Aren't you often told that when opportunity knocks, you should answer the door? But what do you do when opportunity doesn't knock?

This is a time of disappearing professions, pandemic-related upheaval, economic uncertainty, and growing inequality. These all can limit the opportunities people have to successfully pursue their aspirations, be it to land a job or a desired promotion, to pursue higher education, or to launch a new business. To be clear, many people face diminished opportunities due to racism, sexism, and other forms of discrimination; such structural injustices must be rectified through fundamental social and political change.

But to the extent that opportunities could be available to them, some people nevertheless feel trapped by their circumstances, seeing themself as someone who never gets any breaks, with no way to pursue their dreams. Might their paralysis be due, in part, to the way they think about opportunities?

Imagine a young, inner-city student who dreams of attending college, but whose parents never attended themselves and can't afford to pay for it. Or picture an aspiring professional gymnast who lives in a small town, far from the elite coaches who could hone their skills and launch their career.

How they choose to pursue these valued goals, and their success in doing so, will partly depend on whether they see opportunities in life as relatively set and unchangeable—what we call a "fixed mindset of opportunity"—or, alternatively, as circumstances that can be changed, what we call a "growth mindset of opportunity."

Our research suggests that people with a fixed mindset tend to approach their goals more passively, feeling hamstrung by their perception that their circumstances cannot change. Their strategies more likely rely on wishful thinking, hoping for a big break to fall in their lap, or for the universe to magically align with their wishes. They are also more likely to give up. After all, without good opportunities, how could one even hope to pursue their goals?

Under similar conditions, however, people with a growth mindset would use more active strategies like planning, hard work, and persistence. If opportunities can be changed, their thinking goes, then new ones can be actively cultivated through these strategies. So, even if no opportunities are currently available, people with a growth mindset might still expect to succeed in the long run.

In one of our studies, participants read scenarios that portrayed someone with an ambitious goal. Some participants were told that the protagonist received a key opportunity, such as a chance to be trained by an industry leader or an elite coach, whereas others learned that the protagonist had just missed out on that same opportunity. Participants then reported how successful they thought the protagonist would be if they were to actively work hard toward the goal. We found that when the key opportunity was received, participants generally believed that success was likely. Their mindset did not matter because the door was already open—a pathway to success was already clear. But when the key opportunity was just missed, people with a stronger fixed mindset thought that success was less likely than people with a growth mindset. Even hard work could not overcome their perception that new opportunities could not be found or created.

In another study, we examined people's goals in the real world. For this, we focused on a common yet crucial goal—finding work after a period of unemployment. We tracked a group of unemployed adults from various industries and backgrounds over five months as they sought to secure a new job. People with a stronger growth mindset began their job search more quickly and cultivated a more diverse array of job-related opportunities, such as engaging employment agencies, reaching out to their social and professional networks, directly contacting companies, submitting applications, and more. Most critically, five months later, people with a stronger growth mindset were more likely to have secured gainful employment.

These findings tell us that beliefs can play a powerful role in helping people to pursue their goals effectively and successfully. On the flip side, for some people, their beliefs may be preventing them from even attempting to pursue challenging but meaningful life goals. Seeing no clear path to achieving their dreams, people with a fixed mindset may give up before they have even started.

At the same time, it is important not to discount the structural barriers that make cultivating opportunities more difficult for some people, through no fault of their own. Our hope is that a growth mindset can nonetheless benefit everyone, and maybe even help people facing inequities circumvent unjust barriers to their success—while not placing blame on those who do not.

At its heart, a growth mindset of opportunity is an entrepreneurial mindset. It means putting your focus on the process of how to achieve your ambitions, given your starting point, and how to overcome hurdles as they are encountered. This is how challenging, long-term goals are achieved.

For Further Reading

Dweck, C. S. (2017). Mindset: Changing the Way You Think to Fulfil Your Potential. Hachette, UK.

O'Keefe, P. A., Horberg, E. J., Lee, F., & Dweck, C. S. (2022). Implicit theories of opportunity: When opportunity fails to knock, keep waiting, or start cultivating? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Advance online publication.

Paul A. O'Keefe is an Associate Professor of Psychology at Yale-NUS College and an Associate Professor of Management and Organisation at the NUS Business School, National University of Singapore (by courtesy). He takes a social-cognitive approach to studying optimal motivation and goal pursuit, focusing on the roles of mindsets, interest, and passion.

E. J. Horberg is a Senior Research Fellow at Yale-NUS College. Her research focuses on motivation, emotion, the self, and culture.