t yet learnt the lesson that leadership was about withstanding being constantly challenged, with aplomb, and also a wicked discussion paper that you prepared earlier in anticipation of being deposed, and not approved of. Details.

So those are some of my pre-24 year old failures. I haven’t even got to the relationship and professional ones yet. Like I said, not enough pages on the internet.

And yet we notice a pattern. The lesson I had failed to learn was that emotional intelligence, as well as actual intelligence, was necessary to truly thrive and help others. My fixed-mindset self once despaired that I’d never be able to achieve my goals or cultivate the necessary EQ to reach my potential. I clearly wasn’t born with it, so that’s it. Game over. Go home and have a big fat cry and blame your parents, or the inadequate education system, or your bogan counterparts, or The Universe, or El-Nino, or the Liberal Party, or Donald Trump. Or conversely, rage at yourself for your incompetence and weakness. Neither of course, were helpful strategies. But the next one is.

Growth mindset and the events that led me to passionately embrace it

I read Carol Dweck’s book “Mindset” in 2015. I was appointed to lead the brand new corporate improvement capability and cultural change program of an ASX listed fund manager with a market cap of $2 billion. I would be the youngest person on their senior leadership team. I was promoted two stations above my current role. I had never been charged with an enterprise-wide mandate before. I had never worked in strategy or management consulting. I didn’t have any background in change management or continuous improvement and barely knew how to operate at the upper echelons of a listed corporate environment, having spent most of my career in top tier private practice law firms.

It was my first job outside of transaction management and law, and it was a serious one. I often look back and wonder if perhaps they in fact made a clerical error? They didn’t. The executives who appointed me simply believed that it was more important to choose someone passionate who could get shit done than a domain expert.

I was thrown into the deep end. Two days after my appointment to the role, I joined the Senior Leadership Team offsite at a beautiful country club 3 hours out of Sydney. We were launching the improvement program and introducing me to the group. It was a tremendous development opportunity for me, in a high pressure environment, for a high profile program and I. Had. No. Idea. What. I. Was. Doing.

This, of course, was evident. But they hired me knowing I was an untested wild card chosen for my execution capability and not my track-record.

Predictably, I received immediate and candid feedback about all of the ways that I really needed to pull my head in. Those first few weeks, I was terrified that I didn’t have what it took to succeed (fixed-mindset). Looking back, the whole year was an uncomfortable reminder of just how green I really was, to the chagrin of my ego. I can’t remember a time when I felt anything short of discomfort. I was operating at a solid 25% anxiety level for 15 months.

And yet, there was part of me that railed against the notion that I couldn’t do it. It was the voice in my head that compelled me to subscribe to All Of The Harvard Business Review Material and read All Of the Leadership Books I Could Get My Hands On and listen to All Of The Podcasts that help new leaders remedy their manifest incompetence laid bare, in secret, before everyone finds out. It was my innate, but less amplified, growth mindset spurring me to eventually succeed.

You know how necessity is the parent of invention? I knew I had to – simply had to – amplify and cultivate this growth mindset to survive in the role, let alone thrive.

A growth mindset believes that our traits are not fixed at birth. That they can be improved with deliberate practice, learning from setbacks and by trying different strategies when the first one doesn’t work.

This applies to our leadership skills, EQ, domain knowledge, public speaking capability, writing proficiency, athletic ability, musical grace and social skills. Any trait, talent or intellectual capability can be improved by learning from mistakes and importing that wisdom into the next attempt.

Growth mindset believes that we should not avoid taking risks and doing hard things for fear of failure and making mistakes. The ideal response to setbacks is not to feel “less smart”; and there’s little value in blaming ourselves for being “less talented” when we don’t kill it first go (or get 99% in our Criminal Law exam after a night aggressively dancing to Britney at the Zanzibar in Fremantle inhaling enough Apple Martinis to make him lose 1% the next day, like my brilliant (yet totally douchey) friend). In fact, constructively, hard tasks should be pursued, as the lessons we learn help us realise our potential in due course.

After that first SLT offsite, the year was a baptism of leadership fire, and was one of those most enriching and rewarding experiences of my professional career.

I had to do some serious soul searching and quickly try new strategies as soon as I found the old ones stalling, otherwise there was no chance we could deliver on our strategy and 3 year plan. We ended up accelerating the program, delivering milestones early, creating new ones and organically inspiring a movement of improvement enthusiasts who were passionate about changing the status quo.

And you know what I learnt? That no matter how much of a learner I started out to be, I could always get better. Instead of reaching a point of “perfect” which is fixed mindset view, this paradigm shift meant I could start exceeding my own expectations. I could learn, grow, develop and pursue self-actualisation every day. Every time we ran a Lean Agile Sprint, we would perform post-implementation reviews to ensure that improvements could be integrated into the next one. I would conduct 360 degree feedback 1:1’s with my team so that I could be a better leader for them – and to ensure our relationship continuously cultivated mutual trust. We knew that the other person only had our best interests at heart. And that was to mutually help the other become the best versions of themselves on our watch.

Mistakes and failures still bother me because I still equate excellence with smooth execution, but perhaps I need to augment my definition to include acts of courage. The reason mistakes happen is because I’m trying new things, I’m taking risks so that others can learn from me and I’m driving progress. A new venture is necessarily unknown and unpracticed. I’m learning how to do most things for the first time. Demonstrating natural talent on the first go is a dangerous value, because it can inadvertently dissuade people who could otherwise be very successful, from putting in the effort to learn, or try again.

During this stage of my career, I had no choice but to disrupt and reinvent myself, on almost a daily basis. 9 months ago I was telling my Group Executive that I would likely go back to Corporate Finance as I was still on a development secondment in my role. 6 months ago I accepted the full time offer of employment as the leader of the program on a permanent basis because I knew I could still offer so much more. 1 month ago I realised that I needed to embark on an entrepreneurial, creative and philosophical sabbatical and, with this in my heart, they would do wise to have someone else share the wonderful development opportunity that I had enjoyed so greatly.

The Growth Mindset taught me that:

  1. resilience is a beautiful thing. You can get so much more done when you learn the lesson embedded at the tip of an ego sting very quickly and store it for future reference
  2. mistakes and failures are  opportunities to learn something new which can be deployed at a future time
  3. I will have many opportunities to practice lesson 2, so on the up-side, I’ll get better at it
  4. anyone and anything can get better. They can develop, learn new things and improve – even a 130 year old company; even a stubborn 33 year old woman who is convinced she knows it all, even in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary
  5. effort is a virtue; that the ability to try different strategies, combined with effort, leads to realising one’s potential, and
  6. sometimes, even knowing all of this, I will stray back into fixed-mindset because I have been programmed to think that way for 3 decades and that’s ok, because I can simply practice getting back out of it.

When growth mindset (I can continuously improve) is combined with an abundance mindset (there is plenty of goodwill and opportunity to go around) and generosity-orientation (there is plenty to go around so we must share the love) and a belief that diversity of thought generates better outcomes (I am not like this person. I need to spend more time with them), I found that serious magic happens.

Look out for my post on 3 pillars of influence.

Follow me on twitter (@kat_dunn_01) and ideapod (@katdunn)


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