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  • Kayte Thomas

How do you define success?

Think for a moment about the last time you felt successful, or the last time you felt that a child or loved one was successful. What was it that happened? A promotion received, a test passed, a sports game won, or a similarly positive accomplishment? Now, think of the last time you felt particularly unsuccessful. What went wrong? Most likely, what you had hoped would happen didn’t happen, and this felt disappointing. What if I told you that success isn’t necessarily in the outcome though, but in the perspective of the overall event?

The way that we approach a problem and frame our expectations has a great deal of influence on how we perceive success or failure. So, it can be very beneficial to think about how you conceptualize success and the factors which go into that. Does success mean always winning? Are you successful only if you are the best, or at least amongst the elite? Is success achieved only by obtaining the desired outcome? Or can you be successful even when the task isn’t accomplished, or when the outcome isn’t as expected, or even when you’re disappointed?

Think for a moment about how you approach a task. What kind of thoughts do you have, what is that inner dialogue or “self-talk”? Do you tell yourself you’re either good at something or you’re not? When you feel frustrated, is your judgment harsh? Do you tell yourself that you’re stupid or incapable and then give up, feeling that there is no use in continuing the effort? Do you assume that if you can’t do something right the first time that you can’t do it at all? Or, do you encourage yourself to keep trying and remind yourself that this may take practice? Do you tell yourself that this a learning experience regardless of the outcome and encourage yourself to try your best? Do you value the experience of trying something new regardless of the level of perfection?

How you think about and speak to yourself (or others!) during challenging moments indicates whether you have a fixed mindset or a growth mindset. Fixed mindset basically says that this is all that there is, it’s all or nothing, the skills either exist or they don’t. Period. End of story. Growth mindset on the other hand indicates a willingness to learn from mistakes, a desire to continue through trial and error, and a belief that incorporating feedback will lead to future improvements.

A fixed mindset poses several challenges for mental health. A fixed mindset is focused on a fear of failure and therefore stifles vulnerability. In doing so, it also stifles creativity and risk taking (the beneficial kind that says YES I can take a chance on this interview…not the reckless kind that forgets about consequences. There’s a difference). It takes away the opportunity for self-awareness and self-actualization, and in doing so can contribute to feelings of anxiety, depression, sadness, hopelessness, frustration, and often anger.

Adopting a growth mindset though has several benefits related to mental health outcomes. Since the focus is on improvement instead of immediate outcomes, there is often less anxiety involved in the process because challenges and even setbacks are viewed as opportunities. This perspective welcomes new insights, embraces differences, and creates resiliency. And all of this can contribute to a sense of satisfaction, internal validation (i.e., not seeking approval from others), increased levels of happiness, lower levels of anxiety and depression, and general life fulfillment.

The good news is that the mind is powerful thing! We have the capacity to change our mindsets at any time, with enough practice. And thankfully there are simple, subtle changes which can be made to improve your outlook and view of success. Encouraging yourself and others to appreciate the process instead of the outcome can make a big change overall.

Here are a few statements to remember when cultivating a growth mindset:

“You can do hard things”

“The next time I try this, it will be easier”

“If this strategy doesn’t work, let’s try another”

“What was learned from this experience?”

“How can we improve in the future?”

“Enjoying the experience is just as valuable as winning”

“Mistakes are learning experiences”

“I am getting stronger every day”

“I’m proud of you for trying”

“This doesn’t have to be perfect to be wonderful”

Try those for a few weeks, or come up with some of your own. See if you notice a shift in your thought patterns and the way you feel when facing adversity. Start paying attention to how you speak to yourself and others, and be mindful of ways you may be perpetuating a fixed mindset or promoting a growth mindset.

By shifting your view of success, you have the opportunity to open up a lifetime of learning and happiness. It really is that simple. Viewing the journey as part of a successful outcome shifts your focus and broadens your definition of accomplishment. Helping children to learn this mindset helps to create grit and resilience, which are traits known to exist in those who persevere through challenging situations and who – paradoxically – make great achievements. In many ways, growth mindset is the key to success without actually focusing on “success”. This happens precisely because of the determination to acquire new skills and continue learning instead of quitting during a pivotal moment....the moment when things feel tough.


What is it then that you want to do for yourself? Is there something you would like to learn or experience, but perhaps a fear of failure is holding you back? Take a moment to pause and imagine what you will learn along the way, how this may change your perspective, and what value lies in trying. Believe in yourself, trust the process, and remember to use your growth mindset affirmations.

When perspective shifts, everything changes - often for the better. And there is so much value in that change alone. After all, isn’t that a success by itself?



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© 2020 by Kayte Thomas, MSW, LCSW.