Do You Think You Can?

Little Engine that Could

By Jamie Gardner, Social Impact Advisor

Do you remember the Little Golden Book, The Little Engine That Could?  It was a favorite when I was growing up. These days, I hear myself chanting, “I think I can, I think I can” with my 7-year-old twins over and over again as we trek up the mountain, and “If you think you can’t you won’t, but if you think you can, you will!” each time they are afraid of trying something new. But it’s not just the little guys who need to keep this in mind.

At any age, having the right mindset can make all of the difference in succeeding as well as for building resilience (how quickly one bounces back from setbacks). Having the right mindset is especially important for changemakers who are innovating in their company, nonprofit, government agency, or organization. It is a guarantee in this kind of environment that the road ahead will be filled with uncertainty and people who are afraid of change will push back against you. So what can you do about it?

Choose Your Mindset

Gary Klein, Ph.D. writes in Psychology Today that, “A mindset is a belief that orients the way we handle situations — the way we sort out what is going on and what we should do.” It has everything to do with how we show up and influence others – how we motivate ourselves, and them, to try something new, or alternatively, push back or even give up.

Carol Dweck, the Stanford University psychologist who wrote the book and popularized the Growth Mindset,  describes, “People can be of two minds: fixed and flexible. In a changing world, flexible is better for relationships and growth.”  She describes these two mindsets in the following way:

“In a fixed mindset, people believe their basic qualities, like their intelligence or talent, are simply fixed traits. They spend their time documenting their intelligence or talent instead of developing them. They also believe that talent alone creates success—without effort. They’re wrong.


In a growth mindset, people believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work—brains and talent are just the starting point. This view creates a love of learning and a resilience that is essential for great accomplishment. Virtually all great people have had these qualities.”

Conversation with Mark Thomas

An Innovator’s Mindset

When we interviewed Mark Thomas about how he approaches disruption and innovation, what kept coming out was how his growth mindset was a critical key to his success.

I first met Mark in 2014 when he was a FUSE Corps Fellow in the city of Los Angeles, serving as a senior advisor and later appointed as a director of the Mayor’s Operations Innovation Team. He was immediately disarming and we all wanted to know what he was thinking and how he was doing it. He was never afraid of sharing what he knew and he was always open to learning from others.

In his interview with my partner Karen, she commented that Mark doesn’t have ego behind his ideas.  He is humble and has humility about the work he is doing. He is idea focused and leads the charge, yet he is also persuadable. He is willing to move forward another’s idea and tweak it as he goes. We both noted that people wanted to work with him, even when he was there to change the way they did their work.  

In all of the organizations Mark went into, he knew his role was to shake things up in order to improve them. Since we know there isn’t a recipe for how to do that effectively, we asked him how he figured it out. His response?  

“You won’t find a template for how to fix everything. Look within your organization to see what might have worked in the past. You have to create a comparable benchmark, perhaps a similar problem that has been resolved. That discovery will turn into a baseline that can be used to figure out where the organization is open to change and where it might need to break (respectfully) in order to innovate. That then becomes your roadmap for adopting something new or executing a reform that can lead to better outcomes.”

Mark very insightfully added,

“You can’t be a change agent and not be a student at the same time.”


Another important perspective Mark employs is not expecting himself to be an expert when going into the situation. He recommends intentionally allocating time to study an issue by understanding what your key stakeholders are saying about a specific subject.  

“You need to thoroughly understand the context of the change you are trying to drive.” 


When Mark was in L.A., he wasn’t a subject matter expert in the issue areas he was working on. He was working with the experts in those areas so that isn’t what they needed from him. He brought a different perspective to the table and his growth mindset kept him curious, asking questions and respecting their expertise and how they defined success.  

Through those interactions, he became excited about the issues, learned the jargon and necessary details, and he was able to build their trust in working with him. Eventually, he transformed into the owner of and passionate about the reforms he was working on.  “That’s when things really become exciting,” Mark expressed.

What’s Your Mindset?

These are all examples of how Mark’s growth mindset enabled him to go into an unknown situation, learn what he needed to about why things worked the way they did and why people behaved how they did, to better understand how he could help change it and build the relationships he needed to make it possible.

Here at Start Within, we’re working on a set of activities you can do to help cultivate your own growth mindset. In the meantime, ask yourself the following questions or take Dr. Dweck’s Mindset test!

  1. Are you curious to learn new things and perspectives or do you already have all the answers?
  2. When you receive feedback, do you ignore it or get upset about it?
  3. When you experience a setback, do you give up or do you give it another try?

And of course, we’d love to hear from you too. What did you learn from listening to Mark’s experience?   

What mindset do you struggle with? What mindset do you see being value in this space and how do you cultivate it?

Jamie GardnerAbout the Author:

Jamie Gardner is Start Within’s Social Impact Advisor. She is passionate about bringing private- and public sector leaders together to bridge today’s most complex, systemic social divides and she knows the only way to make that possible is to start first with yourself and then innovate within.