How I Redesigned My Work and Life Around a Growth Mindset
One of the mental models that's had a huge impact on my life is the growth mindset. Coined by Carol Dweck in Mindset, the notion is that individuals either see the world through a fixed or a growth mindset.
In a fixed mindset, you believe that your qualities are carved in stone. That your abilities, attitudes, and personality are largely defined by your innate capabilities at birth. This mindset can be quite dangerous as it significantly effects how you see the world. Those with a fixed mindset often ruminate over their problems and setbacks, essentially tormenting themselves with the idea that the setbacks meant they were incompetent or unworthy. It can cause you to transform inevitable failures from an action (I failed) to an identity (I am a failure). Ultimately this view can result in reduced effort in trying to accomplish your goals because the prospect of failing becomes too much to bear.
Alternatively, in a growth mindset, you believe that your basic qualities are things you can cultivate through effort. While we each may start with different temperaments and aptitudes, you believe that experience, training, and personal effort can result in significant improvements in your skills and abilities. People with a growth mindset have a passion for stretching themselves and sticking to it, even (or especially) when it’s not going well. This mindset enables you to continuously grow your skills, evolve yourself, and reach new heights.
Carol Dweck's research makes clear that while your mindset often sets in early in life, there is a meaningful path to upgrading your own mindset from fixed to growth.
While I've been fortunate enough to have a growth mindset from a young age, I've realized over time there are ways to proactively redesign your life to maximize your own growth. Getting the most out of a growth mindset isn't simply about having the belief that you can improve. That's certainly table stakes. But mastery requires being intentional about your own growth: developing the right practices and attitudes to nurture it. I've adopted a variety of practices over the years that have ultimately become essential elements my own growth practice.
Blog to bring clarity to thoughts
Over a decade ago I started this blog to help bring clarity to my own thoughts on a variety of professional topics. When I was evaluating switching from Amazon Web Services to Google App Engine many years ago, I wrote a post describing the shortcomings of App Engine. When I was debating leveraging Net Promoter Score at LinkedIn as a way to measure customer delight, I wrote a post detailing everything I ultimately learned on running a successful NPS program. When I ultimately transitioned into a leadership role in product management, I wrote a post detailing what I came to realize about being an effective manager of product managers. While I've developed an audience over the years that has come to enjoy my posts, the primary value of my blog remains ensuring I crystallize the best practices I should repeat and the mistakes I should avoid in the future. Now with over 125 published blog posts, my blog has become the best chronicle of my personal and professional growth.
Spend an hour learning every day
I also practice a daily learning hour, where I spend an hour each morning dedicated to professional learning. I've developed a process of discovering content to consume from a variety of sources like Nuzzel, Techmeme, curated newsletters, and more. I then consume the most relevant content in Pocket based on whatever is top-of-mind at work. After consuming content, I share the best of that content with my unique point of view on Twitter and LinkedIn as a way of synthesizing my learning. And I engage with my professional networks in discussions on the content I've already shared. Periodically, I also use this hour to write blog posts. This hour ensures I'm regularly investing in my own learning in a structured, disciplined, and effective way. You can read about all the details of my daily learning hour here.
Absorb colleagues' super powers
In addition to specific practices, developing the right attitudes toward learning are equally important. One of my favorite characters from the TV show Heroes was Sylar. In the show, each character had a discreet super power and Sylar's was the ability to learn how other's abilities worked and gain the ability himself. He ended up using this for evil, becoming a serial killer stealing everyone's super powers and then killing them so he could be endlessly powerful. I like to imagine that I have the same super power, but I instead use it for good :) When I work with colleagues in roles that I'm less familiar with, I do everything in my power to absorb everything I can from them on the unique skills they excel at. Whether it's learning design through time spent with my designer counterpart. Or learning financial modeling from my team's financial analyst. I always walk into every cross-functional meeting as if it's a unique opportunity for me to learn and absorb the skills and abilities of my expert colleagues. This mentality ensures I never miss an opportunity for learning. As the sole designer for my most recent product, Notejoy, I'm often asked how I learned product design in the first place without any formal education, training, or bootcamps. I always point to the incredible designers I've had the opportunity to work closely with in my career in product management and the super powers I have been able to absorb from them.
Memorialize praise and rejection
Another way I maintain the right attitude required for a growth mindset is by maintaining praise and rejection notes in Notejoy. In my praise note, I judiciously capture every piece of praise anyone has ever bestowed upon me. It doesn't matter how small or monumental the praise is, it always goes into my praise file. The praise file is in many ways an instantiation of my growth and learning. When I review my praise file, I can see positive feedback I've received on projects and other accomplishments which undoubtedly required learning brand new skills or overcoming key problems. This helps maintain my self-confidence that I can in-fact continue to learn new skills. Equally important is my rejection note, where I capture every rejection I've ever had for something I cared about. People are often surprised by this one as it's easy to see this as a potential downer. But it's actually quite the opposite. By memorializing rejection you can look back upon it in the future and see that despite the rejection you continued to thrive. And in this way, you can remove the fear that the prospect of rejection typically holds over you. You can read about this technique in detail here.
Train like an athlete
One of the nuances of a growth mindset is that you can have it for certain dimensions of your life but not others. I personally learned this lesson the hard way. Just a few years ago, my wife Ada pointed out that while I had a strong growth mindset when it came to my professional life, I had almost no growth mindset when it came to fitness or athleticism. It wasn't until she framed it that way did I realize how right she was. That I always told myself I'm not an athlete. That's not me. I'm not capable of that. And at that moment I realized I needed to reprogram my thinking to apply the same growth mindset I had in my professional life to my personal life. And in the ensuing years I did just that. Earlier this year I ran my first half marathon, an accomplishment I couldn't possibly have imagined myself capable of. More recently, I've been learning weight lifting with a personal trainer, already seeing a substantial 2.5x improvement in the weight I can bench. The whole experience has been incredibly enlightening because it has me now constantly asking myself what dimensions in my life do I have a growth mindset versus what other dimensions do I suffer from a more fixed mindset. In addition, training with a personal trainer has been an incredible experience in itself. I've learned the subtleties of how to push myself to extreme levels of performance and fatigue, while maintaining good form and avoiding injury. I regularly run specific time trials or drills to focus on building speed, endurance, or muscle. And ultimately these experiences have made me realize that training like an athlete is exactly the mentality I should bring to all of my work, whether it's developing a new design, coding up a new feature, or putting together a roadmap. Too often I think we treat these professional endeavors like an architect when the mentality of an athlete would serve us far better for quickly improving and iterating on our skillset. I now begin each major task I'm about to embark on as a drill that'll help me not just complete the task at hand, but up-level my capabilities.
I hope these practices and attitudes give you ideas on how to develop your own growth practice to maximize the benefits of a growth mindset in your work and life.
Want to accelerate your product career?
I've finally distilled my 15+ years of product experience into a new course designed to help PMs master their craft. Join us for the Spring '23 cohort of Mastering Product Management.
Are you building a new product?
Learn how to leverage the Deliberate Startup methodology, a modern approach to finding product/market fit. Join us for the Spring '23 cohort of Finding Product/Market Fit.
Enjoyed this essay?
Get my monthly essays on product management & entrepreneurship delivered to your inbox.
Jun 28, 2019