„I’m scared, it’s too high!”
Even for my standards, my voice sounds high and panicked. I’m two meters up a climbing wall with no safeguard whatsoever and my whole body is shaking. But I haven’t made it to the top yet. I’m missing about one third of the way and I’m close to tears.
“Then come back down. It’s okay.”, says Pat.
I scramble back, trying to find the grips beneath my feet, and let myself fall back onto the floor mats. I start laughing uncontrollably. A wave of emotions washes over me. Relief – I’m back on the ground and safe. Resentment – this is all Pat’s fault, he dragged me here and he knows perfectly well I’m not athletic, and what on earth is wrong with getting a nice hot coffee. Pride – I pushed myself really hard and went the highest I could possibly go, even when I was really scared. Frustration, as I watch Pat climb up even the more difficult routes with the ease of a baby orangutan – why can’t I do that? Affection, as I watch him look around, analyze the position of the grips and calmly figure out a way – no wonder he is good at this. And an overarching, deep sense of satisfaction.
This is what growth feels like. It doesn’t feel like happiness, at least not momentary happiness. It doesn’t even always feel nice. In fact, I think many times growth feels horrible. It requires you to do things you aren’t good at. But I also think you have to get used to the feeling if you want to achieve anything in life.
I don’t remember how I came across Carol Dweck’s book “Mindset”. I think maybe it was amongst my recommendations on Amazon. I had read about it on Brain Pickings and had wanted to pick it up ever since, and it definitely delivered.
Dweck is a professor of psychology at Stanford University and her research deals with what she calls the fixed vs. growth mindset. These mindsets are essentially just two different ways of thinking about human ability. The fixed mindset posits that we are born with a certain set of abilities, qualities and traits and there is not much we can do to change them. The growth mindset, meanwhile, is a belief that while we are born with different inclinations and talents, everyone can grow and improve given enough time and effort.
The book looks at mindset and how it influences people’s performance in sports, business, their happiness in relationships and their approach to parenting.
In the context of business, when you do not believe you have a fixed set of abilities that you constantly need to prove, you worry less about looking good in front of others and more about being creative, making an effort and putting in work.
In the context of relationships, the growth mindset is helpful: it allows people to believe in and work towards change, it prevents partners from entering into a competition with each other, and you don’t expect things to “just work” so you aren’t disappointed when, like in any relationship, hard work starts to become necessary after the honeymoon phase.
In the context of parenting, Dweck emphasizes that to foster a growth mindset you should never praise children for their achievements but rather for their efforts. Schools currently reinforce the fixed mindset pretty heavily, Dweck explains, and she also points out how bullying becomes much more likely in an environment where people are either “winners” or “losers”, “smart kids” or “slow kids” and where children constantly try to prove themselves rather than improve.
Dweck did not come up with her theory out of the blue. Her book is based on almost four decades of research and she has studied pretty much every aspect of mindset you can think of. From experiments that suggest children’s motivation decreases when their intelligence and “inherent ability” is praised, to demonstrations that people with a growth mindset are less affected by prejudice, Dweck lists dozens of convincing reasons why cultivating a growth mindset ultimately leads to more success.
I was raised to adopt a terribly fixed mindset. I was praised almost exclusively for my intelligence as a child, while being discouraged from even trying athletic or artistic activities. Why bother, after all, they just “weren’t my thing”. I absolutely hate doing things I’m not good at. Effort, to me, was always a sign that people didn’t have what it takes – otherwise why would they need to try? I very strongly define myself through my achievements. Overall, I think if Carol Dweck and I talked for five minutes, I would be the type of person whose face she would probably feel like throwing her book in. Which is probably why I loved it so much.
Of course, books don’t change lives. People who read books change their own lives – or not. But since finishing the book, I actively try to catch myself entering a fixed mindset and apply the growth mindset instead. I try to think “I’d have to learn how to do that” rather than “I don’t know how to do that”. I try to avoid things I’m bad at less. Case in point, I just moved my entire blog from Blogger to WordPress pretty much all by myself. I still don’t feel like I’m tackling the really big issues, but maybe I’ll get there. In any case: I warmly recommend Mindset to anyone who hasn’t read it. If you’d like to buy it, do it via this link here please so I can get, like, five cents off the next book I order & review for you guys 🙂 Otherwise I’m happy to lend it out, too, just get in touch. And if you read it, let me know what you thought in the comments or via my contact form.
To finish off, here are a few of my favorite quotes from the book 🙂
People who believe in fixed traits feel an urgency to succeed, and when they do, they may feel more than pride. They may feel a sense of superiority, since success means that their fixed traits are better than other people’s. However, lurking behind that self-esteem of the fixed mindset is a simple question: If you’re *somebody* when you’re successful, what are you when you’re unsuccessful?
This sums up my own struggles and the struggles of many people I have met so simply and eloquently, I have nothing to add to this quote.
Let’s remember that effort isn’t quite everything and that all effort is not created equal.
Can anyone do anything? I don’t really know. However, I think we can now agree that people can do a lot more than first meets the eye.
So this is what I think makes this book superior to most self-development guides. It doesn’t push this really harmful idea that anyone can do anything, and if you can’t, well then, you’re just not trying hard enough. It recognizes that there is such a thing as privilege based on class, race, gender, sexuality, neurotypicality etc. It recognizes that there are exterior limits. It doesn’t say you’re capable of ANYTHING. It just says you’re capable of a lot more than you probably think.
Maybe you suddenly felt tired, dizzy, bored, or hungry. Next time this happens, don’t fool yourself. It’s the fixed mindset.
The internet: “Okay, so to install WordPress on your server, you’re going to need to use the console to create a new mySQL database.” Me: “I’m sooooooo tired… and do they serve cake here?”
Just because some people can do something with little or no training, it doesn’t mean that others can’t do it (and sometimes do it even better) with training.
Also something that I personally would do well to keep in mind. Noone is going to ask you at the exam whether you made a study plan and revised methodically for a month or whether you spent two nights cramming. Noone is going to ask you in the meeting whether you spent a week doing research and spent extra evenings designing the presentation or whether you did it in-between tasks or while eating lunch or apartment hunting. All people are going to ask is that you deliver.
When I woke up I felt as though I’d been through the wars. It would be nice if this didn’t happen, but it’s irrelevant. It might be easier to mobilize for action if I felt better, but it doesn’t matter. The plan is the plan.
It doesn’t matter how you feel. Again, noone is going to ask whether you felt like doing the work. Get up, dress up, show up and do your very best.
The lovely featured picture for this post was taken by Nikolaus.