Canadian Firefighter Magazine

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Between Alarms: A firefighter’s mindset

October 13, 2020
By Arjuna George

As firefighters we face adversity and challenges on a regular basis. This chosen profession, whether it be volunteer or career, provides endless occasions to grow and learn. Unfortunately, not all take advantage of the vast opportunities the fire service can provide you as a firefighter and as a leader. Not all foster a mindset for learning or jumping out of their comfort zone. This article is based off the work of Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck who pioneered the study of the psychological trait known as mindset. She has described the world as being divided up into two categories of people, those with fixed mindsets and those with growth mindsets.

Mindset is essentially your mind’s attitude toward things such as whether you believe qualities like intelligence and talent are fixed — you either have it or you do not — or changeable.

A fixed mindset can be identified in those that lack the desire to learn and are ok with the status quo. Those with a fixed mindset tend to spend more time reconfirming their intelligence than expanding their mind with new current knowledge. Fixed mindset firefighters are constantly concerned with how they are judged and avoid errors all costs. They tend to give up after failed attempts looking at it as a lack of ability that cannot be improved. Fixed mindset thinking can be seen in the fire service where some view firefighters as needing to be muscle bound heroes; anything else does not make the standard in their view. This mindset is demotivating and does not allow for continued growth.

Negative fixed mindset firefighters tell themselves “you are who you are, you cannot change it, you can’t do anything about it.” The more we tell ourselves we cannot, the more we turn our thoughts into negative ones.

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In contrast, growth mindset firefighters have a thirst for knowledge, for learning by way of hard work and commitment. A fixed mindset would say you were born to be a firefighter; growth mindset says you can be a firefighter with dedication and hard work. That is a winning attitude.

Firefighters with a growth mindset embrace failure as a prime opening to learn and grow, to be better than yesterday. Each failure is looked upon as a learning opportunity, not as a barrier to getting better.

The greatest attribute I see in successful firefighters is a growth mindset. Those that live those principles tend to advance through the fire service, are well respected by their peers and generally are successful thanks to their passion for adapting and learning.

One simple technique to make the shift is to start using the power of ‘yet’ when encouraging others or for your own self talk. The simple addition of ‘yet’ adjusts your thinking to new openings of possibilities. As an example, picture yourself mentoring a new firefighter on SCBA. The recruit says, “I cannot don the SCBA in under 60 seconds, I just can’t do it.” As a coach, help them reframe their thinking and attitude towards the skill by adding the simple word ‘yet’. “You cannot don the SCBA in under 60 seconds yet.” This nugget can also be used for self-talk with an ‘if then’ statement turning, “I don’t feel confident to present to the class on fire extinguishers” into “I don’t’ feel confident to present to the class on fire extinguishers yet, but with a few rehearsals I will be ready.”

One of the greatest lessons one can collect are the good and the bad of others around you. These golden opportunities allow you to improve your leadership by learning from others.

As firefighters progress through their careers, there are several opportunities to advance through the ranks. These can be tense times where resentment and jealousy run rampant. A growth mindset member would take this opportunity to inspire them to work and train harder so they too can be that good. They respect the hard effort put in which drives them to work even harder to improve.

To reframe your mind, challenge yourself to be a lifelong learner. Pick one area that you feel could use some improvement in and work towards mastering it. Look at the skill with a beginner’s mind. The beginner’s mind is a concept where you look through the lens of a child learning something for the very first time. Break it down, really get into it with no preconceived notions, just eagerness and a clear curious mind. You will find you will unravel areas you were having troubles with and expand your understanding of the skill.

One of the greatest side benefits to living a growth mindset is that it makes you more resilient. In the high stress, highly emotional life of a firefighter, being resilient has never been so important. With the mindset that sees challenges and obstacles as an opportunity versus having a sense of failure will increase your ability to bounce back even stronger.

Today is the day to begin shifting your mindset to a growth one if it’s been fixed. Do not accept that you don’t know or can’t do. Begin cultivating your mind to look at life and all that the fire service offers as an opening to success and growth.

If you find this a difficult challenge, might I suggest you reframe it as a “yet”. If you want to learn more, I recommend Dweck’s book called Mindset.

Starting today and between alarms, take the opportunity to have an inquisitive mind and develop your growth mindset with effort over talent.

Fixed Mindsets

• Ignore negative feedback
• When faced with obstacles, give up
• See effort as pointless
• Avoid challenges
• Feel threatened by others success

Growth Mindsets

• Learn from criticism
• Persist even with setbacks
• See effort as a path to mastery
• Embrace challenges
• Get inspired by the success of others


Arjuna George is chief of Salt Spring Island Fire Rescue in B.C. He has served on the department since 1997. Contact Arjuna at ageorge@saltspringfire.com.


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