Meet Mark

Let me introduce myself. My name is Mark Sisson. I’m 63 years young. I live and work in Malibu, California. In a past life I was a professional marathoner and triathlete. Now my life goal is to help 100 million people get healthy. I started this blog in 2006 to empower people to take full responsibility for their own health and enjoyment of life by investigating, discussing, and critically rethinking everything we’ve assumed to be true about health and wellness...

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September 25 2014

How to Succeed with a Growth Mindset

By Mark Sisson
62 Comments

Don't QuitA couple decades ago a Stanford University psychologist by the name of Carol Dweck became famous when she suggested parents praise their children’s efforts instead of compliment them on their “inherent” intelligence (“Joey, you’re such a smart boy! “Suzy, how’s Mama’s smart girl?”). The descriptive accolades telling kids how intelligent they are, her research demonstrated, actually undermined children’s self-confidence and willingness to venture new tasks or unfamiliar material. On the opposite side of the spectrum, acknowledgement of children’s engagement and perseverance resulted in their aiming for bigger challenges.

The research, Dweck claimed, identified what she called a differentiation of “mindset.”  When we’re operating from a “fixed” mindset, for example, we believe our talents and abilities are somehow set or predetermined. We’re either innately good at something or we’re not. When we accept a “growth mindset,” however, we view achievement through the lens of effort. We believe we have the power to develop our skills regardless of initial capacity. Clearly, we grown-ups can glean something essential from this concept. What could a “growth mindset” do for our health endeavors? For losing weight? For becoming fit? For changing our eating habits? For our happiness and success in general? And how would it change our self-talk and motivational strategy?

Let’s look back at the original research for a minute. Dweck’s much noted study examined the responses of two groups of fifth graders – one whose participants were told “You must be very smart at this” after completing a puzzle and another who heard “You must have worked really hard.” When each of the children in both groups were then offered the chance to do a similarly easy or more difficult puzzle, some 90% of the “hard workers” chose the more challenging option. The smarties? Most of them chose the easy one.

When the story circulated in the media, parents everywhere recognized their near-universal guilt. Some likely panicked, wondering if they’d doomed their children for all eternity. (Such is the crazy-making of modern parenting mentality.) The truth is, however, Professor Dweck’s findings turned instinct on its ear – and not just parenting instinct. After all, who doesn’t want to be told he/she is smart? Or athletic? Or a great this-or-that? We want this, yes, but the scientific truth is we don’t do well with it.

Because for us, as for those fifth-graders, we can get sucked into the expectation of the label. If people think we’re so great now, we suddenly fear losing that good perception – or our own positive self-image. We’ve given too much power to that identity, and we can’t risk the loss by challenging ourselves beyond what we know we do well. By the same token, if we’ve been overweight and inactive for much of our lives, we’ve perhaps come to identify with self-limiting beliefs about subpar genes or behavior patterns and feel we’re already set up for failure. Why bother? In both cases, a more productive mindset would be focused on our striving itself – not the outcome of each venture.

So, back to what works for us. We do well with affirmation of our effort. We do well with validation of all the hard work we put in. We do well with encouragement and support for attempting a specific challenge to begin with and for giving it our best shot. It takes our mind off of the outcome. In fact, it helps us detach from it and keeps us from identifying with it. It frees us up to play and define ourselves as “in process.”

This can be fun and messy and even embarrassing at times. Though it can sting to think of it, the truth is inevitable. We grow by stretching – and often (very often) by failing. A physical muscle’s growth is spurred by a well-targeted amount of damage. Our cognitive ability grows by mixing it up with questions that initially baffle us. We grow emotionally by encountering and weathering experiences that leave us flattened. The promise behind these various challenges is we bounce back with more strength, know-how, wisdom and resilience.

In the face of this stretching, a growth mindset imparts continual optimism and simultaneous humility. If you’ve been told you “just weren’t blessed” with the body of an athlete, a growth mindset will dismiss that judgment. If you have been told you were blessed with an athlete’s body, a growth mindset will discount that as well. You’ll recognize that it might confer certain advantages, but the end result is going to have very little to do with your genetics and everything to do with your exertion. The central truth is we’re defined by our action and not our impression.

Professor Dweck aptly highlights author Benjamin R. Barber’s quote, “I divide the world into learners and non-learners.” That says it right there, and it’s as applicable to a Primal journey as it is a fifth-grade classroom. Are we willing to be a learners? I venture the question because adopting a growth mindset doesn’t just suggest those without obvious innate talent can work their way toward achievement, but it also implies that none of us are ever off the hook no matter how “healthy” we think we are. No living off of other people’s perceptions or, for that matter, self-image. No resting on laurels. A growth mindset isn’t satisfied with any certain reputation or accomplishment. The fact is, for all of us there is always the next hill to conquer. Imagine the person who says “I’m done. I’ve done enough.” You don’t want to be this person. In fact, I wouldn’t even suggest having coffee with this person.

