Anyone is capable of learning whatever is necessary to achieve their goals. You are capable of becoming the person you dream to be. When you embrace this belief at your core—at an emotional level, not only a cognitive one—you are better able to sustain the commitment and motivation necessary to engineer your vision. You're able to lean into the challenges inherent in crafting the life you desire. You know that your capacity to learn what's required isn't limited by your hard‐wiring. Your development is determined by the nature of your effort—by what you do to stretch yourself. Your growth is governed by what you learn from your experience.
As you navigate the increasing challenges of an advancing career, profound belief in your capacity to learn can be hard to sustain. I've been struck by how often even the most accomplished professionals confess to having moments of doubt about some aspect of their abilities. Time and time again, folks who have received that sought‐after promotion have confided, “I'm not sure I've got what it takes to make it at this level.” It's one of those dirty little secrets none of us likes to talk about. We put on a good front, but how often do we drive home wondering if we're smart enough or tough enough or skilled enough to succeed in some new challenge that has surfaced in our jobs?
What's the root of this phenomenon? What causes accomplished individuals to harbor doubts about their abilities in some situations? Why are otherwise confident professionals sometimes stymied by a sense of limitation at critical junctures in their careers?
The Fixed‐Capacity Mindset
Our doubts about our ability to succeed can be traced to the pervasive and underlying belief in our society that some people have “it”—mental and emotional intelligence—but most people don't, or at least not in abundance. We've been socialized to believe that each of us has some collection of natural gifts and talents. Some of us are smart. Others are natural‐born leaders. Still others are inherently creative. Conversely, we assume that each of us has innate limitations—and that there is little we can do to overcome them.
The belief that learning capacity and important job‐related abilities are permanent, unchanging characteristics is called a fixed‐capacity mindset. (See Figure 2.1.) In this way of thinking, professionals with a high capacity for learning (“naturally smart people”) will be able to master the increasingly complex demands of their careers. Individuals with less capacity will eventually tap out; they will reach their “level of incompetence,” and by virtue of their limited innate ability, they will find it very difficult—if not impossible—to develop the level of expertise needed at the more demanding levels of responsibility.
With a fixed‐capacity mindset, failure is viewed as evidence that a job or task is beyond a person's ability. Since ability is a permanent characteristic, the person who can't do it now probably won't be able to learn to do it in the future either. From an early age, others judge our level of mental and emotional intelligence. By the time we reach adulthood, most of us have internalized these assessments and accepted the assumptions about our natural gifts and talents and about those areas in which we can't quite measure up.
The Capacity‐Building Mindset
Research in brain development and skill acquisition increasingly confirms that a capacity‐building mindset is a more accurate way to represent the potential of human beings to learn and grow. A capacity‐building mindset holds that human capacities are not fixed. Most people can rapidly develop new skills and capabilities; they can learn to be highly effective at a variety of complex and challenging new tasks. Sustained involvement in challenging tasks and regular practice of new and difficult skills stimulate the development of capabilities. In other words, learning is based on effective effort, not fixed abilities. That means just about everyone can learn whatever is necessary to do his or her job, contribute to the organization's objectives, and prepare for increased levels of complexity and responsibility if he or she applies effective effort to meeting the challenges.
We understand we have to learn to drive a car by getting behind the wheel and practicing. Job‐related skills are no different. We have to work at them, make mistakes, and use the lessons we learn to become more expert. The more we practice, and the more opportunities we have to learn, the more developed we will become.