This past semester, my students at Yale experimented with the growth mindset in order to learn how to approach challenges in the spirit of growth and experimentation, as opposed to perfectionism and fear of failure.
The growth mindset is premised on the belief that talent and intelligence are just the starting points of success and that success happens through hard work, experimentation, the willingness to learn from mistakes and persevering. This is in contrast to the fixed mindset which relies solely on talent as the measure of success so that you protect your talent through perfectionism and avoid taking risks or making mistakes because those missteps will reveal that you are not, in fact, talented.
My students recognized that adopting the growth mindset was essential in the changing world of classical music:
“Perfectionism has no place in the growth mindset, and the fixed mindset has no place in the mind of the 21st century musician. Since we face a constantly changing world, new and unexpected challenges will develop constantly, and we must strive to be creative, take risks, adapt, and think outside the box.”
Using a 4-step process to learn the growth mindset, my students demonstrated a new approach to areas that had formerly plagued them, including performance, interacting with others, setting and achieving big goals and projects and dealing with uncertainty and setbacks.
Here, then, is how the newly-minted music entrepreneurs of the Yale School of Music were able to grow and change over the course of one semester.
1. Music Performance
At the beginning of the semester, many students in my class expressed fear and frustration about not being good enough and experienced fixed mindset thoughts alone in the practice room, in less than successful rehearsals and lessons or on stage at a performance. The growth mindset helped them to reframe these negative experiences and achieve much better results.
One student found himself thoroughly discouraged by his level of performance while rehearsing for the Yale Philharmonia’s Mahler Second concert as principal of his section, telling himself,
“Why can’t I hit these notes? I should be better than this. I don’t deserve to be playing principal with an orchestra of this caliber.”
His fixed mindset caused him to set unrealistic standards, and he blamed his “bad” rehearsals on the fact that he was not talented enough. Rather than giving into these fixed mindset thoughts, he came up with a new solution: he reached out to a friend who had more experience as a principal and learned what it took to be a confident performer, thereby changing his entire approach and leading him to be very satisfied with his performance at the final concert.
Another student found himself using the growth mindset when faced with a new and uncomfortable performance challenge or experience.
“Instead of worrying about not messing up, I focus on the fact that this is something new and that I am ready to learn. This approach, involving being upfront about my lack of experience coupled with being ready to learn something new, has always led to positive results.”
A student who struggled in her practice room as she was learning a new instrument initially indulged in fixed mindset thoughts: She felt she was not making enough progress, she did not sound like the recordings and she ultimately feared that she had started too late and would never be good enough. What helped was using growth-mindset, positive self-talk:
“Why should I sound like recordings? I have been playing for three months! And that is a recording, in a proper studio with multiple takes, I am in my practice room!”
She is also giving herself more time this semester to practice and to reflect on what she needs to change in order to grow and learn.
The growth mindset gave students a much-needed boost when self-doubt began to creep in. One student addressed this self-doubt by keeping in mind that for him, the growth mindset meant keeping a “cool head” and not allowing his negative thoughts to hold him back, especially in rehearsals, lessons and other performance experiences.
Another student used the growth mindset to arrest her negative thoughts and affirm her choice to change and to stop thinking of herself as not good enough:
“I can respond to the voice that paralyzes or frightens me with the voice of the growth mindset, by saying my flow affirmation to access my best self, or thinking of ways a challenging situation can help me grow.”
2. Comparing yourself to others
Another area that plagued students in the beginning of the semester was making comparisons to others perceived to be “better” or farther along in their careers, leading to tremendous self-doubt.
Auditions can give rise to such thoughts. Yet one student found that thanks to the growth mindset, he was able to approach his auditions with a new attitude:
“It is amazing how much more good energy I feel within and emanating from myself, which I feel has also attracted many more people to me as opposed to my negative energy of last year! Knowing that the word “impossible” is simply a word and not a state of being has cleared my mind about the competition within the field, because indeed, “I’m possible.” No matter how the rest of the auditions pan out the remainder of the year, I know that going into my work and life with a growth mindset really opens my eyes to so many more ideas and opportunities than I see in a fixed mindset.”
- Studio class
Playing for other members of your studio is another opportunity for the fixed mindset to creep in. One student admitted that he never enjoyed hearing other musicians perform or practice because he inevitably compared himself to them and felt that he came up short. The growth mindset helped him to acknowledge that not only could he learn and improve his playing while at Yale but also “accept the fact that there is space in the world for many excellent [musicians]. ”
Yet another student reported that the growth mindset helped her to perform in studio class and play for her teachers even if she did not think that she was ready because she wanted to learn and grow.
- Career progress
At the beginning of the semester, students shared that they compared themselves to other music students whom they perceived to be farther along in their careers and feeling that they “should” be at a certain point. Adopting the growth mindset helped one student to affirm his conviction in his path and not worry about the judgments of others. Instead, he focuses on what he has to do in the present moment.
