The One Thing That Will Make or Break Your Success at School


by Laura Macdougall

Planning for success at school? Here is one thing that may make or break your year and it isn’t what you think.

If we look for what ensures success in almost any venture, we can find great examples. What about Jay-Z? He worked hard to perfect his craft and couldn’t find a label to make his CD so he made it himself and sold it out of the back of his car.

After Harrison Ford’s first movie role, an executive took him aside and told him he would never succeed in business.

Oprah was fired from her first job in TV as she was too emotionally invested in her stories and since then, has gone on to build an empire worth an estimated $3 billion.

What made these and many other famous people succeed when faced with disappointment?

Their mindset.

I imagine you haven’t previously given much thought to your mindset — I hadn’t. But recently I learned about the groundbreaking research done by Carol Dweck, Stanford University Psychologist. In her book Mindset: The Psychology of Success, Dweck explores how your thinking about negative events can make a huge difference in terms of your success.

Dweck explains that if you believe that you can learn and improve with effort, you are more likely to apply yourself when faced with failure and continue to show persistence until you reach your goal. She calls this a growth mindset. Alternatively, if you hold a fixed mindset, you may use the explanation that it is because you aren’t smart or talented enough. In other words, a fixed mindset suggests you are born with a predetermined amount of skill or talent and that it is not changeable.

Just learning about fixed and growth mindset can be a powerful tool for change. Think about the last time you suffered from some sort of failure — perhaps a lost championship baseball game or a failed exam. How did you talk to yourself afterwards? Did you tell yourself you will practice or study harder next time and get a better outcome, or did you give up and say you will never be any good at baseball or math?

Research has shown that people that have been told that success is due to either hard work or talent tend to believe it, and their behaviour changes as a result.

For example, when students were told that mathematicians who became passionate about math by applying hard work and effort ended up making great discoveries, this fuelled their growth mindset and they had higher grades and liked math more. (Dweck, 2006). In contrast, students who were told that math geniuses came up with inventions induced a fixed mindset.

I found it fascinating that one of the ways this works is through a self-fulfilling prophecy. For example, if you think studying doesn’t make you any smarter, then you likely won’t study. But if you believe that by studying you can improve your knowledge and do better, then you are more likely to study and then consequently do better. Even after a negative result like failing an exam, if you maintain a growth mindset you may attribute it to not working hard enough and study harder next time, therefore resulting in a better grade.

So how can you go from a fixed to growth mindset?

First of all, I recommend becoming aware of your mind chatter. Notice what you say to yourself after a success or failure. What do you believe you are naturally good or bad at? Most of us have areas of our life where we have a fixed mindset — I know I feel like I'm lousy at math and French, and these fixed mindsets have persisted even after doing a term of my MBA in French. It might be time for you and me to rethink those assumptions!

Secondly, once you have become aware of your mindset, challenge your thinking. Make a list of times where with practice, you have managed to succeed. Use these successes to challenge yourself to apply that to areas of your life where you might still have a fixed mindset. Celebrate your successes and acknowledge the effort, hard work and determination that went into reaching your goal.

Thirdly, keep at it. Keep challenging yourself in any area you find yourself attributing your success to natural talent and instead recognize the hard work you put into your successes! When you don’t reach your goals, reframe it in terms of what you learned from your experience and how it will assist you next time.

After all, think of J. K. Rowling — her first book, Harry Potter was turned down from all 12 major publishing houses in the UK. I imagine that she thought many times about giving up but likely, with a growth mindset, decided that with hard work and determination she could be a success. And she is!

Tomas Edison perhaps said it best when asked if he felt like a failure after over 9,000 attempts to create a viable commercial light bulb: “Why would I feel like a failure? And why would I ever give up? I now know definitely over 9,000 ways an electric light bulb will not work. Success is almost in my grasp.”

To learn more strategies to develop your growth mindset check out C. Dweck’s TED Talk.



Laura Macdougall is a speaker, coach, yogi, and positive psychology junkie who specializes in sharing evidence based strategies on well being and thriving. Her mission is to mentor and inspire others to believe in themselves so they can create the life of their dreams.