The first day of my graduate studies in clinical psychology at Wheaton College in Illinois was filled with anticipation and excitement. I sat in a classroom filled with other newly-admitted doctoral students and listened to professors from across the department speak with eloquence about their passion to see us grow into professionals who would contribute to the field.
Toward the end of our orientation day, the faculty introduced a special guest. His name was Gary Collins, and he was a prolific writer and researcher who had been leading the field for decades. Needless to say, I was impressed.
After the presentation, I struck up a conversation with him and we immediately hit it off. He asked my opinion about several of the topics we had covered in the orientation and even suggested we get together for lunch to discuss my ideas. What followed was a friendship that lasted for many years.
Despite being around forty-five years older than me, Gary still had incredible energy and invested a great deal of that energy in me as a person. He would often tell me he purposely spent time around younger people so he could stay engaged with new ideas and continue to grow both professionally and personally.
Even well into his eighties, Gary was innovative, open to new ideas, and always looking for new ways to learn. He continued to write, teach and mentor until the day he passed away at eighty-seven years old.
I consider Gary to be one of the most powerful mentors I’ve ever had. To this day, I still try to emulate his passion for life and his determination to stay open to change, growth, and new experiences.
I know my experience with Gary is unusual. In fact, it’s fair to say some people believe we become less and less open to growth and change as we age. There’s also an entrenched belief in our culture that it’s normal for us to disengage and become depressed as we get older.
So, how do we reconcile the experience of a Gary Collins, who stayed engaged, open, and energized well into older adulthood, with the experience of someone who gets more and more anxious, lonely, and depressed as they age?
How do we stay full of vigor and open to new experiences and avoid getting caught in the stereotypical experience of depression and anxiety?
02. Develop a growth mindset
Gary was a dedicated learner who actively sought out opportunities to grow and develop himself, no matter what obstacles he faced. He firmly believed he was capable of overcoming any challenge with hard work, dedication, and perseverance. Psychologists call this perspective the “growth mindset.”
Individuals who have a growth mindset are more likely to embrace new experiences and challenges, which helps to maintain a deep sense of purpose and meaning in their lives.
This is in contrast to those who have what psychologists call a “fixed mindset.”
People with a fixed mindset are more likely to avoid new experiences and challenges, which often leads to feelings of stagnation, boredom, and eventually depression.
As we grow into adulthood, many of us adopt a fixed mindset almost unconsciously. After spending our formative years learning and developing our professional and personal identities, we may feel a natural inclination toward stability and a desire to simply relax.
However, this mindset limits and hinders our potential for growth and development.
Unfortunately, this fixed mindset is facilitated by our neurological makeup. As we age, our brains become less malleable than they were in our younger years, and we may find ourselves naturally seeking consistency and predictability. It almost seems as though our brains are programmed to default to this fixed mindset as we get older with a tendency to crush our willingness to embrace new learning or to adapt to changing conditions in our environment and our relationships.
Unfortunately, while the fixed mindset might feel easier and more natural, it can quickly drive significant symptoms of depression, intense boredom, and lack of fulfillment.
The growth mindset is absolutely necessary for us to maintain our mental health and well-being. Embracing challenges and opportunities for growth develops greater resilience and adaptability for a more positive outlook on life. The research is clear: the growth mindset leads to greater satisfaction and fulfillment as we age, and it’s the only way we can avoid the stereotypical decline into depression.
03. Identify depression early
Regression into the fixed mindset is an organic process that we should guard against at all costs. The key here is recognizing when we’re starting to fall into this fixed mindset, especially if that regression includes some of the characteristic symptoms of depression.
It’s important to know that lack of engagement and depression can sometimes be very difficult to recognize as we age because it can look very different than it does in earlier seasons of life.
In our teens and 20s, it’s not uncommon for people to feel overwhelming sadness, despair, and anxiety. For some adults with depression, however, sadness is not their main symptom. Some people who are regressing to the fixed mindset find pleasurable activities less enjoyable and are less willing to talk about our emotions.
