Tag: positive thinking

Positive Power: Develop the Growth Mindset of Success

Independent Thinking

It’s hard being a professional composer or performer! The field is flooded with talent, traditional opportunities are highly competitive, and the career path is not clear. Many changes in the music industry, technology, and the way that audiences interact with and access music have made it harder for musicians to be noticed and create sustainable careers. On the other hand, the brave new world of technology and social media, along with more creative ways to make, perform, and disseminate music and interact with new audiences, have opened up opportunities for the entrepreneurial artist.

Given the competitive nature and complexity of today’s musical landscape, it’s no wonder that musicians feel intense pressure to excel and often worry how to make it.

You are taught to go for perfection, and you inevitably feel judged on the quality of your work. However, you probably judge yourself more harshly than any music critic or panelist or audience member would, which can give rise to self-doubt and a lack of self-confidence—exacerbating the perception of the need to be “perfect.”

This creates a lot of stress that can take its toll over the long term. Yet today’s artists can benefit from a life-changing concept from positive psychology on how to deal with these pressures as they make their way in the world: the growth mindset.

What’s on your minds?

Let’s first examine what’s on the minds of the many musicians with whom I have the privilege of working when they begin to doubt themselves and think that they have to be perfect and outdo the competition.

“I am going to die at this performance because I just don’t have what it takes.”

“Every time I write for a new instrument, I feel hopeless because it will never be as good as it needs to be.”

“I totally blew that competition. I’m just a loser.”

“I’ve got to be better than everyone else in order to succeed.”

“If only the ensemble had played my piece better, we would have gotten good reviews. Now my career is going nowhere.”

Which of these sounds familiar to you?

Do you notice all those harsh judgments, permeated with an underlying fear of failure, despite your training and your talent? These thoughts create a lot of stress that can wear you down over time.

Happily, you are not doomed by these thoughts because they are only perceptions and not the truth.

In fact, you have the ability to change those thoughts and adopt a new mindset to approach challenges in the spirit of growth and experimentation, as opposed to perfectionism and fear of failure: the growth mindset of success.

The Growth Mindset of Success

The growth mindset is the brainchild of Dr. Carol Dweck of Stanford University whose research on the mindset of success is documented in her eminently readable book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success.

According to Dr. Dweck, your success turns on how you view your talent and intelligence:

Growth Mindset

The growth mindset stems from a belief that your talent and intelligence are the starting point and that success comes as a result of effort, experimentation, learning, and persistence. Those with a growth mindset are more resilient, work harder, embrace collaboration with others, and achieve greater success than those with a fixed mindset because they are motivated by the desire to grow and learn. You reach out to others for help. You examine the strategies that work and keep building on them. You discard the strategies that don’t work. And you keep the faith, no matter what!

Fixed Mindset

Those with a fixed mindset believe that you are either born with talent and intelligence or you are not, which means you cannot change how talented or smart you are. As a result, you are afraid to take risks and rock the boat because you might make a mistake—which would prove that you really are not talented. Those with the fixed mindset are locked into perfectionism. They tend to play it safe and avoid experimentation. They also shy away from asking others for help, which they perceive as sign of weakness and further proof of a lack of talent and intelligence.

The fascinating conclusion of Dr. Dweck’s research is that those with a fixed mindset are less “successful” than those with a growth mindset. And with some work, you can overcome those fixed-mindset thoughts and develop the growth mindset with a four-step process.

Young plant

How to Develop the Growth Mindset in Four Steps

Step 1. Become Aware of Your Fixed-Mindset Thoughts

At the outset, it is important to acknowledge that we all have fixed-mindset thoughts. The key is to recognize when the fixed mindset arises because that is the first step in a four-step process of change:

Musicians encounter the fixed mindset in many different situations:

  • Writing a new piece
  • In competitions and auditions
  • On stage in performance
  • Teaching
  • Alone in the practice room
  • Comparing yourself to other professionals whom you perceive to be “better” than you
  • Procrastinating for fear of not being good enough
  • Networking and having to meet new people

Pay close attention to the situations that trigger your fixed-mindset thoughts. Write them down or make a record of them over the next week so that you know exactly when to expect these negative thoughts. Notice the words that crop up in your mind that represent your fixed mindset, such as:

  • I’m not good enough.
  • I’ll never make it.
  • This is way too hard.
  • I give up.

Step 2. Affirm Your Choice to Change

Once you become aware of the situations that trigger the fixed mindset along with your fixed mindset thoughts, the next step is to convince yourself that you have the power to change.

Weigh the Evidence

One strategy is to look for evidence that supports and negates your fixed-mindset thought.

Suppose you have just left a difficult rehearsal and are thinking, “I just don’t have what it takes to make it. I’m such a loser.”

