That Little Voice in our Head

For me, losing a tennis match isn\’t failure, it\’s research.
— Billie Jean King

A blog entry on the value of cultivating a Growth Mindset.


Reading how Billie Jean King interpreted losing a match (thus bouncing back again to practice), I was reminded of how Bethlehem Tilahun Alemu of soleRebels kept on persisting in the sale of her shoes produced out of recycled material and Ethiopian produce, even when faced with challenges: her first pair of shoes weighed 3 kilograms, and she kept on producing new shoes until she was happy with the quality of the product. She persisted even when passersby laughed at her product displayed at the Addis Ababa Exhibition centre. Now, it’s a different story, and her products are known at an international level.

When I think of those who didn’t give up in the face of challenges, I can also think of all those frontline workers who, decades back, walked in every neighbourhood in our Ethiopian countryside, to sensitize about HIV AIDS prevention and care, and would be chased away by village dwellers who threw stones at them. And yet, they persisted, and their work is, today, helping us to contain the rate of growth of the pandemic Ethiopia.

I can also think of:

–          How Oprah Winfrey, early in her career, was demoted from the role of News Anchor because she was told she was not fit for television. Today, that same TV amplifies her great work in the world,

–          Walt Disney was fired from a newspaper because he was told he was ‘lacking imagination’ and ‘having no original ideas’. And yet, today, Walt Disney is in the mind and heart of every cartoon-loving child,

–          Michael Jordan, a Basketball legend, was cut from the high school basketball team because he was not considered capable.

And here are more examples of some inspirational people who endured and persisted, taking their work to the next level:

–          Zumra Nuru, founder of the unique Awramba Community in Northern Ethiopia, who endured a lot of resistance to make his dream come true,

–          Retired President Nelson Mandela waited 27 years, without giving up, before being released from prison,

–          Albert Einstein couldn’t speak till he was four years old, and was told he wouldn’t amount to much. His attitude as an endless learner completely challenged this assumption,

–          Steve Jobs once shared: ‘I used to sleep on the floor in friends\’ rooms, returning Coke bottles for food, money, and getting weekly free meals at a local temple’,

–          ‘My teachers used to call me a failure,’ once shared former British Prime Minister, Tony Blair.

We can think of so many others who, in their same position, would have given up. So what distinguishes those who persist, grow, and realize their goals, from those who perhaps give up? Many elements indeed, and perhaps, one element could be the frame of mind one has, one’s mindset.


Mindset can be defined as a set of beliefs or a way of thinking that determines one’s behavior, outlook and mental attitude. Other words could include: attitude, worldview, set of assumptions, way of thinking, outlook, or pattern of thought. Mindset can be seen as a collection of the conversations we have with ourselves, the voice we have in our head as we respond to situations, circumstances and challenges.

According to Standford University psychologist Carol Dweck, as human beings we have the tendency to be on a continuum between acting from a Fixed Mindset and a Growth Mindset. Research shows that individuals, teams and organizations in which a Growth Mindset is adopted, thrive more, have more engaged employees and teams, and individuals who grow and bloom. All of these of course translate in more impactful and profitable organizations.

Attitude, then is a determining factor for the success systems. As Yusuf Reja of Ethiojobs advises when recruiting: ‘Hire attitude, and train skills’. My understanding of his advice is that when the relevant attitude and mindset are there, the rest can come. Indeed, the way we think can either make us thrive or can confine us.

Growth Mindset as distinct from Fixed Mindset

When exploring mindset, Carol Dweck describes the following:

–          For those who have a Fixed Mindset, intelligence and talent are considered fixed, static traits that cannot be changed, and there’s no point in making effort. Alternatively, with a Growth Mindset, the belief is that the most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work – brains and talent are just the starting point and the rest comes through learning,

–          With a Fixed Mindset, there is a strong need to look smart and good, sometimes as individuals, at the expense of the team or organization one is representing,

–          Similarly, when acting out of a Fixed mindset, feedback is considered to be criticism, while with a Growth Mindset, one is eager to learn from others, and to ask for feedback,

–          Someone with the Fixed Mindset avoids challenges and may tend to give up in the face of obstacles, while with a Growth attitude, challenges would be embraced and there is persistence in the face of obstacles,

–          When witnessing the success of others, a Fixed Mindset response is considering other successful people as a threat, and not as a source of inspiration.

This video summarizes some of the points above: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o8JycfeoVzg

‘The illiterate of the future are not those that cannot read or write.
They are those that cannot learn, unlearn, relearn.\’
— Alvin Toffler

Where do we see our self in the continuum between Fixed and Growth Mindset?

I myself can think of the times in my life when I gave up at the smallest challenge, and when instead I saw my challenges as stepping stones and opportunities for learning. For example, it’s five years since I’ve been envisioning and working on having a transformative programme come to Ethiopia – I’m so pleased to see that I’m learning from my past efforts, and that this event will finally take place in November of this year.

Shifting from a Fixed Mindset to Growth Mindset

Carol Dweck proposed four steps to shift from Fixed to Growth mindsets, and adopt a psychology of success:

–          learn to hear your Fixed Mindset ‘voice’

–          recognize that you have a choice

–          talk back to that voice with a Growth Mindset voice, and take the Growth Mindset action


And so, having explored this vital skill of cultivating a Growth Mindset, I’m curious:

What kind of voice dominates your thinking: the Fixed Minset one, or the Growth Minsdet one?

Where in your life do you feel the need to do more of this?

Note:  many thanks to Steadman Harrison of the Centre for Creative Leadership (CCL) for having introduced me to this material, and to the great Facilitators at Digital Opportunity Trust (DOT) who inspired me to write this blog, as they explored the next step in their career development.