How to Shift from a Fixed Mindset to Flexible Thinking

“I’m just no good at dancing.” “Joe is a natural and talented singer.” “I can never talk the way she talks.” Do you find yourself surrounded by similar thoughts? The thinking that boxes us into a particular label. An assumption that we can’t change in any meaningful way. Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck coined the term ‘fixed mindset’ for this kind of thinking pattern.

I grew up being largely dominated by this fixed mindset. I would avoid challenges and give up easily. Even to this day, my fixed mindset continues to have a certain level of control over my life. Ask me to show up on video, and I would reluctantly give it a pass. What’s changed between then and now is that today I am more aware of where and how my fixed mindset shows up. And, with every bit of increased awareness, I get the opportunity to make a better choice.

In her rigorous research, Carol Dweck concluded that a fixed mindset creates the urgency to prove oneself over and over again. Every situation and experience feels like a final examination. “Will I look smart or dumb?” “Will I be accepted or rejected?” “Will I succeed or fail?” “Will I feel like a loser?” Having a fixed mindset often puts us in a defensive spot where we are trying to hide our deficiencies and constantly validating ourselves. A fixed mindset puts us in a spot where we simply stop growing. We plateau early and achieve way less than our full potential. As a result of this fixed mindset, we end up living at a mere 40-50% of our true selves, thinking it to be our 100 when in reality, we are capable of much much more.

Identifying if Fixed Mindset Dominates Your Life or Not

If you are like 95% of the population, I am pretty sure that you have a fixed mindset in one or more areas of your life. Here are a few characteristics you can observe about yourself to determine if you have a fixed mindset or not.

  1. You believe that intelligence is static, your skills are fixed, or it’s too late to learn now.
  2. You believe that you are always struggling with something.
  3. You resent the success of others. You often compare yourself to others.
  4. You believe that you have all the answers. That you don’t need help or support. 
  5. You argue for your limitations. You always have stories and excuses up your sleeve to support your limitations. 
  6. You get defensive if your flaws are pointed out. You view feedback as a personal attack.

Ask yourself, which of these characteristics resonate with you? Look at different areas of your life – your health, your passions, your relationships, your career, your personal growth, and even your fun and recreation areas and see where one or more of these thought patterns seem to run the show. 

Along with the term fixed mindset, Carol Dweck also coined the term, ‘growth mindset,’ the one that thrives on challenges and sees failure as a springboard for growth. For someone who has manifested a fixed mindset from a very early age, switching completely to a growth mindset can be quite intimidating. It could mean the loss of a known personality to some. While many would look at this as a flip of the switch, in reality, it’s much more than that. Our brains prioritize our survival over our happiness. That means if your fixed mindset has kept you safe and alive this far, your brain will act as that suction machine to keep you in your fixed mindset thinking. So what do you do?

Flexible Thinking To The Rescue

The shift from fixed to a growth mindset isn’t an overnight success story, like how most of the self-help articles on the Internet make it sound to be. It is rather more of a conscious and continuous journey. It’s like climbing up a ladder, one tiny step at a time, making that position familiar to you and your brain before you take the next step.

Neuroscientists, educators, and psychologists sometimes call it cognitive shifting, but you may know it better as flexible thinking. It’s taking a step away from your current fixed mindset thinking pattern to making that intention to slowly build towards adopting a growth mindset. Think of this as the warm-up exercises you do to loosen up before you actually get to hitting your workout routine in the gym. To me, flexible thinking is somewhat like putting your foot in the door of possibilities, even if you aren’t completely sure of what’s lying ahead for you, yet you are convinced that having a fixed mindset is simply suffocating you.

James Clear, the author of Atomic Habits, once said, “Your mind is a suggestion engine. Every thought you have is a suggestion, not an order. Your thoughts are not orders. Merely suggestions. You have the power to choose which option to follow.” If you reflect a bit on this quote, you’d realize that the shift from a fixed mindset to flexible thinking is simply like putting your feet into the swimming pool and getting a feel for the water before plunging yourself into the deep end. 

Many studies have found that flexible thinking is associated with enhanced brain function. You’re likely to enjoy greater mental and physical health, higher levels of fluid intelligence, and many other advantages.

Flexible thinking helps you to accept that change is natural. You begin to adapt to new circumstances faster and experience less stress. You stay updated in your world. You start applying new information that keeps you from staying stuck in your past. You begin to recognize a wider range of options exist and that there’s more than one way to approach challenges and problems. If your washing machine breaks down or your car has a flat tire, you’ll see that there’s more than one way to fix it. You’d be open to trying a different coffee shop if your favorite joint closes down.

A few days back a friend called me to ask if I could help him out with a short video of me talking about a topic that would help him in his project. The self-critical part of me politely declined saying that I was not comfortable doing a video. However, the flexible thinker in me worked out his requirements in an audio-only format, which earlier I wouldn’t have even thought of.

5 Tips to Increase Your Flexible Thinking

  1. Play with Words: Language affects how you think and in turn, shapes your reality. If your words are rooted in fear, you will continue to remain in your fixed mindset patterns. Instead, open up to using words and vocabulary that help you see the possibility and making progress, even if it’s slower than you’d want it to be. Shift to using words that make you curious and adopt a lifelong learning mindset.
  2. Explore Functional Fixity: I learned this technique from a communications coach. You take any ordinary object and come up with 3 alternative uses. For example, you could pick a tennis ball or a staples remover. While the technique helps you become comfortable with table topics speaking, it builds your flexible thinking ability. 
  3. Have the Angel-Demon Talk: Stress interferes with our creativity. When you find yourself going down a fixed mindset pattern, if you pay close attention and slow down the event or experience, usually you’ll find that there are 2 voices playing in your head. The demon’s voice, the louder of the two, supports your fixed mindset behavior. The angel’s voice, on the other hand, is more feeble of the two but speaks in favor of your greater good. If you can listen to this conversation as an observer, use your self-talk to provide guidance and reassurance and ask yourself questions that will clarify your priorities, you will find yourself lending a helping hand to the angel and often choosing to snap out of the habitual fixed thinking. 
  4. Tap into the Mind-Body Connection: Physical and mental wellbeing are interrelated. Alter your routines. Small steps add up when you’re trying to break out of a rut. Incorporate moderate physical activity into your daily life, even if it’s for 20 minutes a day. Rest and relaxation also stimulate flexible thinking. Ensure that you sleep well and long enough for keeping your brain in top condition. Update your diet. What you eat can strengthen or weaken flexible thinking. 
  5. Practice Mindfulness: Practice mindfulness as a way of living. Live in the present moment more often. Slow down time to speed up your progress. The more you practice being present the more you realize that there’s no past or future, the present is the only thing that really exists.

For those stuck with a fixed mindset, opening up to flexible thinking is the first step on the journey to adopting a growth mindset. It calls for loosening your grip on your fixed mindset and allowing that speck of possibility into your life. You’ll feel more confident and behave more skillfully, even when you’re faced with unexpected demands or last-minute changes. Know that for some people this could be quicker, while some could take more time. You have to go through that building process. Build up to flexible thinking. For me, it’s taking years. Eventually, the shift will happen if you persist with it enough.

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