What evidence supports this thought?

  • I did not play as well as I wanted.
  • I didn’t win the last competition that I entered.

How about the evidence that negates this thought?

  • One tough rehearsal does not doom me to failure.
  • After a rough rehearsal, I work really hard and I don’t give up.
  • I am committed to figuring out a better way.
  • I played beautifully at my last recital.
  • I enjoy a challenge.

By doing this exercise, you are challenging that initial fixed-mindset thought and reaffirming your commitment to overcoming your obstacles and working hard towards creating success. This is the growth mindset at work!

Document your successes

Another exercise that affirms the growth mindset is a success journal where you document your successes and outline the process you used to create that success. Not only is the list a great reminder that you have in fact experienced success, but it also shows that success comes about through hard work, focus, persistence, learning from mistakes, and resilience.

Step 3. Answer with a Growth-Mindset Voice

The third step in adopting the growth mindset is to answer your fixed-mindset thought with a growth-mindset thought:

What can you say in response to the fixed-mindset thought?

  • I’ve done it before and I can do it again.
  • I am committed to handling this situation.
  • What can I learn from this?
  • What will I do next time?

You can find the right words from your success journal.

Another technique is to imagine what you are like at your best. Think about an actual experience of optimal performance, such as your last wonderful musical performance, the terrific piece you wrote last month, or a heavenly improvisation session. What are you like in this situation? Write down the words that describe you at your best and use those words to replace your fixed-mindset thoughts.

Step 4. Take a Growth-Mindset Action

The fourth step in changing from a fixed to a growth mindset is to take an action that reaffirms your commitment to growth. What are some actions that you can take?

  • When you hit a snag, keep going and don’t give up.
  • Explore a new way of overcoming your challenges and come up with new and better strategies.
  • Clear your mind by taking a break and doing something that restores your energy—such as exercise, a coffee break, or a phone call with a friend.
  • Reach out to colleagues and mentors for suggestions on how to improve.

The process of change takes practice. The good news for musicians is that you all know the process of practicing for improvement! So use those same skills to practice replacing the voice of the fixed mindset with the words of the growth mindset.

Rainbow Colored Toy

How Musicians Can Use the Growth Mindset to Overcome Challenges to Success

Let’s examine how other musicians have used the growth mindset to overcome many of the common mental challenges to being successful.

  1. Music Performance

Music performance is filled with opportunities for self-doubt and the fixed mindset. How can you use the growth mindset to overcome the fear of not being good enough and the perceived need to be perfect?

Often, it involves identifying the specific challenge and coming up with a new approach.

One musician, who was thoroughly discouraged by mistakes he made during an orchestra rehearsal, realized he was setting unrealistic expectations for himself with the following self-talk:

“I should be better than this. I don’t deserve to be playing principal with an orchestra of this caliber.”

While his fixed mindset caused him to doubt his talent, he reached out to a friend who had more experience as a principal and learned what it took to be a confident performer, thereby changing his entire approach. This led him to be very satisfied with his performance at the final concert.

Another musician was able to overcome her fear of “messing up” by adopting a growth strategy of being “upfront about my lack of experience coupled with being ready to learn something new,” finding that this “has always led to positive results.”

Another musician used the growth mindset to stop thinking of herself as not good enough:

“I can respond to the voice that paralyzes or frightens me with the voice of the growth mindset, by…access[ing my] best self, or thinking of ways a challenging situation can help me grow.”

  1. Auditions and Competitions

Auditions and competitions can easily trigger a fixed mindset with the inevitable comparisons to others. The growth mindset can help to change one’s approach to these stressful situations. A musician who successfully learned how to adopt a growth mindset shared how much more “good” energy he felt with a growth mindset, which helped to attract many more people to his world than with a fixed mindset. He also reframed the word “impossible” as “simply a word and not a state of being” which enabled him to clear his mind about competition.

Instead he perceived himself as follows: “I’m possible. No matter how the rest of the auditions pan out the remainder of the year, I know that going into my work and life with a growth mindset really opens my eyes to so many more ideas and opportunities than I see in a fixed mindset.”

  1. Career progress and success

Where you stand in your career is another area that is ripe for fixed-mindset thoughts. It is easy to look to other musicians whom you perceive to be farther along in their careers and feel that you “should” be at a certain point. This is understandable but not helpful! In fact, an old boss of mine used to say, “There is nothing more misleading than the score at half-time.”

