Sharpen Your Axe with a Growth Mindset

By WGU Washington Chancellor Rich Cummins

Abraham Lincoln once wrote that if he had six hours to chop down a tree, he would want to spend the first hour sharpening his axe. Likewise, the most successful thing you can do as a student is an equally simple decision to prepare before acting. Learning, as with chopping down a tree, requires serious commitment and effort. The last thing you want to do is to attack your school work with a blunt instrument!

Brain Tree To that end, ask yourself the question most pertinent to learning preparation: What is your mindset?

Stanford professor, Carol Dweck (2006), identified two perspectives on learning that she labeled growth and fixed mindsets.

A person with a fixed mindset holds the unspoken assumption that intelligence is static and inborn. This person may approach math studies with the idea that a person is either born a math whiz or not and falsely conclude that no amount of effort will matter. This underlying frame of mind produces various results. As students, we may simply shrug our shoulders and not try to learn but instead passively suffer through while hoping to absorb enough skill to “pass.” We may feel a sense of inferiority or shame about not being “good at math” and will save face by not even trying in the first place. We might blame the teacher or “real world irrelevance.” After all, if we think we are going to fail anyway, why embarrass ourselves by putting a public spotlight on our incompetence?

A person with a growth mindset, on the other hand, understands that mastery learning is possible through effort and “deliberate practice” (Colvin, 2008). More important than innate ability is the willingness to fail and then learn from the failure. When we have a growth mindset, we believe that we can improve. We do not set artificial limits by pre-determining how well or how poorly we will do. Once the axe is sharpened with a growth mindset, we believe that sooner or later the tree will fall if we put in enough time chopping … especially if we have a chopping coach who can help us create “deliberate practice” rather than “repetitive practice,” which is mindless and good for muscle memory but not deep learning.

Though few humans will ever be “an Einstein” at theoretical mathematics, any of us can use the “deliberate practice” techniques that a good mentor can provide to master college math. For many of us this begins with peeling back the layers of learning setbacks to reveal the underlying mindset mismatch.

So, adopt a growth mindset, take a deep breath, and know that with consistent, conscious effort, “you got this.”


Colvin, G. (2008). Talent is overrated: What really separates world-class performers from everybody else. New York: Penguin.

Dweck, C.S. (2006). Mindset: The new psychology of success. New York: Random House.

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