Home All “I can’t do it.” “Yet.”

“I can’t do it.” “Yet.”

written by Kathryn Britton 18 June 2014

Kathryn Britton, MAPP '06, is a former software engineer and executive coach. She is now a writing coach and editor with a focus on helping people write books, blogs, and articles that contribute to the greater good (Theano Coaching LLC). She has been facilitating writing workshops since 2013. Her own books include Sit Write Share on how to get writing done well, Smarts and Stamina on using positive psychology principles to build strong health habits and Character Strengths Matter: How to Live a Full Life. Full bio. Kathryn's articles are here.

“Yet” is a one-word positive intervention that can have a big impact on performance and persistence.

Imagine learning how to do some new skill. You try for the umpteenth time, and the words pop out of your mouth, “I just can’t do it!”

If you’re lucky, you’ll have a friend around that says, “Yet. You just can’t do it yet.” Or you can say it to yourself.

Whether it’s doing mathematics, writing, reading, dancing, singing, playing an instrument, riding a bike, driving a car, playing a sport, managing people, planning a major initiative, getting along with your spouse, or any number of complex human activities, nobody was born knowing how to do it. All of these skills have to be learned, and learning often starts with the feeling, “I can’t do this.”

Word from the PERTS Laboratory

Last week, Jacquie Beaubien from the Stanford Project for Education Research That Scales (PERTS) laboratory spoke to a group of us about practical applications of mindset research in schools and life in general.

She reminded us of the difference between growth and fixed mindsets. Each involves a way of thinking about the challenges we face. Each has an immense impact on the goals we set for ourselves and the way we behave:

  Fixed Mindset   Growth Mindset
“It’s important to look smart.”
“It’s more important to learn than to get good grades.”
“If I have to exert effort, it means I’m not very smart.”
“Exerting effort is the way to get smarter.”
“If I fail at something, it’s time to give up. I’m just not good at it.”
“If I fail at something, I must need to work harder at it.”
Setbacks are an indictment of self.
Setbacks are an integral part of learning.

Next on a trike

Next on a trike

Jacquie described a fixed mindset as a negative recursive process. That is, when people with the fixed mindset encounter what appear to be difficult challenges, they draw back, afraid of not being able to meet the challenge. Their performance goes down, reinforcing their internal views that the challenge was too hard for them. Their decreasing performance increases their chances of drawing back the next time they are faced with something difficult.

A growth mindset, on the other hand, is a positive recursive process. Facing a challenge with effort and zest increases performance, which increases the will to face future challenges. Even if the challenge is currently too hard, the response is, “Well, I can’t do it yet,” rather than “That shows I can’t do it.”

Carol Dweck was given the Distinguished Scientific Achievement award by the American Psychological Association in 2011. In her acceptance address, she demonstrates that helping people adopt growth mindsets shapes their beliefs about themselves and others, with impacts that go beyond academic learning. Viewing others as able to change has a positive impact on conflict from the Middle East to the playground.

“… an emphasis on growth not only increases intellectual achievement but can also advance conflict resolution between long-standing adversaries, decrease even chronic aggression, foster cross-race relations, and enhance willpower.” ~ Carol Dweck

Mindsets can be Changed

Research shows that mindsets are highly malleable. That gives schools, parents, and friends a chance to make a real difference to learners, young and not so young. Teaching students that the brain works like a muscle, growing stronger with exertion, can have a major impact on their academic performance.

Large Scale Research Efforts

One research study has been carried out with over 250,000 students participating in the Khan Academy, an online approach to math instruction. Some students were presented with messages on their study screens such as “When you learn a new kind of math problem, you grow your math brain!” These students increased the rate of concept mastery by 3%, while those that received neutral messages such as “Some of these problems are hard, just do your best,” showed no increase.

Another study was conducted with the Chile 10th grade national achievement test involving 147,000 students. The test included a growth mindset assessment. The study looked at the distribution of mindsets compared to combined performance on the math and language tests. In the bottom quintile of test performance, more than three quarters of the students had fixed mindsets while less than 10% had growth mindsets. In the top quintile, less than a third had fixed mindsets and more than a third had growth mindsets. Watch for a publication by Susana Claro and David Paunesku on this study. They will give a report during the September meeting on Advancing Education Research of the Society for Research on Education Effectiveness.