So think about where you stand now, where you want to go in your career, and what you have to do now in order to get there. If you think of music as a life-long journey, you can instead believe that you are not there “yet” and, with hard work and persistence, you can learn what it takes to achieve the success you are aiming for. This is another manifestation of the growth mindset that Dr. Carol Dweck has spoken about in her TED Talk entitled “The Power of Believing That You Can Improve. ”

  1. Learning from others and being open to their suggestions

The fixed mindset tells you that asking others for help is a sign of weakness and proof that you lack talent. This type of thinking can inhibit you from reaching out to colleagues, friends, mentors, or teachers and locks you into using the same unhelpful strategies. That is one reason that those with the fixed mindset tend to peter out and not achieve success in the long run.

Instead, using the growth mindset can encourage you to seek help from others, play for and show your work to your colleagues, and embrace the collaborative process since you are able to hear suggestions as learning experiences—as opposed to feeling that others are judging you and that you are simply not good enough.

  1. Networking and Public Speaking

Today’s musicians need to reach out to others by creating larger networks of support, as well as speaking to audiences during and around performances. Both of these situations easily lend themselves to fixed-mindset thinking.

Many musicians I know are afraid of networking since they think that they have to “sell themselves.” With that concept of networking in mind, they understandably avoid these situations, particularly if they think that they are not worthy. Yet I think of networking as developing a network of mutually supportive business professionals over the long-term without expecting immediate results. Networking is also an opportunity to learn from others. The growth mindset can help you to reframe networking so that you can approach other professionals.

Another area that gives rise to a lot of fear is public speaking. Many musicians tell me that their discomfort with public speaking stems from anxieties about being judged, not having anything to say, and feeling inadequate to address an audience. However, public speaking is increasingly important in today’s music world as a way of engaging audiences and bringing new people into our orbit. One of my musician students was able to overcome his fear of public speaking by thinking of it as “jumping into a cold pool. Things will always feel more comfortable once the jump is made, but it is taking the first step that is the hardest. The only way to get better, as with many things in life, is to do just do it and learn from my mistakes to grow.”

  1. Thinking big and taking action

I encourage musicians to articulate big dreams like creating one’s own ensemble, going on a world tour, or writing for orchestra. Thinking big can be scary when you perceive the vision as impossible to achieve: a classic fixed-mindset thought. With the growth mindset, you can overcome feeling overwhelmed by breaking down big goals into smaller shorter-term goals and concentrating on taking steps that you can achieve now towards that big goal. This will enable you to experience small successes on which you can build as you work on your long-term goals.

In my experience, musicians with the fixed mindset tend to be single-minded in their goals. Someone with a growth mindset is much more flexible and positive about taking steps, regardless of size, in order to achieve an end goal gradually, being more realistic about the process, and allowing himself the freedom to thrive.

Indeed, one of my students found that while she was excited about her big goals, it was the tangible actions that reaffirmed her commitment to growth:

“The very act of breaking a goal down and taking action is antithetical to the fixed mindset. SMART goals are tangible recognition that eventual achievement comes through a process, rather than a sudden windfall, and that we must persevere and take actions step-by-step, rather than expecting ourselves to be immediately capable of something difficult.”

  1. Being flexible and dealing with the unpredictable

Things do not always go as planned and the growth mindset can help you to stay positive and deal with the last-minute changes that inevitably crop up.

For example, what happens when your plans for a rehearsal are upset by last-minute substitutions? The fixed mindset would slow down the music making and instill stress in the other players for fear that the rehearsal won’t be perfect. Yet a growth mindset can help you to keep a cool head, remain open-minded, and trust your substitutions and improvisations in order to roll with the punches and make great music.

Moreover, the growth mindset enables you to accept that things do not always go as planned and that even when one’s expectations are not met, there is always room for improvement. This lesson applies to schoolwork, performances, compositions, working towards one’s musical career goals, and nurturing personal and professional relationships. You are able see life in a more positive light, to realize the potential for growth, and to accept what is out of one’s control.

The same spirit of acceptance and growth can come in handy for those who experience injuries and other setbacks. Using the growth mindset can help you to reframe this experience and be grateful that you can still teach or write music and spend time advancing your career and developing new skills.

The musical life is fraught with challenges that can create a great deal of mental anguish. Yet, by changing your approach and adopting the growth mindset, you can embrace a process to deal with and overcome the obstacles that you may encounter in your career to create something of value to yourself and to society at large.


Astrid Baumgardner

Astrid Baumgardner
Photo by Adrian Kinloch

Astrid Baumgardner, JD, PCC, a professional life coach and lawyer, has the privilege of working with supremely talented world-class early-stage musical artists at the Yale School of Music, where she heads the Office of Career Strategies and teaches career entrepreneurship. Baumgardner is also president and founder of her coaching company, Astrid Baumgardner Coaching + Training, where she coaches musicians and creative business professionals. Baumgardner guest lectures at conservatories, leadership academies, and universities and writes a popular blog on career entrepreneurship. Read more about her work here.