The What If Experience

Explore a new "What If..." question about life each week with some thoughts, some answers and some action steps. Share my journey of personal growth and living in possibility.
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Jan 28, 2018

We’ve been talking for the last several weeks about what you need in your toolbox to make lasting change in your life. We covered some basic gear-n-gadget things I use to keep myself on track and the last few weeks we talked about people, the people we do need and the people we don’t need around. This week, we’ve got one final tool. It’s your mindset. Don’t you roll your eyes at me…now, don’t, I can see them rolling, c’mon. Hang with me. There’s real science here and important information.

Carol Dweck, Ph.D. in Psychology and professor at Standford University became interested in her students’ attitudes about failure over 30 years ago and ever since then, she’s been studying how changing our beliefs (even the very smallest ones) can change our lives. You can read about her findings in Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. Here’s how she talks about it in her book:

For twenty years, my research has shown that the view you adopt for yourself profoundly affects the way you lead your life. It can determine whether you become the person you want to be and whether you accomplish the things you value.

Believing that your qualities are carved in stone — the fixed mindset — creates an urgency to prove yourself over and over. If you have only a certain amount of intelligence, a certain personality, and a certain moral character — well, then you’d better prove that you have a healthy dose of them…

Every situation calls for a confirmation of their intelligence, personality, or character. Every situation is evaluated: Will I succeed or fail? Will I look smart or dumb? Will I be accepted or rejected? Will I feel like a winner or a loser?

There’s another mindset in which these traits are not simply a hand you’re dealt and have to live with, always trying to convince yourself and others that you have a royal flush when you’re secretly worried it’s a pair of tens. In this mindset, the hand you’re dealt is just the starting point for development. This growth mindset is based on the belief that your basic qualities are things you can cultivate through your efforts…

Do people with this mindset believe that anyone can be anything, that anyone with proper motivation or education can become Einstein or Beethoven? No, but they believe that a person’s true potential is unknown (and unknowable); that it’s impossible to foresee what can be accomplished with years of passion, toil, and training.

So, how you think about how you think and how you think about who you are affects your behavior. Dweck found that people with a growth mentality are more successful in every aspect of their lives and live with lower stress levels.

A fixed mindset believes that the things that make us who we are, our personality, our intelligence level, our creativity, everything about our abilities is unchangeable. How smart we are is just how smart we are. How creative we are is just how creative we are. All these things are set at birth and can’t be changed.

A growth mindset, on the other hand, believes that all these things that make up who we are are simply a starting point. How you develop them determines your potential, not your birth.

People with these two mindsets actually think differently and respond to information differently. When brain activity is measured, those with a fixed mindset have more brain activity when they are being told how they did. They’re responding to how they’re perceived. Those with a growth mindset showed more activity when being told how they can improve. They’re more concerned with how they learn. The activity in their brain shows them translating critique into improvement rather than into judgment.

Why does this matter?

My son is a sixth grader. He’s always breezed through school and for the first time is starting to have to work at it a little bit. Not much, but a little bit. He’s always been told he’s smart by many people around him. So, imagine for a moment that you’re him. You think you’re smart. School is easy. You don’t need to work at it. All the sudden you run up against something more difficult. (remember, you’re not an adult able to think about it in adult terms.). So, you hit something that’s hard and you have a setback. You struggle. If you have a fixed mindset and school gets hard…what’s wrong? I guess you’ve hit your limit. I suppose I’m not as smart as everyone thought I was. I suppose this is the extent of my ability. This is where my smart runs out.

How does your belief about yourself affect your actions? What happens next time you start to struggle? Statistics say you’re likely to become uninterested and give up. If my son starts struggling, believes that means he’s just not good at something, becomes uninterested and gives up…what do you see happening in school for the next six to ten years? What would that habitual belief and practice lead to in his job? His marriage?

If, on the other hand, he has a growth mindset and he begins to struggle, he does not believe there’s a glass ceiling on his ability. So, a struggle is not a judgment on his capacity. It is simply a struggle and seen as an opportunity for growth. So, let’s say he struggles. And believes there’s no reason why he can’t succeed, so doubles down and works at it a little harder. Finds ways to improve. And succeeds. What happens the next time he hits a struggle? What patterns for life begin to be laid down because of his belief about his own abilities?