Other clues you might be sinking into a depressive and stagnate state include:
- Persistent sadness, anxious, or “empty” mood
- Feelings of hopelessness about the future
- Excessive guilt
- Feeling that you are worthless or don’t have much to offer
- Irritability, restlessness or having trouble sitting still
- Loss of interest in once pleasurable activities, including sex
- Decreased energy or fatigue
- Moving or talking more slowly
- Difficulty concentrating, remembering or making decisions
- Problems sleeping, including waking up too early in the morning or oversleeping
- Eating more or less than usual, often with unplanned weight gain or loss
If you have any of these symptoms, don’t ignore the warning signs. Early intervention is imperative. These symptoms are not only signs that you’re depressed, they are also a clear indication that you’ve left the growth mindset and entered the fixed mindset.
04. Understand the growth mindset is highly connected to spiritual formation
There’s a clear principle that permeates the entire Scripture: God’s heart for us is that we are transformed through the power of Christ. Inherent in this idea of transformation is the opportunity to progress and grow in the spirit. We are literally encouraged to grow up in all things (in every way) into Christlikeness (Eph. 4:15). This is the spiritual application of the growth mindset and it breeds a deep hope and faith that we can impact our world in a significant way that ultimately builds His kingdom. The fixed mindset tells us to settle and to be stagnant. The growth mindset tells us to press on for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ.
If we accept the full counsel of Scripture there’s really no doubt that the growth mindset is connected to the idea of growth in the spirit. The important question becomes, “How do we do this?”
Dallas Willard sums up the process perfectly when he said, “Spiritual formation in the tradition of Jesus Christ is the process of transformation of the inmost dimension of the human being, the heart, which is the same as the spirit or will. It is being formed (really, transformed) in such a way that its natural expression comes to be the deeds of Christ done in the power of Christ.”
So, we are to press on by doing the deeds of Christ in the power of Christ. That’s the most important piece of the growth mindset if we look at it through the lens of spiritual formation. We can’t constantly seek to grow and develop the spiritual disciplines in our own strength. That’s nothing more than legalism and perfectionism. Our goal is to be fully aware that we can only overcome new challenges and wholeheartedly embrace new opportunities for growth if we do the deeds of Christ in the power of Christ.
My interactions with Gary confirmed this over and over again. He pushed hard to make a positive impact on this world, but he did it with a deep awareness of the power of Christ in him that was fueling him to do the work that God had called him to. He truly believed that his efforts were in vain if God did not act. That is surely the personification of the growth mindset And it’s an incredible example for us to follow as clinicians seeking to be a force of good in this world.
05. Recognize the stakes are high
I’m sure it’s obvious how much of an impact Gary’s relentless pursuit of the growth mindset had on my life. His investment in me as a young psychologist continues to shape who I am as a professional and as a man.
We can all learn a massive lesson from Gary about how high the stakes are as we avoid regressing into the fixed mindset. The pursuit of the growth mindset has a profound impact, not only on our own quality of life but on the quality of life for future generations. Let’s look to Gary’s life as an example and commit to guarding against the stereotypical regression into stagnation, depression, and the pursuit of comfort.
As we age, let us actively seek out new experiences and challenges, invest in the next generation, and embrace opportunities for learning and growth. And most importantly, let’s do the deeds of Christ only in the power of Christ. By doing so, we not only ensure our own engagement and excitement in life, but we also have the potential to positively shape the lives of those who come after us.
06. Three Additional Things to Do This Week to Develop a Growth Mindset
- Select a few passages of Scripture and begin committing them to memory. According to Dallas Willard, a good place to start would be Colossians 3:1–17
- Think of a person who is at least one generation your junior and ask them to teach you a new skill or suggest a new book to read. Perhaps they will make a similar request from you.
- Take some time for quiet reflection and focus on naming one of the deepest desires of your heart; and then think of a way to pursue that desire (at least for a few initial or further steps) this week.
Mike Ronsisvalle, Psy.D. is Licensed Psychologist, practicing in Florida. You may want to visit: If you LiveWellBehavioralHealth.com or @MikeRonsisvalle.