How A Simple Belief Can Destroy Your Expatriate Life… or Help You Thrive

Foreign languages

“Sorry, can you repeat please?”

“This language is too difficult. I’m too old. I can’t learn it anymore. I tried for 6 months already and I hardly see any progress.

I’m not gifted in languages anyway. I studied French in high school for so many years and can’t even put 2 sentences one after the other.

I’m more of an analytical mind: give me some numbers and I can conjure you anything. But another language, no way!”

Is this the little music you’re hearing in your head?
Do you recognize your inner voice?
Is this what you believe deep inside yourself?

Do you believe you’re either gifted for languages or you’re not?
Do you believe that smart people all learn a language quickly and easily?
Do you believe that if you’ve tried for some time and you’re still struggling, you’re not a natural and therefore you will never be able to speak this language?

Carol Dweck, Stanford University psychologist, who has been studying how people cope with setbacks calls it: the fixed mindset.

Here is how she defines the fixed mindset: it’s the belief that “your qualities are carved in stone”.

Either you’re good at foreign languages or you’re not, either you’re naturally adaptable or you’re not, either you’re good at doodling or you’re not, either you’re a sportsman or you’re not.

When you believe this, you stop learning. Why should you make the effort?

You stop trying. You stop working. By feeling overwhelmed, discouraged and convinced that learning this new language is an impossible task, you lose the opportunity to network with other local people, to exercise your brain, to get out of your comfort zone. You give up… to grow.

Actually this works both ways: people who believe they’re naturally talented are prone to slacking off in their practice.

Fixed Mindset Consequences for Expats


1. You’re afraid of taking risks

In the fixed mindset, you believe that you’ve got a certain number of abilities. How do you know? Because you’ve discovered you could easily perform some tasks: for example you won races at your school without any training, you got good marks in the early grades in maths without studying, you could easily remember all the vocabulary of your Spanish lesson compared to the other students in your class, you made friends so naturally.

This is when you thought: Oh, I’m good at maths. I’m good at running. I’m good at languages. I’ve got great social skills.

But when it became harder, you started to struggle. The doubt began to seep into your mind.

“And what if I wasn’t so gifted after all? And what if I wasn’t so smart? If I wasn’t so skilled?”

You needed to work. Harder and harder to get acceptable results. And eventually you failed.

The ease to accomplish things had disappeared. Your ability was gone.

In the fixed mindset, when you fail, it means that you’re a failure.

Suppose you come to a new country and you struggle to make friends: the locals are not particularly welcoming, the expats are not your type, the school acquaintances are polite but cold.

What a disappointment for you who never had problems connecting with people. You never really had to work hard for it: you are naturally very open and you’ve always been in environments where people were quite outgoing and friendly.

With the fixed mindset, you’ll start to think: “How come I have no friends here after 6 months? When I lived in xxx, I used to have my hands full. I didn’t have to do anything for it. It just came so naturally. But here, not a single invitation. Even being acknowledged with a smile or a shy hello seems to be a feat. That’s for sure: I’ve lost my ability to connect with people.

I’m not made for this expat life. I’m no good for living abroad. I can’t even make friends!”

Believe it or not:  building relationships is ALSO a field where you have to work hard. This is something I’ve discovered quite recently by the way. It’s a job in itself!!


2. You’re afraid of being judged

Of course, you believe that you fail because you don’t have the ability! You’re just not capable. You struggle to keep your self-confidence and self-esteem.

You fill your mind with negative thoughts, you compare and despair looking at other fellow expatriates. You’re on a downward spiral.

Worse, the logical consequence of this type of thinking is: “There are people better than me”. You start to see the world in 2 categories: some people are superior, some people are inferior…

So what’s the alternative? The growth mindset.


Why the Growth Mindset is Superior to the Fixed Mindset


This is what Carol Dweck teaches and has been teaching to thousands of students. And it’s life-changing.

The growth mindset is based on the belief that your basic qualities can be developed and enhanced through dedication and hard work.

This is the very idea developed in “Outliers”, a book by Malcolm Gladwell. Having studied the factors contributing to a high level of success, he enforces the “10,000 hours of dedicated practice” that are needed at least to achieve mastery in a determined field. This flies in the face of fixed mindset thinking.

