How your mindset is shutting out grace

How your mindset is shutting out grace August 30, 2018

Growing up, I was never the athletic one of the family. While my siblings excelled in all things sports, I was always the last one picked for the team in gym and the slowest one to finish the race (if I finished at all). I convinced myself that I has “bad knees,” that I was just “not built” for sports, and gave up before even trying.

Me as a teenager.

Now, though, I can keep up with my family on 100-mile bike races, deadlift almost twice my bodyweight, and hike from sunrise to sunset.

So what changed? I learned a growth mindset. This mentality has not only been helpful in achieving material goals, it’s essential for my spiritual life.

Fixed vs. growth mindset

Your mindset shapes much of your daily thoughts and behavior. It’s the view you have of your personal qualities and abilities – where they come from and where they’re going.

Mindset is composed of a spectrum. Two mindsets represent the extreme ends:

  1. A fixed mindset is the belief that your qualities and abilities are carved in stone, something you’re born with rather than something you develop.
  2. A growth mindset is the belief that you can cultivate your qualities and abilities. Although everyone differs in innate talents and potential, we can all improve through effort.

Chances are, you don’t just have one or the other. You might have a growth mindset about artistic expression, but a fixed mindset about academics. For other qualities, you might land somewhere in between. Whichever mindset you have guides your thoughts and behavior in that particular area.

Most people struggle with a fixed mindset in at least one domain of their life. A fixed mindset works against you. First, it creates an urgency to prove yourself over and over, because you see criticism as an attack on your character. It also reduces your drive for learning and practice, because you don’t believe you can improve. Finally, it negatively impacts your self-worth, because you think failure reflects who you are.

A growth mindset, on the other hand, gives you more drive to learn and practice. It helps you welcome feedback, embrace challenges, and view every experience as an opportunity to improve. With a growth mindset, you have the passion to stick with it, especially when things are tough.

According to Carol Dweck’s research, a growth mindset favors both future success and hope in the present moment.

Why does a growth mindset help?

A growth mindset is powerful because it’s in line with how your brain works.

Neuroplasticity is the brain’s ability to change. For a long time, scientists thought that a fully-formed brain didn’t change until it started degenerating with age. Then, in the second part of the 20th century, they discovered that brains are “plastic,” or can be altered. Connections between neurons are constantly remodeled, strengthened and weakened over time.

See those things that look like tree branches? That’s where this neuron receives info from other neurons. Image by Maryann Martone—CCDB/NCMIR/UC San Diego.

Whenever you learn something new, change a habit, of have a new experience, your brain’s structure changes. In other words, neuroplasticity underlies all learning and memory.

This is especially true for younger folks. The developing brain shows an even greater degree of neuroplasticity. And this doesn’t just mean kids! The prefrontal cortex – the region of the brain active in decision making and higher-level thought – doesn’t finish developing until your late twenties.

So a growth mindset is powerful because it reflects the reality of your underlying neurobiology, whereas a fixed mindset rejects that truth.

Believing that you can change allows you to harness the plasticity of your brain. Believing that you can improve helps you work hard to re-wire your neurons. Because your characteristics and abilities are set in plastic, not stone.

Growth mindset and the spiritual life

This isn’t just helpful for improving your deadlift (as fun as that is). No, it’s incredibly relevant for your spiritual life.

All too often, we can get caught in a fixed mindset in our relationship with God. We think that our faith is something static that we were born with, so we take God’s graces for granted. We also have little reason to work hard to strengthen our prayer life, our sacramental life, and our relationships with others. Why should you even try, if your relationship with God is set in stone?

What results is a spiritual paralysis.

A growth mindset is more important than ever when it comes to the spiritual life. Because we are all called to become saints.

Ultimately, believing that your relationship with God is set in stone is a rejection of His grace. If you don’t belief that you can change, that you can be made more holy, or that you can conquer habitual sin, you are doubting God’s power. Of course, none of these things can happen without the Christ’s saving gift of Himself. But they also demand an active participation. You have to be open to His radical power to transform.

Raffaello, “The Transfiguration”, 1516-1520.

Remember Christ’s invitation, “Let the children come to me” (Matthew 19:14). We are to be childlike in our confidence in Him. We are to remain open and hopeful about the good His grace can accomplish in us. For His mercies are new every morning (Lamentations 3:22-23).

Further reading recommendations

Stay tuned for an upcoming post on strategies to break out of a fixed mindset!

On mindset, read Carol Dweck’s book Mindset: The Psychology of Success.

Flannery O’Connors works often portray the drama of our struggle to accept God’s grace. For a great introduction to her work, try Revelation.

On the universal call to sanctity, read Lumen Gentium, or Fr. Luigi Giussani’s “Morality: Memory and Desire.” I haven’t yet found an English translation of Giussani’s work that you can purchase online, but if you email me ( I’ll send you a PDF of my favorite chapter.

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