This Research Study Changed the Way We Think About Success (Here’s How You Can Use It)

It was my freshman year of high school and our basketball team had started the season with a losing streak.

One day at practice, as our team was struggling to find some confidence and get our first win of the season, our coach pulled us together and said something that has stuck with me ever since.

He looked at our group and said, “Confidence is just displayed ability.”

In other words, if we wanted to become the type of team that stepped onto the court and believed we would win every game, then we had to become the type of team that displayed our ability over and over again.

It didn’t have to be in big ways — it could start by making a free throw or getting back on defense or boxing your man out and grabbing a rebound. But if we displayed our ability, then the confidence would come.

Up until that time I had just assumed that sometimes you were confident, sometimes you weren’t, and that was that. But this was a totally different way of thinking about it.

If you could display your ability to do something — whether that was making a free throw, solving a math problem, or selling a candy bar — then you would naturally become confident in your ability to do it again. I had never thought about using my actions to drive my mindset.

In fact, it seemed like everyone was always saying the opposite. “You need to believe in yourself first, then you’ll achieve it.” Or, “If you could only learn to believe in yourself, then you’ll be unstoppable.”

Instead, my coach was saying, “Display your ability first. Prove it to yourself and then you’ll believe it.”

In other words, this was the first time I thought about confidence, willpower, determination, and perseverance as qualities that could be developed through your actions.

And as it turns out, my coach wasn’t just tossing out an unproven idea. There is now a body of research that shows just how right this approach can be.

Let’s talk about that research now and what it means for succeeding in work, sports, education, and life in general.

Growth Mindset vs. Fixed Mindset

Carol Dweck is a researcher at Stanford University and is the author of the hit book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, which reveals the difference between a fixed mindset and a growth mindset.

In the quote below, Dweck explains the difference between the two mindsets by using students as an example…

“In a fixed mindset students believe their basic abilities, their intelligence, their talents, are just fixed traits. They have a certain amount and that’s that, and then their goal becomes to look smart all the time and never look dumb.

In a growth mindset students understand that their talents and abilities can be developed through effort, good teaching and persistence. They don’t necessarily think everyone’s the same or anyone can be Einstein, but they believe everyone can get smarter if they work at it.”

Dweck’s research has changed the way we think about success. Because of her studies, we know that much of your success hinges on whether you believe that your abilities can be developed versus believing that they are fixed.

You Can Have Both Mindsets

The typical response to this research is to compare the two mindsets and say, “Obviously, the growth mindset is better. And, of course, that’s what I have.”

But there is a key distinction that is true for all of us: you can have a growth mindset in some areas and a fixed mindset in others.

For example, you might be very growth-oriented in your career and believe in your ability to develop and improve at work. Meanwhile, you might display a fixed mindset with regards to your health and believe things like “I’m just not the type of person who works out” or, “I was never the athletic type.”

But that’s just one example. The point is that it’s very easy for anyone to have a fixed mindset in a given area even if they display a growth mindset in others.

How To Develop a Growth Mindset

I’m not Carol Dweck, so I won’t pretend to speak for her here. (Carol, if you’re out there reading, I’d love to get your take on this.)

That said, I do think that the advice of my high school basketball coach can be very useful if we want to develop a growth mindset.

My coach said, “Confidence is just displayed ability.” Put another way: “Prove it to yourself in small ways and you’ll develop the confidence that you can improve.” In other words, small wins repeated over time can lead to a growth mindset.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen this in the gym.

You can bring someone new into the gym — someone who doesn’t see themselves as a fit person or as a strong person in the beginning — and yet their confidence grows with each workout they finish, each rep they do, and every 5 pounds they add to the bar. They begin to believe they can grow. They begin to see their health as something that can develop. In other words, all of their tiny actions add up to a growth mindset.

As an example, this is what my buddy Chase Reeves said when he started lifting consistently…

Here’s one thing I’ve learned from a year at the gym … I can grow, build up strength, whatever’s necessary. I’m not defective.

There’s confidence that comes with that — wisdom enough to know when it’s too much weight, confidence enough to know what I can do. Confidence changes the kinds of thoughts you have.

Chase’s actions drove his mindset. This is completely different than what most people talk about when they discuss believing in yourself or becoming confident. The usual approach is to “fake it until you make it.”