With the growth mindset, failing isn’t seen as a personal trait: failing means that you need more practice.

Michael Jordan is an emblematic example.

According to the NBA website: “By acclamation, Michael Jordan is the greatest basketball player of all time.”

But listen to what he says:

“I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.

I can accept failure, everyone fails at something. But I can’t accept not trying.

Obstacles don’t have to stop you. If you run into a wall, don’t turn around and give up. Figure out how to climb it, go through it, or work around it.”


The growth mindset and the fixed mindset are beliefs you can apply in all areas of your life: sports, artistic talent, language ability and even relationships.

Generally speaking, nobody is 100% fixed mindset or 100% growth mindset. You might be convinced that you’ll be able to speak Chinese after a few months of hard work but that you’ll never succeed to solve a third-degree equation in maths, no matter what you do. And this is why it’s so tricky.

I’d really like to point out how insidious the fixed mindset can infiltrate your soul. I spoke with 2 friends of mine last Friday and explained them the concept. Of course, they agreed with me but then they immediately recognized that “they were not good at maths anyway!!!” In fact, we’re pushed into the fixed mindset all the time. We’re so conditioned that we don’t even realize it.

Beware: the fixed mindset is insidious. It can creep in you if you don’t pay attention.


Mindset is contagious!


“You’re the average of the 5 persons you spend the most time with”, said motivational speaker Jim Rohn. And he knew why.

Look at how the messages you get from your family or friends influence you. Mindset is contagious: you are mostly likely a product of your environment in this way. But if you’re aware of this fact, you can do something about it.


Let’s come back to your language learning attempts:

When you express your frustrations about learning a new language to your partner, your children, your friends or your relatives, I bet you get one of the following answers:

1. “You’re kidding. You’re so talented. I’m sure you can already say lots of things. With your academic level, it’s false modesty.”

What does it mean? The person doesn’t listen to you and doesn’t take your concerns seriously. The person refers to your natural ability (academic level) never to the amount of work everybody has to put in learning a new language. This is driving you right into the fixed mindset.

2. It must be the teacher. Do you have group courses or private lessons? I’m sure the method isn’t adapted to your level.

What does it mean? Blaming others doesn’t solve the problem.
It’s just preventing you from taking responsibility. It seems to protect your self-esteem but it’s still based on the fixed mindset, implicitly assuming that you’re “smart” enough to learn effortless.

3. Oh, learning xxx is not so important. You can get away almost everywhere in town with some basic English. You’d better concentrate on something more useful/important.

Devaluing something you’re not good at (yet!) but which could help you grow is not a good strategy. After all, one of the big benefits of living in another country is learning a new language, accessing a new culture, getting a new skill.

4. You’re so smart. I’m sure you’ll get there.

What does it mean? This is pushing you right into the fixed mindset, only emphasizing your abilities.

5. You’ve been too lazy. It’s hard work to learn a new language but you’ll succeed. All little native children speak this language. You can do it too!

What does it mean? This is the growth mindset. So now get to work!!!


A mindset is a belief. You can decide which one you pick in each area of your life. You may have a fixed mindset for your musical talent and a growth mindset for your language skills. But guaranteed: they won’t produce the same effects.

Now tell me: which mindset do you have? How has it limited you or helped you?


Credit image Wikimedia Commons, Credit music Piano Society




  1. Lika Goldman says:

    Dear Anne, thank you for the article. I’ve found some insights of mine and my friends there. It’s always tricky to control your mind without fixing in some ways 🙂

  2. Evelyn Simpson says:

    Great article Anne and so true. When I think of expats I’ve encountered, the people who have made the most of the experience are the people who have embraced the experience as an opportunity for growth. The people who are fixated on how they think life “should” be battle their way through daily existence, fighting everything and making themselves unhappy at the same time. But we all have our “fixed” moments…..

    • Thanks a lot, Evelyn for sharing your experience. I totally agree about our trend to “naturally” shift towards a fixed mindset under certain circumstances (whether it’s under the influence of the host culture, our family and friends or our education and our personality). Being aware of the power of our mindset (both the fixed and the growth mindset) will hopefully help us detect when we take the wrong path and prompt us to make the necessary adjustments. It’s not an easy task but well worth it, I believe 🙂


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