Return to Yet

Jacquie Beaubien described the “Yet” intervention as one that has been taught in middle schools to help establish a growth mindset culture.

Adult competence - with helmet!

Adult competence
– with helmet!

So if one student says, “Oh, I just can’t do this algebra stuff,” other students pipe up, “Yet.”

What’s happening is that students start learning to recognize fixed mindset self-talk in their peers, and by using the word “Yet,” they can nudge each other back into a growth mindset. By recognizing the fixed mindset in their peers, they become better able to recognize it in themselves, when it comes up.

Putting Mindsets to Work in Schools

The PERTS lab has a number of initiatives to help schools put these interventions to work in truly large scale ways. For example, they have transition programs for middle school and high school, both of which are accepting applications from schools to be involved in the 2014-2015 school year. These are simple, brief, and free (at least for now as they compare different versions for effectiveness). The high school program can be accomplished in 90 minutes of instruction time.

In January 2015, they are making available the Growth Mindset for Math online professional development program, “tools for creating a growth mindset culture in the classroom, one that normalizes mistakes and being challenged as part of the learning process.”

Mindset research is yielding small actions that have a big impact.

Author’s note: I chose the theme of learning how to ride a bike for illustrating mindsets for two reasons. First, I vividly remember the day that I almost gave up on riding a bike after months of trying. We didn’t use training wheels, and I’d been pushing off a wall without really getting it. I was astride the bike pushing it back to the shed and just happened to give a little push off down the little hill, and all of a sudden, I got the feeling and could ride a bike from then on. All those months of trying finally paid off.

Along the Lewis & Clark Trail

   Ascending the Lemhi Pass
    on the Lewis & Clark Trail

Second, my sister is an accomplished cyclist who has ridden the entire Lewis and Clark Trail, among other long distance rides. I have a picture of her on a trike as well as pictures of her as an accomplished cyclist. Untold hours of training and practice went into each of her trips, and she wrote great trip reports along the way. So I dedicate this article to Polly Heninger, a personal hero of grit, and to the awareness that nobody is born knowing how to ride a bike.

Polly probably would have said “Yet!” to me on my almost give-up day, except that I don’t think she was talking yet.


Dweck, C. (2012). Mindsets and human nature: Promoting change in the Middle East, the schoolyard, the racial divide, and will-power. 2011 Award for Distinguished Scientific Contributions. American Psychologist, 67 (8), 614–622.

Dweck, C. (2007). Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. New York: Ballantine Books.

Farrington, C. A., Roderick, M., Allensworth, E., Nagaoka, J., Keyes, T. S., Johnson, D. W., & Beechum, N. O. (2012). Teaching adolescents to become learners: The role of noncognitive factors in shaping school performance. Chicago, IL: 154 University of Chicago, Consortium on Chicago School Research.

Gunderson, E. A., Gripshover, S. J., Romero, C., Dweck, C. S., Goldin-Meadow, S., & Levine, S. C. (2013). Parent praise to 1-3 year-olds predicts children’s motivational frameworks 5 years later. Child Development. 84(5), 1526-1541.

PERT Laboratory (2014). Changing Mindsets to Raise Achievement: Evidence from the Stanford University Project for Education Research That Scales: Executive Summary.

Walton, G. M. (2014). The new science of wise psychological interventions. Current Directions in Psychological Science. 23(1) 73-82.

Whetten, D. & Cameron, K. (2011). Developing Management Skills (8th Edition). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson, Prentice-Hall. One of the primary themes of this book is that management skills can be learned. Nobody is a born manager.

Yeager, D. S., Paunesku, D., Walton, G. & Dweck, C. (2013). How Can We Instill Productive Mindsets at Scale? A Review of the Evidence and an Initial R&D Agenda.

Yeager, D. S., & Walton, G. M. (2011). Social-psychological interventions in education: They’re not magic. Review of Educational Research, 81(2), 267–301.

