The Growth Mindset

By Kim Hoang, ECAASU National Board Advocacy Coordinator

The first assignment I remember procrastinating was in third grade on a project that was assigned weeks before it was due. Of course, I did the whole project the night before it was due, staying up much later than a third grader should (past 10 p.m.) to tape threads and scraps of paper found around the house into a skimpy mobile on a wire coat hanger. I received a D on the project, resulting in not only my own humiliation but also the disappointment of my parents. To my 8-year-old self, this failure felt like the most devastating thing imaginable. 

Throughout my education, the pressure to succeed came from all directions. My parents, who were refugees from Vietnam, were well-meaning as they tried to steer me towards the respected path of a STEM major at a prestigious university. I was in “gifted” classes as long as I could remember, my teachers expecting more of me than I could be taught to expect of myself. I tried to live up to my role as the “smart Asian girl”, holding onto my fear of failure through grade school, college, and now this peculiar period of post-grad life.

At times, I’ve been reluctant to travel to new places, build up the courage to talk to a potential new friend, and try new projects because I would be afraid of not getting it right on the first try. 

Ironically, my fear of failure hasn’t stopped me from failing, but it has made me afraid to try at all. 

Carol Dweck pioneered the idea of the “growth mindset” in which intelligence is viewed as a trait that can be developed. In contrast, I grew up with a “fixed mindset”, thinking I had some sort of steadfast ability that couldn’t be developed any further. Ultimately, I saw any setback as indication that my own intelligence was questionable. 

As a first-generation college graduate, I now work in a high school as a college adviser so I can help students who are in the same place I was not more than a few years ago. My favorite part of the job is being the encouraging voice for my students, something I wish I could have heard more growing up. One student I’ve been working with has applied to and been accepted to more colleges than most of the seniors at my school, yet questioned whether she should even go because she was afraid of being on her own. I told her that college is the opportunity for her to develop as a person, and that she should lean into her fear and embrace it as well.

As I tell my students that they should embrace challenges and that failure doesn’t mean that they are fundamentally lacking in any way, it’s become easier for me to believe it myself. I’ve come to realize that often, the anxiety I may face surrounding a challenge is scarier than the challenge itself.