How to use Setbacks as a springboard to Success: The Growth Mindset


How to use Setbacks as a springboard to Success: The Growth Mindset

When Bill Gates is mentioned you probably picture him as Microsoft’s philanthropic, billionaire co-founder. But there is another side to the story: before he became the world’s richest person Gates was a struggling entrepreneur.

His first business, Traf-O-Data (a technology company aimed at minimising traffic congestion) failed to become a big success. But rather than giving up and getting a regular nine-to-five job, Gates and his partner Paul Allen went on to build Microsoft’s first product a couple of years later. Allen has said that Traf-O-Data’s relative failure proved to be a vital learning process – a reaction that reveals him and Gates to share a growth mindset. This means using challenges and setbacks as an opportunity to develop and erring on the side of positivity. But it’s more difficult to consistently take this attitude than it may seem.

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In contrast, those with a fixed mindset tend to dwell on perceived failures and judge themselves more harshly. They might even view setbacks as a reason to give up on an ambition. Sadly, many of us have aspects of a fixed mindset. We often see talent and aptitude as predetermined traits. And from a young age we are encouraged to avoid risk.

However, Carol Dweck, a professor of psychology at Stanford University, has proven that a growth mindset can improve all areas of life – so it’s something worth working towards. Dweck has found that those who consistently apply a growth mindset see greater long-term achievement. They also invariably suffer less stress and anxiety and have higher self-esteem.

It is particularly useful for entrepreneurs. With research (pdf) showing that half of startups fail within the first five years, resilience is crucial.

For each point below, choose the statement you agree with most – this will help you work out which mindset you tend towards

Talent versus effort


Talent and intelligence define us and protect us from failure.


Effort is most important for mastering a skill and achieving goals.



Intelligence is static, rather than being something to develop through challenge or curiosity. If I avoid challenges I ensure my success.


Setbacks are an opportunity to learn and improve from experience, feedback helps me improve. Intelligence can be developed through embracing opportunities to learn and develop.

Attitude to others


Reject, or argue, with constructive criticism. I find my internal monologue is focused on judging myself and others in absolute terms, eg “this means that I’m a failure” or “this means that I’m better than them”. I see asking for help as a sign of weakness.


Seeing the achievements of others as a source of learning and inspiration. I acknowledge constructive criticism and use it as a way to improve. I see asking for helping as an opportunity for self-development.

If you deny weaknesses, you will never overcome them

If you tended towards a fixed mindset on any of the above, here are some ways you can encourage yourself to adopt a growth mindset:

1: Acknowledge and embrace imperfection

If you deny weaknesses you will probably never overcome them. Admitting vulnerabilities and accepting blame, when appropriate, will give you a more accurate view of yourself and help you improve.

2: View challenges as opportunities

We often look at situations in all-or-nothing terms. If you’re faced with a situation where you think you have previously failed, or one in which you lack expertise, you might try to avoid it or throw yourself in at the deep end. The best approach is to gradually expose yourself to the situation. You will learn to tolerate the associated feelings of anxiety and rehearse and objectively review your performance.

If you fear public speaking, for example, then it probably doesn’t make sense to give your first talk in front of 500 people. Instead take several opportunities to speak to small groups over a few months. Each time, reflect upon your performance. Acknowledge the positives, but also identify potential areas for improvement. Over time this process will become instinctive.

3: Reframe criticism

Listen to and reflect upon any negative feedback you receive. In many cases, we tend to defend ourselves before we have taken time to learn from criticism.

If your business has been rejected by an investor, for example, you should try to gain a better understanding of their objections. Use open-ended questions that begin with who, what, where or when. These encourage more than a simple yes or no response. If you train yourself to do this by default, then you can start to use setbacks constructively.

4: Use the word ‘yet’

Adding yet at the end of a sentence implies work in progress rather than a defining outcome. For example, “I haven’t learned how to fully use the new accounting package yet” rather than “I can’t use the new accounting package”.

Equally, replacing the word “failing” with “learning” encourages us to view self-development as a work in progress rather than an absolute judgment of our capabilities.

5: Take risks in the presence of others

As the leader of a business, it can be easy to believe that you should appear infallible. But you should occasionally grant yourself permission to mess up. You will put yourself under less pressure and it will help create a culture of trust and openness among your team.

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