Do you ever wonder what makes somebody truly great? Whether it’s a successful CEO, a professional athlete or somebody that overcomes extraordinary odds to succeed. What exactly do they possess that make them the best in their domain?

I shamefully admit that in past times my immediate reaction towards these high achievers was to write them off as having won the genetic lottery for their natural-born talents. That they were more privileged to have the best mentors and coaches to mold them. But it is this disingenuous act of mental laziness that allowed me to quit pursuing the idea further so that I could distract myself from the more important question – why do I fall short of reaching my full potential?

This is not to say that I am oblivious of the hard work and sweat equity being sacrificed by these professionals while I only witness the snapshots of their success. I do not doubt that the best performers are in their position because they rightfully earned it through hard work. What I wanted to understand was why do they do the hard things that most of us aren’t willing to endure.

In other words, what is their secret ingredient – their superpower?

It was this question that led me to read Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck’s insightful book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. Her years of research distilled in this book helped me better understand the importance of our conscious and unconscious thoughts and exactly how they affect our ability to improve ourselves continually. This led to my discovery of what was the top performer’s true superpower – their mindset.

The Two Mindsets

We all have fundamental beliefs about how we view ourselves, making up what is essentially our personality. Whether you realize it or not, it is these powerful beliefs that hinder and propel us from reaching our potential. What separates the former from the latter is distilled down to what type of mindset we hold.

A fixed mindset is a belief that our intelligence, creativity, and athleticism are static traits given to us at birth that cannot be changed in any meaningful way. Our success is an indicator of our inherent talent and is assessed by how well we stack up against the perceived baseline. It is essential that failure is avoided at all cost otherwise it would be a direct attack on our manufactured identity of how smart, strong and skilled we are.

If you already believe that you are the smartest or strongest in the room, you will be inclined to shy away from challenges that may disprove your self-promoted theory. Ironically, this leads to arrested development since proving yourself correct becomes more important than learning from your mistakes. In an attempt to preserve your ego, you end up impeding progress to becoming a better performer.

The growth mindset does not believe in unchangeable qualities. Instead, it is based on the belief that your given qualities can be cultivated through your sustained effort and by seeking help from others. Success then becomes a product of your passion for learning. Failures still hurt, but they do not define you; instead, they motivate you to keep working.

Having a growth mindset allows you to push yourself through difficult challenges since it is the process that you find rewarding. By pushing your ego aside, you quit worrying about how to prove how great you are and instead focus on how you could get better. It is this mindset that allows you to continually work on problems outside of your comfort zone where true growth is cultivated.

“Life can be much broader once you discover one simple fact: Everything around you that you call life was made up by people that were no smarter than you. And you can change it, you can influence it… Once you learn that, you’ll never be the same again.”

–Steve Jobs

Understanding Your Mindset

This book made me aware of how much our childhood impacts our present self. From these early stages of life, we develop a mindset that shapes much of our behavior, how we handle success and failure and ultimately our ability to find happiness. It opened my eyes to how I have been conditioned to promote a fixed mindset.

Perhaps you had a similar childhood experience where you were nurtured by teachers, organizations and even your parents to seek approval through achievements instead of being congratulated on your work ethic. You received praise for being ‘smart’ when you made good grades or told that you were ‘talented’ when you performed well during the game. Your identity eventually becomes wrapped up in chasing accolades to validate the labels given to you instead of working hard to improve your current abilities.

These false narratives fed to us about how ‘special’ we are for the sake of boosting our self-esteem has unfortunately become ingrained into the collective mindset of our generation. It is only once we reach higher levels of education or the workforce that many of us have our deeply held identities attacked. Our titles of being the most intelligent or most athletic are stripped from us once we are placed in a larger competition pool with a higher caliber of performers. For many, this resulting crisis of identity can be traumatic, leading to depression, anxiety and the fear of being inadequate.

So the question must be asked…

Can anything be done to make yourself aware of any fixed mindset thinking you might possess so that you can improve upon it?

How to Change Your Mind

Do you struggle with the all-consuming goal of trying to continually prove yourself— whether in the classroom, in your career and even in your relationships? Does every situation require confirmation of your intelligence, personality, or character? Do you ask yourself:

Will I be a success or a failure?

Will I look smart or dumb in front of everyone?

Will I be accepted or rejected?

If so, then you are the product of a fixed mindset.

Fortunately, becoming aware of your mindset and recognizing that there is an alternative is the first step to making a positive change. Also acknowledging that you may have different temperaments and aptitudes from those that are peak performers will help you shift your mindset. Once you stop wasting time thinking about how great you already are or how bad you might suck can you start making meaningful progress to becoming a better version of yourself. It is by way of experience, training and sustained effort that will help put you on the path to success.

Shifting your internal monologue from one of constant judgment to one of having a voracious appetite to seek out learning opportunities and constructive action constantly is the first step to achieving a growth mindset. You begin to realize that being a master of your craft isn’t as important as pushing yourself to the next level. In other words, you know that real growth is found in the process of pursuing excellence rather than from the products of achieving it.

“Know what you want to accomplish and focus on the process rather than the outcome.”

–Nick Saban

Developing a growth mindset is as simple as choosing to be curious. This will allow you to open the doors to becoming smarter, stronger and more skilled. If you are willing to be uncomfortable with facing new challenges, knowing that there will be the pain of failure along the way, can you then begin the slow journey towards greatness. From her TED talk about which mindset do you possess, Dweck asks the simple question:

“Are you not smart enough to solve it …. or have you just not solved it yet?”

If you can confidently tell yourself the latter, then you are well on your way to reaching your full potential.