Photo Credits. The ones that are not of Polly Heninger come via Compfight with Creative Commons licenses

along for the ride courtesy of omnia_mutantur
Riding a trike, courtesy of Polly Heninger
Training wheels courtesy of killermonkeys
Polly riding a bike during Climate Ride 2013 courtesy of Kip Pierson Photography
Polly Heninger at Lemhi Pass courtesy of fellow trail traveler, Teresa Dutton

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Senia 18 June 2014 - 2:27 pm


I love this article. You keep surprising me with your articles. Yes, even after these many years of working together.

I love the catchiness of “Yet is a one-word positive intervention”!
It’s fascinating that “yet” does imply learning, and being open to learning.
That’s what makes it so great as an observation – that really “yet” is what can reframe some things for us in the moment – as it does for the school kids.

So fun that you modeled this with Polly’s bicycle adventures.



Kathryn Britton 18 June 2014 - 2:48 pm

Thank you for the flower, Senia. I’m glad I’m still surprising you.

Regarding the catchiness of the word “Yet!” Jacquie Beaubien commented in an email, “I think what’s so wonderful about it is that by just adding one word we shift our thinking from discouragement to optimism; we shift from seeing struggle as evidence of inability to struggle as a normal part of learning. Its simplicity is what makes it so potent because it’s so easy to remember and apply. As Marshall McLuhan famously said, ‘The art of the speaker is to turn all of your ideas into slogans.'”

Kathryn Britton 18 June 2014 - 3:00 pm

Here are some other PPND articles about mindsets. If I’ve left any out, authors, please feel free to add them in comments below.

Emiliya Zhivotovskaya (2009). Got Grit? Start with Mindset.

Nicholas Hall (2007). Brainset: Neuroscience Examines Carol Dweck’s Theory.

Sherri Fisher (2007). Multiple Intelligences and Mindsets: Positive Approaches to Education.

Gloria Park (2007). Praise and Performance. This addresses another very practical approach to creating a growth mindset culture at work, home, or school — paying attention to what we praise.

Bridget Grenville-Cleave (2007). When is a Strength Not a Strength. This addresses the very real danger that focusing on strengths can lead to fixed mindset thinking.

Aren Cohen (2009). Be the Little Engine that Could.

Giselle Nicholson (2014). Five Practices of High Impact Leaders

Senia 18 June 2014 - 3:15 pm

Nice to include these articles.
Fun to remember them, and to reread ones I don’t remember as well.

Sharon 18 June 2014 - 6:55 pm

I enjoyed this article and I am a firm believer in “easy” – easy to find, easy to understand, easy to use. I think this concept is simple and yet powerful at the same time. I will be adding its lessons to my repertoire.

Thanks Kathryn 🙂

Margaret Greenberg 18 June 2014 - 6:55 pm

“Nobody is born knowing how to ride a bike” – what a great way to think about the growth mindset. I love how you describe the two different mindsets withe the quotes or self-talk. Thank you Kathryn for another great article!

Lisa Sansom (@LVSConsulting) 18 June 2014 - 9:46 pm

Really lovely – well-written and interesting in the narrative! I love especially the shout-out to your sister as well!

Tom 19 June 2014 - 5:10 am

Great article! Got a lot out of this.

I think part of moving to agrowth mindset is having enough pain and things that you aren’t happy with in your life, that you snap and have to get out from it.

I really like what you said about the word yet. So often it is the subtle changes between thoughts like just that one word, which gives it a whole new meaning.

MJ 19 June 2014 - 7:26 am

Loved it too! Such a small and powerful word when we look at it this way! Very practical, very helpful, and so easy to use! Thanks for bringing this perspective, Kathryn! That’s an awesome article!

Kathryn Britton 20 June 2014 - 7:06 pm

Thank you, Sharon, Margaret, Lisa, Tom, and MJ. I’m glad the example clicked for you. Thank you also for sharing your perspectives about what makes people keep learning, Tom. I think, though, that people also learn for the joy of learning, not just to fix things that are painful. My husband and I have completed several Coursera courses just for the fun of it, with no other benefit in sight.

Amanda Horne 25 June 2014 - 11:27 pm

Hi Kathryn – I loved this for the impact of ‘yet’. Also enjoyed the discussion and your links to related articles. Thanks!


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