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How to Change the Way You Confront Challenges

Feeling stuck in a fixed mindset? Learn how to push for growth here.

Growing up, when I had convinced myself that I was beaten by a homework problem, my father would take a simple yet compelling approach to get me unstuck. He would turn on all the lights in his office, let me sit at his desk, and bring me a sharpened pencil resting atop a fresh legal pad. He would offer to talk out the problem, and then left me to solve it.  

So there I would be, a lanky 9-year-old in a giant office chair, staring down a long division problem with fresh eyes. Yes, I would often still struggle, but I always solved the problem that I claimed had stumped me.

My father was teaching me, years before Carol Dweck’s indispensable book, the power of a growth mindset.  

Someone with a “growth mindset” believes that they can grow — that ability can be developed. They engage challenges and helpful feedback with sincere effort on a path to mastery.  

The converse is “fixed mindset,” which believes that one’s traits are essentially unchangeable, and so effort is useless. This mindset avoids both challenge and critique. It feels threatened when others succeed.

A “growth mindset” is a profound asset to our professional, personal, social lives. When an institution incorporates such a mindset into its DNA, its progress is remarkable and exponential — I’ve seen such a culture work wonders.

I spent time with an organization oriented around a growth mindset: the MATCH Teacher Residency in Boston, which prepares novice teachers for schools serving low-income populations. My role with MATCH was to coach rookie teachers as they stepped into a classroom for the first time and help them perform with “unusual effectiveness.”

From my own experience developing as an educator, I knew that the first year in the classroom is unique in its punishment and possibility. In my first year of teaching, I found myself suddenly responsible for the education of children who were at an age I’d not often engaged. 

It was my task to attend compassionately to who they were and who they needed to become. I had to balance empathy and assertiveness in my interactions with them. I had to create consistency in our routine while integrating improvements. And I had to do this, often anxious and exhausted, every day.

So, how did the MATCH Teacher Residency invite their rookie teachers into “unusual effectiveness” despite these challenges? They created a culture that invited everyone to fearlessly confront a fixed mindset. 

Fixed mindset is everywhere, in all of us, and quite tricky to talk about. So the program’s leadership wittily and decisively tattooed this concept into the minds of the teachers by naming the “four horsemen of fixed mindset” — the four ways that fixed mindset typically manifests:

1) You’re right. I suck: over-identifying with a setback and being unable to see a way forward.

2) You’re wrong. I rule: defiantly rejecting a learning moment that would otherwise aid growth; ceasing to be curious (which means ceasing growth). 

3) Blame it on the rain: externalizing blame onto things that we cannot control, thus absolving ourselves of responsibility or agency.   

4) Optimist without a cause: imagining that a difficult problem will resolve itself without any effort or change on our part. This superficial optimism functions, in fact, as avoidance.

By presenting these “four horsemen” in caricature, we gave the residents the ability to interrupt the destructive self-talk within themselves before the narrative overtook them. Should they fail and become overwhelmed by one or more of the horsemen, the culture of the institution would be activated to support them.

I coached one resident — I’ll call her Tana — during her first period physics class. For a rookie teacher, it was a tough draw — this was not an easy class to manage. Tana was a ruthlessly hard worker, but one morning, her class ground to a halt.

After the bell, Tana was upset and gave me a narrative shot through with three of the four horsemen: 

These students are unteachable. 
You are putting me in an impossible position. 
I’m not up for this. 
I just can’t do it.

I grabbed the head coach, Randall, and we sat down in a (sort of) quiet hallway with Tana. Compassionate and firm, Randall used all of the language of the institution that trained and supported her:

Recall your remarkable development thus far in your journey.  
Focus on the next step.  
Growth is the goal, not perfection.  
You have demonstrated that you are capable of this challenge.

She righted her mental ship. We had a solid coaching session. She taught well the next week. She completed the semester, thrived in summer school, graduated from the program, and continues to excel at a school network serving low-income students in Washington, D.C. In short, Tana grew.

One caution here: occasionally, growth mindset is conflated with the sanctification of grit, which tells us to never step back or ask for help; to just grind it out; to rely only on yourself to power through. The two are not the same, though. A growth mindset doesn’t mean we refuse support or help — it means we reach out to engage the support systems in place around us so that we can transcend the challenge we are facing. 

Simone Biles’ decision to not compete in the Tokyo Olympics is a great example of this distinction. Blind grit in such a situation is dangerous. Instead, she exhibited a superlative growth mindset — she acknowledged the problem she was facing and found resources to confront it. 

When we face a challenge in life, a growth mindset often means stepping back for a moment, like Biles did, and asking for help. Consult a mentor, recollect your resources, or even just find someone to talk it out. Maybe an empty legal pad and a sharpened pencil can help you find a fresh perspective — and the next step for our journey. 

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