Most of us have probably had that one math teacher, the kind who loves to assign problems that look like they’ll take forever, and many sheets of paper, to solve.
However, if we understand what they’re about, those same problems can actually be solved in a few minutes, filling just a few inches on one sheet of paper.
The same can be said about real-world situations. Unfortunately, research says it’s pretty common for that sweet, simple solution to evade us.
Why do we fixate on complicated problem-solving tactics, even if simpler ones exist and the trickier ones are more likely to lead us astray? Scientists say a type of fixed mindset might be to blame.
Basically, we’re taught to think of information in one way so we return to that tactic even if it scrambles our thinking about the problem at hand.
Here are some ways that science shows changing your mindset can help you succeed in work, relationships and more.
Carol Dweck is a psychology professor at Stanford University and a TED speaker. She wrote the still-popular 2006 book “Mindset: The New Psychology of Success.”
“Mindsets are beliefs — beliefs about yourself and your most basic qualities,” her website states. “Think about your intelligence, your talents, your personality. Are these qualities simply fixed traits, carved in stone and that’s that? Or are they things you can cultivate throughout your life?”
Think your traits are “just givens”? That’s a fixed mindset. Think dedication and effort can have a huge impact on even your most basic qualities? That’s a growth mindset. (Want a better gauge of your current mindset? Dweck has a free quiz on that, although the results page may encourage you to buy her book.)
The way you think about this can affect how you develop interests. Dweck and her research team found that university students who believed a person’s interests are predetermined (evidence of a fixed mindset) reported feeling less interested in an article about a topic outside of their existing area of interest than ones who believed interests can be developed over time with commitment (a growth mindset).
More and more, employers seek out workers who thrive tackling interdisciplinary projects, even ones outside of their areas of expertise. Comfort with potential new interests is an asset today.
“Like every belief system, mindsets can arise from messages we get from others including managers, parents and teachers,” the team wrote in an article for Harvard Business Review.
“In real-world settings, encouraging people to stick with a new interest even as it becomes challenging subtly suggests that encountering difficulty is normal in the development of a new interest; it is not a sign that one should move on. … Interests and passions are not simply lingering within, waiting to be revealed. They can be developed with involvement and persistence.”
Shifting your mindset around eating can help you make healthier portion size choices.
Scientists discovered last year that by encouraging people to focus their minds on the health effects of food, they chose smaller portions for their lunches than folks who had been told to focus on pleasure the meal might bring or a desire to stay full until dinner.
The researchers even observed changes in the brains of those who adopted the health-focused mindset. They believe changing the way you think about your meals can be part of a healthier eating strategy.
“Brain scans showed how this approach can trigger activity in the prefrontal cortex, which is linked to self-control and future meal planning,” according to a news release about the research. “The encouraging message from this study is people of all weights responded positively to a healthy mindset instruction.”
Have you ever felt rejection you can’t seem to shake? Or had a friend who couldn’t move on from a past relationship, even though it ended long ago? A mindset shift could help here, too.
Dweck and Lauren Howe, a social psychologist at Stanford University, found through their research that some people believe romantic rejection reveals something bad about themselves, something “that would also sabotage their future relationships,” Howe wrote for The Conversation.
“Some said they’d realized that they were too ‘clingy.’ Others thought they’d been ‘too sensitive’ or ‘bad at communicating.’”
In their study, the group who thought like that had a harder time moving on. They closed themselves off to new relationships or warily entered them.
“Others were afraid to disclose the rejection to a new partner, fearing that this person would change their opinion of them, thinking they had ‘baggage,'” Howe wrote. “This might explain why some people hide past rejections, treating them like a scar or stigma.”
They saw these negative effects in people who think their personalities are unchangeable – in other words, ones with a fixed mindset about personality. But adopting a growth mindset can be an avenue past rejection.
“By encouraging the belief that personality can change and develop over time, we may be able to help people exorcise the ghosts of their romantic pasts – and move on to satisfying relationships in the future,” Howe wrote.
If you find yourself frustrated, upset or stuck with your work, school or personal life, ask yourself if your mindset is contributing to your struggles. If so, remember, your talent, skills, potential and even personality aren’t fixed. All these things can be changed and research shows we have the power to do it.
Rachel Crowell is an Iowa-based writer exploring science and math. Rachel lives with Delilah, a golden retriever a stranger once called “the cutest thing in America.” Outside of STEM topics, Rachel also welcomes writing opportunities on everything from art to finance. Follow them on Twitter at @writesRCrowell.