The journey within

7 ways med students and DOs can cultivate a growth mindset

Embracing a growth mindset can foster increased resilience, improved clinical skills and greater motivation.


The way we think about ourselves as medical students and residents can have a significant impact on our performance, in our clinical duties, during studies and in everyday life. However, many of us do not take the time to reflect on our thoughts, and we may make negative assumptions about our skills and abilities that can be detrimental. 

Analyzing how we are processing our thoughts and emotions about our daily activities can make a difference in our quality of life and lead to happiness and productivity.

What is a growth mindset and how can it help us achieve our goals as medical students and residents?

A growth mindset is the belief that intelligence and abilities can be developed through hard work and dedication. In other words, you can always improve and get better, no matter what your starting point is. Medical students and residents embody this mindset every day. From the moment we start our journey, we are faced with a seemingly endless stream of information to learn, procedures to master and patients to care for. But instead of being overwhelmed, we rise to the challenge. We know that with each new experience, we have the opportunity to learn and grow.

Research has shown that the current evaluation system of competency-based medical education—which uses direct observations and formative assessments—leads to a fixed mindset that emphasizes evaluation over growth. It also doesn’t help that students in medical education train in a culture focused on perfectionism. This hidden curriculum hinders students’ growth and their mental health based on the way they view the information. Promoting a culture valuing effort and hard work, where mistakes are seen as opportunities for learning, is a way to help encourage a growth mindset in the medical education system.

Students who have a growth mindset achieve superior outcomes. Promoting a growth mindset culture helps learners gain the skills necessary to become lifelong learners. It also fosters other capabilities, including:

  • Better academic performance
  • Increased resilience
  • Improved clinical skills
  • Greater motivation and engagement
  • Increased satisfaction with medical school

Overall, the research suggests that developing a growth mindset can have numerous positive impacts on the success and well-being of medical students. By embracing challenges, persevering in the face of setbacks and seeking out opportunities for growth and improvement, students can cultivate a mindset that will serve them well throughout their medical careers.

Ways to develop a growth mindset

Developing a growth mindset is not an overnight process, but rather a gradual shift in perspective that requires consistent effort and practice. In the book “Mindset: The New Psychology of Success,” Carol Dweck, PhD, proposes the idea that changing our mindset and nurturing a growth mindset is achievable. Achieving this can be done through various methods, such as:

  1. Embrace challenges: Instead of shying away from difficult tasks or situations, try to see them as opportunities for growth and learning. Embrace challenges as chances to develop new skills and become a better version of yourself.
  2. Cultivate a passion for learning: Approach learning with a sense of curiosity and excitement. Instead of focusing on getting good grades or impressing others, focus on the joy of discovery and the satisfaction of mastering new concepts.
  3. Emphasize effort over talent: Instead of believing that your abilities are fixed and unchangeable, focus on the effort you put into improving. Acknowledge that hard work and perseverance are more important than the innate talent of intelligence.
  4. Learn from criticism: Instead of feeling defensive or discouraged when receiving criticism or feedback, view it as an opportunity to learn and grow. Seek out constructive feedback and use it to identify areas where you can improve.
  5. Embrace mistakes: Instead of being afraid of making mistakes, see them as opportunities to learn and improve. Analyze your mistakes to identify what went wrong and how you can do better next time.
  6. Surround yourself with positive influences: Seek out people who embody a growth mindset and who inspire you to be your best self. Avoid negative influences or people who discourage you from pursuing your goals.
  7. Practice self-compassion: Be kind to yourself and acknowledge that growth is a process. 

A willingness to learn and grow

In the end, it’s the growth mindset that sets medical students and residents apart. They know that becoming a doctor isn’t just about what you know but about your willingness to learn and grow. By consistently practicing these habits, you can develop a growth mindset that will serve you well in all areas of your life, including medical school, residency and beyond.

Editor’s note: The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of The DO or the AOA.

Related reading:

The ironic tango of imposter syndrome and a growth mindset

From storytelling to healing: The empathetic power of narrative medicine


  1. BM

    Why does the author feel the need to seperate DO medical students from all other medical students in the title? It perpetuates the idea that we are seperate, or even less than despite the fact that we receive equal pre-clinical education with an ADD-ON of osteopathic techniques/principles. If anything we are learning more in the 4 years and can do more in the same 15 minute patient encounter.
    The title separates us like we’re the “other” group.

    1. Alexa Matthews

      Thanks for commenting! In the instance of this title, the author is referring to both osteopathic medical students and osteopathic physicians, not separating between types of medical students. Hopefully this is a little clearer, but please feel free to reach out with other questions. Thanks!

  2. Ryan

    As an added benefit, I’ve found that having a growth mindset has helped my anxiety and mental health. If I don’t know something, that’s ok, just learn or practice it more. I really appreciate attendings and instructors that have the same mentality.

  3. Dr. Dan

    Thank you for commenting on this important topic. In medical education (and particularly for medical school vs. residency), I hope that a growth mindset can become the standard of education culture. The difference I experienced between educators who this article would classify as “positive influences” vs. those who were more punitive was incredible. Unfortunately, it is rarely the student’s choice who their preceptors are. There were certainly rotations during medical school when I was afraid to hazard a guess when asked questions by preceptors for fear of ridicule. Other months, I felt comfortable being wrong and making my mistakes under the guidance of a trusted mentor who would then identify and help me work through flaws in knowledge or clinical judgement; those were the most valuable experiences in becoming a competent physician. If medical schools can reinforce growth mindset principles in faculty development and recruitment as well as remove educators who, despite the data in the article, still purposefully embarrass or put down their students, we will have a much less abusive and more intellectually curious medical education system.

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