Many adults have experienced some form of maths-phobia or maths anxiety in their lives, commonly during early school years. Research suggests that this phenomenon is due to a complex web of factors in our social worlds (e.g. parents’ and teachers’ expectations), wider society (e.g. the stereotype that women are worse at mathematics), and individual aspects (e.g. self-belief and traits). In other words, we are told that maths is hard, that we will probably never be good at it and, if we don’t pick it up immediately, that we probably weren’t born with the “maths gene”. 

If you were always good at maths, you might have struggled in your physical education class instead – never quite achieving the level of physical coordination that your classmates could. Or maybe writing was the bane of your school days and stringing words together on the page was never your strong suit. Whatever yours was, most of us had one thing we learnt to tell ourselves we just “couldn’t do”. 

Sometimes these self-limiting beliefs are OK. Maybe we have no desire to use maths ever again and would receive no joy from introducing calculus to our lives. But what if conquering your fear of maths, or your lack of physical coordination, was the one thing standing between you and where you wanted to be? How do we overcome the lie we often tell ourselves – that there are just some things we can’t do?

Decades of research have been devoted to the subject of school achievement and the role that mindset has to play. In a large study published in 2019 in Nature, the authors tested whether teaching more than 12,000 North American high-school children about the importance of a growth mindset (that is, telling them that intelligence can be developed) would influence their performance. And – it did. Grades not only improved across the sample, but there was also a spike in children enrolling in advanced mathematics classes. These same effects have been found for adult learners across multiple studies too, although some researchers suggest that the greatest effect for these interventions are found for those who are most at-risk academically.

Across all the research findings, it appears that our fear of maths, our achievement more generally, and even our mental health have the ability to be influenced by something as malleable as our mindset. And a lot of it can come down to whether we tend towards holding a fixed mindset or a growth mindset.

A fixed mindset, according to pioneering researcher Carol Dweck, is one where people avoid challenges, they take feedback as criticism, and are disheartened by the success of others. On the flipside, people who hold a growth mindset towards life are more likely to embrace difficulties, show persistence and grit in the tasks they set their minds to, embrace criticism and become inspired by the achievement of other people. For those with a fixed mindset, they are likely to give up easily, plateau and perform beneath their full potential. For those people with a growth mindset, their achievements keep growing as they seek new challenges and persist through setbacks.

So, how can we cultivate this valuable growth mindset within ourselves? 

  • Carol Dweck emphasises the power of one word in her TED Talk: the word “yet”. Growth mindset begins with the way we talk to ourselves and the way we talk to others. Instead of resigning yourself to the idea that you can’t do something, try telling yourself that you can’t do it yet and see how that influences your thinking. 
  • When reflecting on your achievements—and praising those of others (colleagues, children, friends)—try to emphasise the aspects of their achievement that required grit, work ethic and persistence (e.g. “Congratulations – I know you worked really hard to get there!”) rather than celebrating static traits (e.g. “It’s no wonder you won that award – you are so smart!”). While both warm wishes share positive intentions, one reminds the recipient that they can do hard things (growth mindset), while the other suggests that their achievements are due to their innate skill (fixed mindset).
  • Consider how growth mindset affects us in different domains. In one study published in Psychological Science, the authors found that the idea of “finding your one true passion” is one grounded in a fixed mindset. This rhetoric suggests that when we find the one thing we were supposedly born to do, we will have endless motivation, no difficulties, and devotedly spend our lives honing our craft. However, as the authors say, “Urging people to find their passion may lead them to put all their eggs in one basket but then to drop that basket when it becomes difficult to carry.” Instead, they recommend adopting a growth mindset to find and adopt new interests, hobbies, and activities. 

“You can’t teach an old dog new tricks” might be an idiom you use regularly about yourself or others. But, based on work by Carol Dweck and countless others, maybe you can teach an old dog new tricks – and the key to finding out lies in the dog’s mindset.

For more on harnessing our growth mindset through grit and grace, see our writing here. Or read here for our thoughts on maintaining flexible thinking during uncertain times.