Growth Mindset and Goals

“Whether you think you can or whether you think you can’t, you’re right.”

Henry Ford

Your brain is plastic. No, not necessarily made of plastic (though sometimes I wonder about my own…), but it has the same properties. It can stretch and compress throughout your lifetime, which, believe it or not, is a process that has only become widely accepted by neuroscientists in the past few decades.1

That notion about not being able to teach old dogs new tricks? It may be true, but it’s not the brain’s fault.

There are essentially three cognitive multipliers when it comes to learning new material and skills: Having a growth mindset, practicing like an expert, and building memory cues.

We’ll be addressing the last two in other posts, but without the first one, nothing else matters.

The most important thing when learning a skill is having that growth mindset. You simply have to believe you can become better. Without this, you’re going to want to quit at the first sign of failure (or even potential failure). And when you’re learning how to write better fiction, you are going to fail.

A lot.

It’s just the nature of the beast because writing good fiction is composed of so many different elements that you’re statistically guaranteed to be bad at at least one of them. And while you’re busy zeroing in on one, you’re going to forget ten others.

But that’s okay. After time and practice, all of your individual brushstrokes will coalesce into a beautiful painting.

So, you know you need a growth mindset. You now need to know what exactly that entails.2

First off, it means, oddly enough, not setting only certain types of goals.

Now, I know, we’re all bombarded at the end of every year with grand notions of how important setting goals is. And it’s true. Without them, we’re just sort of floating along, hoping good fortune runs to us instead of us to it.

Goals are important; especially long-term goals. But they shouldn’t just be the usual performance goals–goals that focus on a specific, measurable outcome. You know these types:

  • Lose ten pounds in two months.
  • Run five marathons by the end of the year.
  • Eat an extra-large triple pepperoni pizza in one sitting. (No? Just me?)

The interesting thing about performance goals is they can be bad in different ways. Either we make them so far out of reach or they’re based on something beyond our control, that we then feel an inevitable letdown because we can’t achieve them; or we set the bar so low in order to protect our fragile egos and stay within our comfort zones, that we didn’t really achieve much of anything at all.

I still think performance goals are useful to a certain degree, but only if you’re at a point, mentally, where you’re not easily discouraged and they are connected to your vision of future-you. In fact, I’ve set some for myself this year in regard to the number of books I want to write and publish.

But if you set only one goal this year, make it a learning goal–a goal that focuses on increasing your abilities. Examples of these include:

  • Write better openings.
  • Write better dialogue.
  • Get better at finishing stories.

The idea is to learn more, regardless of the outcome. When you fail, you should spend time analyzing why you failed, recalibrate your learning plan, and get back to it (we’ll be diving into the specifics of this later in the series).

Learning goals also have the added benefit of forcing you to compare current-you to old-you. Don’t try to compare yourself to Stephen King or James Lee Burke. That way madness lies.

Ask yourself honestly: Am I better at performing this particular skill than I was last week? Last month? Last year?

The second principle of a growth mindset means coming to terms with the fact that you’ll need to do lots of things that you won’t want to do. You won’t want to do them, because they’ll hone your focus on where you’re weak which will really sting that fragile ego I mentioned earlier. It will make you uncomfortable, often on a visceral level.

If you’ll remember the 1984 version of The Karate Kid and its key characters, Mr. Miyagi and Daniel LaRusso, you can imagine how much of learning how to write fiction is similar to the way Miyagi taught karate to Daniel. Just as Daniel was tired and sore from fixing up Miyagi’s house, your eyes will hurt, your brain will hurt, and you’ll be left wondering what the point of it all is until you get that sense of validation–obviously not Miyagi walking you through ‘wax the floor’ or ‘paint the fence,’ but whether or not you’re seeing increased sales, winning awards, or finally having your submissions accepted.

Having a growth mindset gives you the confidence to keep on keeping on when things get hard. And, I can’t say it enough, if you’re doing this right, things will get hard.

Hope I haven’t scared you away. 🙂 Honestly, if you’re reading this, chances are you’ve already accepted this.

So, please, tell me, readers, how do you approach learning how to write fiction? Are you only setting performance goals or have you already started on the path of creating learning goals?


  1. A Brief History of Neuroplasticity
  2. Mindset by Carol Dweck

13 thoughts on “Growth Mindset and Goals

  1. Excellent, Phillip. Keep feeding my “Of Interest” section, bub, and see if I care. (grin) The only exception I’d make is that if it’s out of your control, it’s a dream, not a goal. But certainly, point taken and well-made.

