Rejection and the Growth Mindset: The Power to Change

This is the season where graduating students are hearing from doctorate programs, festivals, grants, fellowships, professional auditions and other opportunities for which they have applied. Inevitably, there will be rejections along with a few acceptance letters. And with those rejections, it’s not hard to fall into the trap that you are somehow not good enough and that you will never make it, especially when all around you, it seems as though everyone else is getting accepted to their first-choice program.

Oh dear. The Fixed Mindset is having a field day.

The students in my coaching group are having just this experience. And it’s hard to remember  that we have the power to change our attitude.  Recently, we discussed what we could do to change our approach to rejection and manage ourselves in the face of all this rejection, using the latest research on the growth mindset to give us a path.

Our process for developing the growth mindset involves 4 steps:

  1. Become aware of your Fixed Mindset
  2. Affirm your power to change your mindset
  3. Substitute a Growth Mindset Thought for a Fixed Mindset Thought
  4. Take a Growth Mindset action

Our coaching group’s discussion revealed just how much work is involved in the process. Let’s take a closer look at the first two steps.

  1. Become Aware of Your Fixed Mindset

The first step to any change is to become aware of the problem. In the case of changing from a fixed mindset to a growth mindset approach, you need to be aware of what triggers your fixed mindset and what the fixed mindset is telling you.

This process can be very painful since it brings up difficult memories. One student shared that his Fixed Mindset leads him to tune out and not deal with his thoughts and feelings around rejection. But he understood that in order to adopt the growth mindset, it was important to face those thoughts.

Indeed, as many of the students shared, the music field is so hard because so many of the messages that musicians receive early on lead them to believe that they just are not good enough. One student reported that her undergraduate teacher’s definition of success was that students had to get jobs before they graduated or else they would never make it. She interpreted this to mean that she was too stupid to get a job. That thought still is with her and reinforces her own inner critic. And other students added that they had had similar experiences in their own studios with teachers comparing them to other more “successful” students.

How do you get that voice out of your head???

It takes courage and hard work. And having like-minded peers to support you can make the process a bit easier.

So we started by sharing what the Fixed Mindset sounded like:

  • You are dumb.
  • Everyone else is better than I am.
  • I’m never going to be good enough.
  • I’m a bumbling idiot.
  • If I am successful, it doesn’t mean much because anyone else can get this.
  • If I am not successful, it’s my fault because I just don’t measure up.
  • If I am not immediately successful, I am destined to fail.

Pretty extreme, right? The Fixed Mindset tends to speak in absolutes with no shades of grey.  And those thoughts are perceptions, not the truth.

Another aspect of awareness is to notice the situations that trigger the Fixed Mindset because, in the words of Dr. Carol Dweck:

“If we watch carefully for our fixed-mindset triggers, we can begin the true journey to a growth mindset.”

Music students experience the fixed mindset in the following situations:

  • Auditions
  • Competitions
  • Studio Class
  • Getting rejection letters
  • Performances
  • Getting injured
  • A bad lesson
  • Feedback
  • Doing something uncomfortable because I haven’t done it before (i.e.,my teacher is changing the way I do things and I resist)

Dr. Dweck advises us to notice your reactions to a challenge when your first response is a Fixed Mindset thought:

“Do you feel overly anxious, or does a voice in your head warn you away? Do you feel incompetent or defeated?  

[Upon receiving feedback]Do you look for an excuse? ..Do you become defensive, angry, or crushed instead of interested in learning from the feedback?  

How about if you see someone who is “better” than you? Do you feel envious and threatened, or do you feel eager to learn?”

Dr. Dweck’s advice?

“Accept those thoughts and feelings and work with and through them. And keep working with and through them.”

This process is hard. It can be painful. But it’s the first step to change.

  1. Affirm Your Power to Change

Despite these challenges, all members of the group affirmed their desire to change their mindsets and believed that it was possible to do so.

We had a variety of approaches to the subject:

  • The Power of YET

Carol Dweck’s TED Talk on the Power of Yet inspired a few members of our group to consider that they might not be in a position right now to win a job but with work, they could get there.

Maybe you just need more time! As one of my old bosses used to say,
          “There is nothing more misleading than the score at half-time.”

So consider that you are a half-time!

  • Weigh the evidence

Another possibility is to weigh the evidence that supports and refutes your Fixed Mindset Thought.

One student who was recovering from an injury that prevented him from playing for a few weeks experienced Fixed Mindset thoughts as he contemplated getting ready for his professional auditions. The Fixed Mindset told him that he was going to revert to lethargy and not accomplish anything.

The only evidence in support of that thought was that this student was very sad when he was first injured.

Yet, on the other hand, he affirmed that he had been playing his instrument for practically his whole life, that he had a lot of support from friends, teachers and loved ones, that he managed to do some practicing despite his injury, and that he ultimately created a schedule for himself and showed up for school and work. He also was able to redefine success and be grateful for the smaller things in life.

That helped him to talk back to his Fixed Mindset and believe that he had the power to change.

  • Stay true to your values and your own definition of success

One problem with comparing yourself to others is that you may well have a different definition of success that reflects your own values. If you are tempted to compare yourself to others who seem to be racking up successes, step back and examine your values. What is really important to you? And what does success look like to you if you are staying true to your values?

  • Avoid false comparisons

By the way, all those people who are racking up the successes?

First, they are not telling you about their rejections and failures.

Second, you do not know what their inner life is. One of our students whose studio mates were getting jobs noticed that these supposedly successful students were doing so at the expense of others and compromising their integrity.  This observation reaffirmed her desire to stay true to herself.

  • Look at situations where you have been successful

Keeping your values and your personal success definition in mind, be sure to keep track of the successes you have experienced. How did those successes feel? What strengths did you use to accomplish them? How can you use those elements to continue succeeding? What new skills or strategies can you use?

By keeping these points in mind, you can retain your dignity as you go through difficult periods of rejection and affirm your power to change. And it really helps to talk things out with trusted friends.

And so, our coaching group students pledged to continue taking actions to increase their awareness of the Fixed Mindset and affirm their power to change by

  • watching inspirational videos
  • setting weekly goals
  • avoiding situations where people were likely to brag about their accomplishments and keep score
  • changing the subject when others being to talk about their accomplishments and
  • keeping a success log.

Within our group, we are keeping a “failure log” where we share our foibles with the group.

In short, our students are committed to believing in their power to adopt a new mindset! And I have no doubt that with all this hard, smart work, they will be able to do so.