A student who reported that at the beginning of the semester, she dreaded being asked, “So what are you doing next year?” now is excited to answer the question because of all the tools at her disposal to overcome her negative thoughts and feelings.
- Speaking in class
And a number of students who were initially reluctant to speak up in class for fear of not sounding “smart enough” used the growth mindset to take risks in the class and speak up by recognizing that there is no need to be perfect in a classroom setting since “I am always learning and expanding my mind.”
3. Learning from others and being open to their suggestions
Using the growth mindset can also help you to play for and collaborate with others since you are able to hear suggestions as learning experiences, as opposed to feeling that others are judging you.
A student who made a presentation to her studio class was able to embrace the suggestions of her studio mates, overcoming her fixed mindset thoughts of “others are better than me” and “I don’t know anything about this and I won’t be able to learn these skills.” Thinking back on her past successes and affirming her strengths, she was able to tap into her growth mindset and affirm that she was in fact able to accomplish a lot.
Another student who was new to running rehearsals used the growth mindset to listen to the suggestions of his collaborators as a vote of support for his project, rather than as criticism, that led to creating a better product in the end.
4. Reaching out to others
Another challenging area for students is reaching out to and interacting with others through networking and public speaking.
One student initially avoided networking since his fixed mindset voice told him that by reaching out, he was either “egotistical” or “desperate”. The growth mindset helped him to look at networking situations from multiple angles, as well as take actions that might at first seem to be uncomfortable or challenging. The result was a greater comfort level around meeting new people and reaching out to others for help.
Another student used the growth mindset to help him approach fellow musicians and make informal coffee dates or offer to play for them as a way of getting to know them better.
One student who was uncomfortable with public speaking reported that the growth mindset led him to realize that doing something new and uncomfortable is like
“jumping into a cold pool. Things will always feel more comfortable once the jump is made, but it is taking the first step that is the hardest. The only way to get better, as with many things in life, is to do just do it and learn from my mistakes to grow.”
5. Thinking big and taking action
I encourage my students to articulate big dreams and then to break those dreams down into realistic and manageable action steps. I was impressed at how my students embraced their big dreams, ranging from having active freelance performance careers to starting new chamber ensembles, creating new community teaching organizations, winning orchestra jobs, university teaching positions, or having a portfolio consisting of all of the above! One helpful way to use the growth mindset was to break down big goals like graduate school applications, financial plans and long and short-term career plans, as well as the semester-long projects.The process of breaking down these projects made it possible to work over time in order to review and critique one’s work and improve the quality.
One student found that the growth mindset helped him to change how he measured “success”. Initially, success meant winning a competition, being accepted into a prestigious graduate program or “nailing” a solo at an orchestra concert. He realized, however, that this was fixed mindset thinking since he was only focusing on immediate and pressing issues. Instead, “the growth mindset requires thinking big, and also looking at the full picture, even those parts that are not so rosy.”
Another student observed that people with the fixed mindset tend to be single minded in their goals. Someone with a growth mindset is much more flexible and positive about taking steps, regardless of size, in order to gradually achieve an end goal, being more realistic about the process and allowing himself the freedom to thrive.
Another student found that while she was excited about her big goals, it was the tangible actions that reaffirmed her commitment to growth:
“The very act of breaking a goal down and taking action is antithetical to the fixed mindset. SMART goals are tangible recognition that eventual achievement comes through a process, rather than a sudden windfall, and that we must persevere and take actions step-by-step, rather than expecting ourselves to be immediately capable of something difficult.”
6. Being flexible and dealing with the unpredictable
Things do not always go as planned in the life of a performing musician and the growth mindset helped my students to stay positive and deal with last-minute changes that inevitably crop up.
One student used the growth mindset in the face of last-minute rehearsal changes and substitutions. While the fixed mindset would have slowed down the music-making and instill stress in the other players, the growth mindset enabled him to keep a cool head, remain open-minded and trust his substitutes in order to roll with the punches and make great music.
For another student, the growth mindset taught her to accept that things do not always go as planned and that even when one’s expectations are not met, there is always room for improvement. This lesson applied to school work, performances, creating a promising musical career and nurturing her personal and professional relationships in order to see life in a more positive light, to realize the potential for growth and to accept what is out of her control.
The same spirit of acceptance and growth came in handy for students who experienced setbacks. One student suffered an injury that prevented him from performing for many months. He is using the growth mindset to reframe this experience and now is grateful to have more time to teach, arrange, compose and learn how to record. He has also adopted a new practice routine that is gentler and more effective.
I commend the students for their hard work in learning a new way of thinking. They are fortunate to embrace a process that can help them as they go through their careers and their lives to create something of value to themselves and to society at large.