I don’t know what you’ve been told about your abilities. I don’t know the words spoken into your life and taken into your heart as truth. But, science is proving that our brains are far more malleable than we’ve ever believed. Our brains can be changed at any age. Scientists call it neuroplasticity and it’s really good news for us. If you’ve always believed you’re just not smart enough. Not creative enough. Not organized enough. Not outgoing enough. You’re wrong. You may not be those things…yet. But, where you are now is not at the fullness of your capacity. Where you are now is simply a starting point.

You need a growth mindset in your toolbox to effect change. How you think about your potential matters. What if you fall toward the fixed mindset? Are you doomed? Nope. Your mindset can be changed. Neuroplasticity, remember? Here’s a ridiculously long list of things you can do to move toward a growth mindset.

  1. Recognize and praise your own effort rather than typical success measurements.
  2. Practice doing things that challenge you, then find ways to enjoy the challenge.
  3. Don’t attribute your success (or failure) to ingrained ability; instead, notice the hard work and effort you’ve put in.
  4. Begin to link your struggles with a sense of adventure.
  5. Argue with your inner dialog that tells you you can’t. Talk Back. Take control of the words you listen to in your head.
  6. Find something positive in any setback.
  7. Constantly celebrate small victories.
  8. Exercise your mind. Try meditation and mindfulness training.
  9. Acknowledge and embrace imperfections.
  10. Reframe your thinking about challenges as opportunities.
  11. Replace the word “failing” in your vocabulary with the word “learning”.
  12. Stop seeking approval from others or performing for others.
  13. Cultivate a sense of purpose.
  14. Celebrate your growth with others and notice and celebrate others’ growth.
  15. Emphasize growth over speed. What you’re learning is more important than how fast you’re learning.
  16. Reward and praise actions, not traits.
  17. Determine to understand criticism as positive and desirable.
  18. Regard effort more highly than talent.
  19. Emphasize the importance of brain training.
  20. Cultivate grit.
  21. Use the word "Yet". You aren’t good at that…yet.
  22. Value process in life, the journey instead of the end result, the goal or the destination
  23. Follow the research on brain plasticity, steep yourself in the science.
  24. Practice taking risks.
  25. Never "get there" but instead see goal setting as a never-ending process.
  26. See learning realistically, it takes time.
  27. Realize that practice equals mastery.
  28. Take ownership over your own attitude.
  29. Become more aware of your gifts, talents, and abilities and how you've grown them throughout your life.
  30. Cultivate curiosity.
  31. Practice taking on challenges. Start small and grow with them
  32. Value learning over typical success metrics..
  33. Embrace failure.
  34. Seek out and practice receiving feedback.
  35. If you’re struggling with learning something, explore new learning styles, practices and tactics.
  36. Practice thinking about new strategies to use to change your results.

My son takes piano lessons. He hates it. Well, he constantly tells me he hates it. He cries, rages and complains. What he really hates is taking time away from his games. I make him do it for reasons that have nothing to do with music. I think a music education is important. But, he’s also doing it because sometimes we have to do things in life we don’t like and he needs to learn to work at those things he doesn’t want to do just as hard and with as much grace as he does the things he enjoys. As I mentioned the tears and whining, that lesson obviously has yet to be learned.

He’s also doing it so that he has a tangible example that effort makes a difference. That practice equals mastery. His recital pieces usually seem difficult at the beginning of each preparation period. But, working on the pieces consistently over time yields a beautiful performance. Doing these kinds of things can help him cultivate a growth mindset. It’s a tangible example of expanded capabilities.

Drawing used to be a part of every student’s education. It was regarded as a skill that was taught and learned, not the “You have it or you don’t” attitude we have about it now. I understand perspective and design, but I don’t draw very well. So, I started a sketch diary. It’s amazing to look back on my progress. Practice leads to mastery. I can learn to draw. Am I as good as I’d like to be? No. Will I be an amazing sketch artist in the future? Maybe…but, not likely. It teaches me to value progress. I post them on social media, so it’s also teaching me to embrace imperfection. And I believe that I’ll only improve with practice.

Nelson Mandela said, and I wish it for you, “May your choices reflect your hopes, not your fears.”

Where do you fall on the continuum of belief? How do you think about your own abilities? You need a growth mindset in your toolbox in order to believe that change is truly possible in your life. What will you do to move yourself farther toward a growth mindset?

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