What is your mindset about opportunities?

We live in a time of profound changes and countless uncertainties. Recently, as a society, we have been shaken up by the dramatic opportunities and threats that artificial intelligence (AI) entails. These developments are going so fast that the prospects are that AI will be able to take over the work of many people in the foreseeable future. What possibilities and opportunities will there be for us in the future? This is an essential question because opportunity is crucial to the pursuit of goals, and without opportunity, progress is unlikely.

Important: increasing equality of opportunity

The fact that opportunities are not evenly distributed within our societies (and even less so in many other societies) is an injustice and a social problem that should not be underestimated. The disruptive effect of AI could further increase the inequality of opportunity. Initiatives to increase equality of opportunity are urgently needed. This is why I appreciate publications by people like Joseph Stiglitz, Robert Reich, Richard Wilkinson & Kate Pickett, and publications about a universal basic income

Also important: our mindset about opportunities

Another factor that is important is how we as individuals think about opportunities. Yale researcher Paul O'Keefe and some colleagues examined the effects of what we believe about the nature and operation of opportunity in seven studies (O'Keefe et al., 2023). The researchers roughly distinguished two ways of thinking about probabilities:
  1. fixed mindset about opportunities: this is the belief that one's opportunities are relatively unchanging;
  2. growth mindset about opportunities: the belief that opportunities are changeable.
O'Keefe and his colleagues expected that in situations where there are opportunities, it makes little difference whether we have a fixed mindset or a growth mindset about opportunities. The opportunity is there and we can use it.

Three kinds of reactions when opportunities are absent

But they expected that in situations where there seems to be no opportunity, there is an important difference between these two mindsets. When opportunities seem to be absent, we can do roughly three things:
  1. show active goal strategies (keep trying and keep working hard);
  2. show passive targeting strategies (just hoping for a big break, waiting for the right opportunities to arise, just hoping to be in the right place at the right time, just hoping for some luck, just hoping the universe will match his/her wishes and remain confident that it is his/her destiny to succeed);
  3. giving up on the goal (pursuing a more 'realistic' goal and giving up).

The research

The researchers expected that a fixed mindset makes reactions 2 and 3 more likely and a growth mindset makes reaction 1 more likely. These expectations were confirmed in the study.
  • In studies 1a-4, participants responded to scenarios about competent people (or themselves) with challenging, long-term aspirations. When opportunities were available, both mindsets predicted high expectations for success and a preference for active strategies to pursue the goal, such as perseverance. In contrast, when opportunities seemed unavailable, a stronger fixed mindset predicted lower expectations of success and a preference for passive strategies, such as just waiting.
The last two studies examined the unemployed.
  • In Study 5, those with a stronger growth mindset chose to be more committed to a task about cultivating new job opportunities.
  • Study 6 showed that those with a stronger growth mindset were more likely to report finding employment 5 months later, even when adjusting for motivation-relevant variables, education, and socioeconomic status. They also started looking more actively for a job. 

Practical relevance

Meaningful progress always follows from a combination of opportunities offered by circumstances and what we do ourselves. Just having a growth mindset about opportunity does not guarantee progress. It is only one factor that influences the chance of progression. The objective circumstances in which we find ourselves help determine how we develop. The inequality of opportunity that exists now means that it is much more difficult for some to get ahead than for others. Improving equality of opportunity deserves a high priority.

In addition, cultivating a growth mindset about opportunity is valuable. Reflection exercises focused on how individuals can seek or create opportunities to achieve meaningful goals could be an instrument in this regard. By cultivating a growth mindset about opportunity, we increase the likelihood that individuals will choose active goal strategies that increase the likelihood of progression.