June 28, 2020
You’ve heard it before. Change your mindset, and your world will transform.
“To become a different kind of person is to experience the world differently. When your mind changes, the world changes. And when we respond differently to the world, the world responds differently to us.” — David Loy, in “Rethinking Karma”
We hold on to lots of “I am’s” that may be doing us a disservice. When I think I know who I am, does that somehow shape or, more importantly, limit who I might be, or how I might transform with time?
I am kind—except when I’m not. I am scared—but only sometimes. I am pretty good at engaging with people—except when I’m feeling insecure. I am bad at math, but is that because I haven’t spent time understanding it? I am tall—except that I’m shrinking, so how long will that last? I am thin—but as I get older, it can relate more to looking haggard than fit.
In her book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, researcher and author Carolyn Dweck explores the difference between a fixed versus a growth mindset. Someone with a fixed mindset believes that their basic qualities are carved in stone. A growth mindset is based on the belief that qualities are things we can cultivate through desire and effort.
Although we all differ in terms of our various talents, aptitudes, interests, and temperaments, Dweck’s research suggests that everyone can change and grow through application and experience.
Years ago, I realized I was sick of hearing myself wax poetic about who I thought I was. I wanted to stop replaying these ideas about myself in my head and also stop sharing them with others. I realized that when I’m in a fixed mindset, believing that I know myself, that I know exactly who I am, I can feel like I have some degree of control and a sense of security. Like I’ve got it together.
But Dweck says: “Why waste time proving over and over how great you are–or are not–when you could be getting better? Why hide deficiencies instead of overcoming them?”
A fixed mindset can backfire and keep us from growing. If I hold on to the idea that “I am kind,” it is possible I won’t notice when I’m acting like a rotter, because I’m attached to an unrealistic belief that I am always kind. If I drop the idea that I’m “always” kind, I suspect I’d be more open to the possibility that although yes, I am often kind, sometimes I’m not. When I allow myself to see that as a growth opportunity, I can choose to be more thoughtful or considerate. If I don’t see it, I am likely to unknowingly continue acting like a rotter.
Dropping fixed ideas about ourselves allows for progress and forward movement. If I challenge the idea that I’m bad at math, I’m freed up to go to the library and get a basic primer on algebra. Just because I passed basic algebra by the skin of my teeth when I was fourteen doesn’t mean that I suck at math. It simply means I haven’t reached my potential in that area, and I still have a chance to improve. It can be crazy exciting to think about who we might be when we drop the “I am’s” and allow ourselves to be whoever we are in each new moment.
Dweck also says: “When you enter a mindset, you enter a new world. In one world—the world of fixed traits—success is about proving you’re smart or talented—validating yourself. In the other—the world of changing qualities—it’s about stretching yourself to learn something new. It’s about developing yourself.”
If you’ve read this far, I’ve accomplished my main goal—to get you interested in exploring a growth mindset.
Here are seven ideas I’ve been playing with for years. I hope they whet your appetite to keep learning about what can happen when we shift from a fixed mindset to a growth mindset:
1. Acknowledge and make friends with your imperfections.
When we hide from our limitations, we will likely act them out rather than grow through them. Whatever we repress or suppress gets bigger. The idea of snuggling up with our limitations may seem crazy, but believe me, it’s not. Looking at the entirety of who we are is the only way to fully take advantage of our potential.
2. Explore the research on brain plasticity.
Challenge the belief that “this is just who I am.” Because of the research on neuroplasticity, we recognize that all we know about ourselves is who we are today. Tomorrow we can be just a little bit different. As Shunryu Suzuki famously said, “We are all perfect, and everybody can use a little improvement.”
3. Learn about learning strategies.
Read “The Seven Principles of Accelerated Learning,” based on The Accelerated Learning Handbook by Dave Meier. It explains that good learning involves the whole mind and body with all its emotions, senses, and receptors. Meier says we need to stop thinking of learning as a left-brain activity when, in reality, it is a whole-brain activity. We need all our parts to work together. Meier reinforces that positive feelings—learning that is joyful, relaxed, and engaging—accelerate learning.
4. Accept that growth involves effort, discomfort, and at times, failure.
Replace “I failed,” with “I learned.” And then elaborate on and capture what you learned. Learn from others’ mistakes. Not to feel superior, but to avoid making the same ones.
5. Reframe criticism as constructive feedback.
None of us seeks harsh criticism, but we do ourselves a service when we seek constructive feedback. We can’t know what we don’t know before we know it, so we need to give ourselves a break and allow others to help us learn and grow.
6. Be realistic about a timeline and adopt the mantra “not yet.”
It takes time to learn, change, and grow. Our brains develop new neural pathways when we feed information in small bites, with repetition and practice. Be patient with yourself.
When you become impatient, remind yourself that you haven’t mastered it–yet, Remind yourself that you can.
Take a cue from mindfulness. To develop our attention muscle, we repeatedly catch our wandering mind and bring it back to our focus of attention, which might be the breath. With each return to the breath, we are building the attention muscle in our mind. We practice this way for the same reason we do repetitions at the gym—to build a muscle. Any lasting change will involve repetition and practice, and won’t happen overnight.
7. Own your attitude.
From this moment on, take 100% responsibility for how you handle what life hands you. Make learning, not winning, your goal. Surround yourself with like-minded people and celebrate every small victory along the way.
I’m with Shunryu Suzuki: “We are all perfect, and everybody can use a little improvement.”
Play with these ideas and take action, one step at a time. Not with the attitude of doing a serious overhaul of your flawed self, but to add to the quality of your life by stretching beyond what you thought was possible and surprising yourself by how far you can go.