Warrane College UNSW | college accommodation for students at UNSW
Warrane College UNSW | college accommodation for students at UNSW

Leveraging Your Mindset for Academic Success

Andrew Heslin giving his talk after formal dinner

Success in life is significantly in your hands, says Associate Professor Peter Heslin from the UNSW School of Management. Associate Professor Heslin, a Warrane old boy, who was the special guest for Warrane’s inaugural dinner for first semester on Wednesday 2 March 2016, discussed how an unhelpful mindset can block people from achieving their potential.

His views are based on his research on the role of self-regulatory dynamics in career success, leadership development, and performance. His message was that when we are confronted by poor results we can still “turn things around.” When faced with failure, instead of concluding “this is too hard for me”, we should be looking for a new strategy.

“What is needed is a growth mindset,” Professor Heslin said. “People get off to a rocky start all the time, but with the right approach they can improve substantially!”

The important thing, he said, is to promote within oneself and others a “growth mindset,” instead of a “fixed mindset”. When people hold a growth mindset, they assume that they can develop entirely new skills, continue to make a real contribution, and achieve progress that will make their lives meaningful.

“There is always someone bigger, smarter, richer and so on,” he said, “but we need to set criteria for ourselves about what is important to us as individuals, rather than merely trying to do better than others.”

On the other hand, having a fixed mindset – believing our capabilities are inherently limited and thus allowing ourselves to be discouraged from improving according to our own goals and capacities – will inevitably stand in the way of personal and professional growth.

Associate Professor Heslin used the example of managers who think they cannot improve much and thus avoid seeking feedback from those under them on how they can do a better job, because they believe that doing so will threaten their self-concept and reputation as an effective manager. “If someone doesn’t think they can change very much, our research has shown that they won’t seek information about how they can improve or work to do so” he said.

One study he discussed divided participants into two groups – half were told they would be evaluated according to their “inherent decision-making abilities”. The others were told they were being given a chance to develop their decision-making abilities.

The second group went on to exhibit an enhanced growth mindset as reflected by higher confidence after setbacks, superior analytical thinking, and greater learning across tasks.

The essential outlook of those with a fixed mindset was that if they do not succeed they should give up, but those with a growth mindset tend instead to think: “I need to change my approach, put in more effort, seek out coaching, focus better, study with others, and so on”.

“It is good to have a sense of who you are, your strengths, and where you fit,” Professor Heslin said, “but don’t let this become an excuse for not working to improve in areas you find challenging. It is important to become a well-rounded professional. ”

When confronted with people who are “smarter” or are achieving better results, Professor Heslin said it was important to ask oneself how those people came to succeed. “They were not necessarily born smart,” he said. “The wisest conclusion is they must have worked hard… and developed effective strategies that can be emulated.”

“We need to make choices, but don’t let those choices be driven by an unhelpful, self-limiting mindset. If there is something you really want to do, then roll up your sleeves and engage in the hard, persistent work required to learn how to do it!”

“Look, when you started off you couldn’t walk, you couldn’t talk, you couldn’t do hardly anything very well. Sometime between then and when you are actually good at something, you had a developmental trajectory. You practiced, you fell down, you got up again, someone gave you tips, and then you tried again and again until you learned how to do it.”

“This combination of developmental initiatives can be applied to any course you are studying, any relationship which is not going as well as you would like, anything you want to get better at.”

“The key is to make it your mission to discover the most effective steps you can take to improve as efficiently as possible.”

The broad principles that need to be applied are: set yourself personal learning goals in the form: “I need to learn how to …” and work out the best combination of strategies to pursue your learning goals, before seeking out and utilising the host of people and other resources who can help you blaze your path forward. As Confucius said, “When the student is ready, the teachers will emerge…”

“Tell yourself: ‘I’m going to do this’, as if your life depended on it. Really put you mind to it and don’t get distracted from the focused, persistent work required for success.”

To illustrate the point, Professor Heslin played a video of basketball champion Michael Jordan talking about his many missed basketball shots and pointing out that it was by rising above those failures – through 1000s of hours of deliberative practice in areas where he needed to improve – that he was able to succeed.

“For many years he spent hours practicing long after everyone else had left – he was very focused,” Professor Heslin said. “Ask yourself: ‘How can I achieve my potential in the areas where I’d love to be highly proficient?’”

“In a nutshell, when you encounter disappointing results you need to say to yourself: ‘I can’t do it yet. What do I need to learn, what do I need to do, what strategy can make me better?’ Then get too it!

Professor Heslin’s talk concluded with a wide range of methods for fostering a growth mindset within oneself, such as to frame errors and setbacks as a trigger to search for better strategies and other resources to help ensure that our academic and professional development efforts yield great results.

[Warrane College offers a lot more than just student accommodation at UNSW: find out about some of our other guest speakers.]