    It’s also interesting to note, re long-term goals, they’re easier to obtain and “look” more manageable if you break them down into smaller goals. Want to lose 10 pounds in 2 months? Then how many pounds per week or two-weeks should you aim for? Want to run five marathons by the end of the year? What smaller races will you participate in to build toward that level of endurance?

    As for eating an extra-large pizza in one sitting, I’m right there with you. That too is an admirable goal and one you can’t really prep for. I know. I tried, albeit with Canadian Bacon (fancy-shmancy for “ham”), black olives and mushrooms. (grin)

    You motivate me, dude.

    1. If I can motivate you, Harvey, than I’ll definitely take that as a compliment. I feel the same whenever I read your blog entries.

      You’re full of great points on this comment. Re: dreams vs goals…it’s seems easy for that nuance to slip by and probably another reason why folks have trouble there. And, also, you’re right on breaking down those big goals. That’s essentially what I’ve done with my performance goals on the back end. Those books I’m planning on writing have each been broken down into a minimum amount of new words per day at the smallest level.

      And now my stomach is rumbling for some pizza and it’s not even 8:00 a.m. 🙂

  2. For years, prior to getting published my one and only goal centered around learning. I was determined to emerge myself in writing fiction and learn everything I could. And you are so right, Phillip, I had to do lots of things that I didn’t want to do, but in the end, it was worth it. Great post!

    1. That’s fantastic, Jill! I love that you already had the forethought to focus on the learning. It shows with your brilliant writing and all that you’ve accomplished with your publishing creds, too. I’ve been giddy watching your dreams come true and you’ve given me a lot of inspiration! Thanks for the comment. 🙂

      1. Well, that’s one of the nicest things I’ve heard in a long time, Phillip…thank you so much. You’re inspiring many with what you’re accomplishing…keep up the hard work! 🙂

        1. You’re very welcome!

  3. Ever since I got back into writing, my approach to learning has largely been to simply write as much as possible and then to occasionally dip into how-to-write books (and in one case, an online writing class). The idea here is to relate the advice I receive to what does/doesn’t seem to currently be working with regards to my own writing, rather than seeking out writing advice with no personal experience to link it back to.

    My main writing goal this year is to amass as many rejections as possible. The writing/editing necessary to obtain all those rejections will be good experience, in my view, and an actual acceptance at this point would be a nice added bonus.

    1. Thanks for the comments, parasiteguy. You’re approaching this from the right angle. To paraphrase one of the books I’m using as a source for these articles (and which I’ll talk more about), knowledge is not know-how until you put it to work. I think your goal is brilliant. You can’t get those rejections without putting stuff out there. I wish I would have taken a similar tack when I first started writing eight years ago.

  4. Great. thought-provoking post. As I work on cleaning up some short stories and revising a novel, I’m learning through interacting with an editor. For some reason, “book learning” has never worked for me when it comes to writing. Maybe it’s too passive for me, or (more likely) my brain is too dull to comprehend. Yet, whenever I’ve gotten feedback on my writing, whether through a workshop or a beta reader or an editor, I experience that growth you talk about. Having readers point out where I fail helps me more than when they point out where I succeed. That said, I’ve ordered a copy of The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron, based on recommendations from several writers I admire. Maybe this is my goal for growth: to open myself to learning from a book instead of pushing it aside 🙂

    1. Thanks for the super-insightful comment, Marie! You bring up a great point about the mistake most of us (especially me) have made with book learning–we treat it way to passively. That’s something I’ll be talking about in the future, so stay tuned. 😉 But you also mentioned the other key part to effective learning–getting that directed feedback. That’s one of the fastest ways to learn, as you’ve discovered. The key is getting feedback from the right people!

      1. Oh, yes, the right people … excellent point!

  5. Hi Phillip, New reader here. I’ve had to primary principles when it comes to writing. One, from Saul Bellows, is to assume it will take a good 10 years of writing before I actually feel as though I’ve achieved any mastery. Two, the beauty of writing is that it is a lifelong learning process. There is always something new to learn, to discover, and to challenge me. When it comes to motivation, Ray Bradbury’s essay does it every time.

    Glad I stumbled across your blog. Picked up your 52 stories in 52 weeks and looking forward to the read.

    1. Hi Vikk! Thank you so much for checking out my site and for picking up the book. Greatly appreciated on all fronts.

      And thank you for sharing those wonderful principles. I feel that writing is like any other complex skill where improvement seems to come slowly and spontaneously–so long as we keep studying and keep practicing (aka writing), we can’t help but get better over time. It’s the “over time” part that makes it difficult to stick with…but if we try to keep the pressure off and just have fun, then it’s not such a bad pastime to have. 🙂

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