"You're so Smart" Is a Phrase That Holds Us Back in Life. Here's Why.


“You’re so smart.” It a phrase that’s usually meant as a compliment – but can actually teach us to view the world in a really limited way: with a fixed mindset.

This can have lasting impacts on our life because people with a fixed mindset simply don’t believe they’ve got the ability to change the world around them. Which means you’ll be less likely to chase your dreams if you don’t think they’re possible.

So, er, what is a growth mindset?

Having a ‘growth mindset’ is having the belief that you can learn new skills, rather than you just ‘have’ an ability.

When you’ve got an exam coming up, its the difference between thinking “I always fail exams” vs “if I study hard, I will be able to pass this exam”. It’s the belief that you can take action in life to make a difference.

growth mindset = if I study hard, I will be able to pass this exam

fixed mindset = I always fail exams so I shouldn’t try

How how can a fixed mindset develop?

Well, for some people, they are raised in an environment where they are told they aren’t good at anything, so over time, they believe it.

For others, they could be told they are inherently good at a thing – for example “you’re smart”, or “you’re creative” or “you’re a good runner”.

Both of these come from different places, but both end up with the same result: they ignore the fact that working hard on something is how we get better at things.

So telling someone ‘they’ are smart, compared to congratulating them on studying hard to learn new skills, means we’re reinforcing a fixed mindset.

And we want to encourage a growth mindset – that it is possible to learn new skills. Because this has major benefits long term for happiness in life.

The science

We once thought our brains stopped growing when we hit adulthood. Nah. With new technology, we can now see how the brain works in more depth. Now we know that our brains keep growing and changing. Its called neuroplasticity, and when you learn new habits and routines, these paths get worn into your brain the more you do them.

Imagine a path in a forest – the one people walk through more is worn through. So the more we do a certain action, the easier it is to go to that as a default.

Just like typing on a keyboard – the first few months are really hard when you do it for the first time, but then it becomes much easier and you could type with your eyes closed.

But this also applies not just to the skills we have, its also the way we think.

If we always tell ourselves that ‘I’m no good at maths’, our brain jumps to that more easily in times of stress. But if we tell ourselves ‘if I practise at maths, I’ll get better’ we will jump to that as a default.

By actively practising new ways of thinking over time, a growth mindset will become more natural to you.

Little actions, done consistently, add up over time.

How to do it

The next time you’re faced with a challenge you feel is going to be tough like a big exam, if you find yourself thinking ‘I can’t do it’, catch yourself and remind yourself ‘Yes, I can do it’.

It might feel silly at first, but remember that this builds up over time. You’re walking in that path in the woods and building a new path. This means that in a few months, you will find yourself preparing for an exam, and the voice that says ‘I can’t do it’ is really, really small. The ‘Yes, I can do it’ voice has become the norm.

Challenge that voice

You might have that voice that says ‘I always fail exams’. Don’t listen to Negative Nancy who is coming for a ride in your brain. Challenge that voice.

You might find that that voice is actually lying just for kicks. You might have passed plenty of exams – you’re forgetting about all those times you did pass.

Another approach is to think about a time in the past you totally nailed something – even if it wasn’t an exam. I passed my driving test, I defeated Ganon in Legend of Zelda, I completed the cross country race, I baked that cake.

Remember that you have many times done awesome things even when you weren’t sure in the first place if you could. Keep reinforcing these success stories with yourself.

What’s in your hands?

Another tip to help set you up for success in times of stress is to look at what you can control in a situation.

If you’ve got an exam coming up and your initial thought might be that you will fail because it’s an exam and you’ve struggled in the past. Instead, remember to look at what you can control.

You might not control the outcome of the test. But you can do plenty of things to make it a better experience.

For example:

  • You can study ahead of the test
  • Get a study buddy or ask your teacher for additional help
  • You can write in a journal ahead to time to get some of that pre-exam anxiety out
  • Lay out your clothes in advance the night before so you’re not running late
  • Have a hot shower to relax before bed so you sleep better the night before
  • Swap shifts at work so the night before isn’t stressful
  • Reflect the other times you’ve don’t something stressful and succeded

Break it down

Another approach is to break down big steps into small ones. Is there something coming up that you think is impossible? Reframe your thinking and try ‘if someone were to do this task, what would they need?’.

Let’s say you want to host a fundraiser – list the things you would need:

  • A venue
  • things to sell
  • people to buy things.

Then break those things down even further – to get a venue, you would:

  • need a list of venues in town who host events
  •  a summary of the charity to help convince the venue to donate the space
  • someone who could contact the venues to see if they are interested.

Now, you’ve got a to-do list and you can start at the top. Sometimes big challenges are made easier when we break the big tasks into little ones, then go step by step.

In the end, the key is to shift your thinking from ‘I can’t do this‘ to ‘I can do this‘.

Practise makes progress

And of course, treat yourself with kindness because you’re learning something new. When you catch yourself using limited thinking “you really suck at this“, don’t angrily tell yourself to think more positively like “gosh, what an idiot! Remember, you can do this!

Talk to yourself the way you’d talk to a child learning something new. “Oopsie! That was the way you used to think. We’re practising growth mindset. It’s okay to slip up because it takes practise to learn new things. Let’s give this another go. You can this!”

Focus on learning

Now you’ve got the basics down on how to reframe your thinking, remember that learning is key.

Let’s say you took that exam and you didn’t pass. Instead of saying “There’s proof! I can’t do anything!“, turn it into a learning opportunity.

What can you learn from why you didn’t pass the exam? Did you rush through the exam because you were anxious? Did you have to work late the night before so you were tired? Were you hungry? Did you just not understand the subject from the start, and you needed additional help?

There could be heaps of reasons why you struggled with the exam – and it’s not because “you can’t do anything”.

But this is a great learning opportunity. Once you identify things that made it harder for you to pass, it means that next time you can plan ahead so that the next time, you don’t experience the same thing.

The playing field

Let’s be real. Our Australian culture doesn’t help with setting up a ‘growth mindset’. We cut down the ‘tall poppy’ and this doesn’t help us build a mindset for success. We’re taught to tear down someone who is doing really well. But who does that benefit? No one.

Women, too, have historically been taught to be less bold. Over time we’re taught to silence our opinions and expertise. Who does this benefit? No one.

There are plenty of other groups, races, cultures and sexual orientations who will feel this, too. Listening to the negative thoughts about yourself again – benefits no one.

It’s a tough road ahead to change the way you see yourself. But it’s possible to change.

Take action

From today, I want you to start practising a growth mindset.

If something comes up and you think ‘I can’t possibly do that’ – challenge yourself. Say ‘why not?’. If it’s something you want to do, then do it.

Remember the tips:

  • Practising activities and thinking makes you better at things
  • Planning help turn big scary tasks into smaller ones
  • Reflect on what you learned

You got this!

DIY inspo

Set a daily reminder in your calendar saying “You got this!”. When it goes off, reflect on the wins from the day, no matter how small, and to plan for challenges coming up.

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