Instead, we are talking about starting small, proving your ability to yourself in a thousand tiny ways, and letting the confidence and growth mindset naturally follow from there. Confidence is just displayed ability.


For more ideas on how to use tiny actions to drive your progress, read these articles:


  1. Really like how you’ve turned around the idea of “fake it till you make it.” That makes sense but the idea of recognizing small wins and building confidence from there is more appealing to me. It’s another idea for a habit!

  2. I am actually doing this. Myositis had left me very weak in every muscle. Being able to use a gas-lighter with just the thumb pressure is a small achievement I celebrated…and now I am enjoying so many more. Feeling confident once again.

  3. Taking baby steps is the way to start anything new, effect the things you can control and expand as your capability increases.

  4. There’s a great psychologist/author in the UK called Richard Wiseman who has written some brilliant books about mindset and behaviour. He talks about the ‘as if’ principle – act ‘as if’ you already are who you want to be or can already do what you want to. I’ve found it to be very powerful :0)

  5. Another great article, James. I have often posted links to your blog on LinkedIn as I feel your posts are very applicable in the business / professional world. Any chance you will be adding a “Share on LinkedIn” button? Looking forward to your next post.


  6. This article really resonated with me. I’m returning to the gym after a long absence and I’m focusing on the process as you’ve mentioned in other posts – some days I can’t do all three sets, some days I have to lower my weight, but as long as I’m going to the gym, that’s my success.

    But what you are talking about here applies not just to the small wins in the gym that are slowly adding up to confidence, but also to the small wins in my leadership ability – small acts of assertive disagreement, instances of pushing back on answers, and other behaviors that don’t seem to come naturally to me. I focus on the wins and slowly grow – since these are new skills, there’s no ‘fake it till you make it’ possible. But a growth mindset is possible and I like having a name for it.

    Thank you for the article.

  7. James, nice article. You are right, actions can drive mindset: “If you could display your ability to do something, then you would naturally become confident in your ability to do it again”, but sometimes you need that self confidence to display your ability. In the beginning of your article you also wrote: “If we wanted to become the type of team that stepped onto the court and believed we would win every game, then we had to become the type of team that displayed our ability over and over again.” See, the belief comes first. “Believe and you will become” is not a BS. Granted, it should be accompanied by action.

  8. Great post, again!

    In that Mindset book, one thing gave me a deep impression is the experiment they did with two sets drawings done by a same group of people, once done before they received any teaching on how to draw, and once after they’ve been taught a few basics through a course. And the difference is so huge and so amazing that we’d all think those drawings would come from two entirely different groups of people. So that simple experiment just proves that our innate abilities, even those in arts like, drawing, singing, painting etc., are all learn-able and they are never fixed. We can all get better through practice and proper teaching and training.

    It’s an eye-opening book. Highly recommend if you haven’t read it.

  9. Loved the article James. As an entrepreneur I often face the ‘sometimes confident, sometimes not confident’ syndrome. Guess its just about doing the small things right on the day you are NOT feeling confident to make things feel right again. Just read a quote on the internet that said-“If you are only going to work on days you feel good, you aren’t going to get much done.” Matches perfectly with what you’ve said in this article. Kudos.

  10. This is your second impressive article in January! You have kicked it up a notch or two this year.

    The informative one percent piece was the first and now this gem. I have shared these with my pre teen kids so that they may start out thinking better of themselves than I did. I lived a fixed mindset until mid years of university where I believed I was as smart and athletically adept as I was and that was it. Fortunately, I witnessed roommates with stronger study habits and followed their lead of hard work and training.

    Glad I signed up for your newsletter. Thanks.


  11. The thing I love about your conclusions is, its easily implementable! I have a demo to the project manager today and I will definitely use it today and tomorrow for Client as well!!


  12. James, as always a well written article. I’ve heard this concept described as “Competence Breeds Confidence” Your high school coach was quite a philosopher. I’m always amazed at the insights into human behavior coaches have.

  13. One of the coaches I’ve always used for coaching business owners is that success is a mindset. I love this article, James. Thanks so much for sharing it. It really is true. And it works very well.

  14. James,

    Another great article. I totally agree with what you (and Dr. Dweck) state about the power of small wins and the way it can boost confidence, ability and ultimately success.

  15. This is NLP, no? Bandler’s work could be referenced here as well. We become what we think we are … or what other people tell us they think we are and we believe it.

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