To me, it’s exciting that nothing is truly off limits to me at any point in my life. I give myself permission to grab at new experiences – and fail at them miserably. (My wife can tell you plenty of stories….) Because I’m not trying to uphold any assumption about myself or my skills, I’m free to do whatever I want and see how far I can go – with everything from parkour to heliskiing. We can endeavor more no matter where we’re at in life or what our health, physical condition or life circumstances.

Growth mindset prompts us to let go of limitations. We learn to bypass old scripts that tell us we’re too old, we’re too slow, we’re not cut out for a, b or c or we’re genetically destined to be x, y or z. Again, a growth mindset isn’t in it for the outcome. It’s focused on the process. The affirmation is in the undertaking.

Adopting a growth mindset on some level entails exploring those self-beliefs that influence our thinking and action. What messages are driving the bus each day? Don’t underestimate simple awareness. Upending negative self-talk, after all, isn’t an easy or quick fix process. Even if we get up the motivation to start going to the gym or to begin eating better, how many times are we beset by guilt that we haven’t accomplished this before? Notice and then let go of the neurotic, nagging and defeating voice that says you should already be where you want to go.

Right there is a major and unappreciated point. We so often torture ourselves over feeling like we should be where we want to go: what we should look like, what we should run like, what we should eat like, etc. (At a certain point in life you give up on the shoulds.) We give ourselves a hard time for not being at the end vision we’re reaching for, which only makes it harder to conjure the self-affirmation to go after that vision. Should we call that ironic or just insane? How many times does this twisted cul-de-sac thinking keep us from even starting our pursuit – whether it’s for health, for fitness, for a better career, for a more adventurous or more balanced life – because we shame ourselves for being so far from our goal. For example, I’m going to beat myself up about being out of shape to such a degree that I won’t have basic confidence to walk into a gym. When we feel shame about a certain trait, it only deepens our identification with it. Talk about cutting ourselves off at the knees…

What if instead we set out to consciously affirm and encourage our own efforts at every turn – letting go of all personal descriptors focused on talents? What if we dropped our (or other people’s) old stories about ourselves? What if we all but ignored outcomes? What would it mean for how much we enjoyed life, how much we risked, how much we were willing to push ourselves toward bigger challenges?

So, what do we do here? How do we actually turn this around? How do we go about cultivating a growth mindset? I think the obvious answer is invest in it. After all, think about how much you’ve invested all these years in a “fixed” definition of yourself and your abilities?

Investing in a growth mindset means literally practicing the belief that we can try our hand at whatever we like and at any level we’re willing to venture and work toward. Yup. Put into practice. Again and again. There’s no magic switch that flips us from fixed to growth as nice as that would be. We write over the old scripts and affirm the new continuously. Over time, they become our new default thinking.

Sure, it would be great to get encouragement like those lucky fifth-graders in the “growth” group. That said, there’s nothing keeping us from applying this principle to the messages we tell ourselves and the support we put in place for ourselves every day.

Live your efforts out loud. Show them off. Do that workout “check in” on Facebook. Yes, they can be annoying, but do it with humor or with style. Start an Instagram account with all the awesome recipes and changes you’re making. Get your share of fans and followers. Join or start a group or class. Hire a coach. The fact is, these support people aren’t just there to push you. Most people, in my experience, want a witness to their experience and efforts – someone who sees and appreciates all that’s gone into their process, someone who can mirror back to them what they’ve accomplished when they can’t see it.

Likewise, invest in your own feedback and mirroring. Record your ventures with journals and photo evidence. No feat is too small. Track your effort and risk taking. Celebrate it – the successes and failures. Make pictorial collages. Throw parties. Make your own blog or Facebook page around this new approach to life. Just as you can invest in the inward reframing of self-talk toward effort and daring, you can invest in the outward visibility of your efforts and the fun they can be. When we stop identifying with the performance expectation or outcome, we can chalk it all up to Primal exploration – and even adventure. Grok would be proud.

Thanks for reading today, everyone. What are you thoughts on fixed and growth mindset, and how have these principles shown up in your thinking? Have you changed over time in this regard? Have a great end to your week.

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62 thoughts on “How to Succeed with a Growth Mindset”

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  1. Interesting concept. Will try this in my personal life as well as with my martial arts class and see if it produces any notable improvements.

  2. Kundalini yoga provides a path that links body, mind, and spirit to the infinite while neutralizing the ego. The power of breath and movement are also lynch pins in martial arts, qigong… pretty much all eastern approaches to the body and mind. To find a Kundalini yoga teacher near you visit 3H0.org

  3. My mom was always telling me how smart I was. I don’t know whether it was true or just the words of a doting parent, but it did make me feel like it was beneath me to get anything less than straight A’s in school. On the other hand, I had an uncle (my mom’s brother) who said, “Don’t get too cocky. You’re going to find out that no matter how smart you are, there’s always going to be someone who is smarter.” I guess this could be construed as either a reality check or a lead balloon. Either way, good or bad, it made more of an impression on me than my mother’s lavish praise.

    1. The point I forgot to make here is that many children feel pressured to live up to over-the-top praise. That can create a lot of stress in one’s life. My uncle’s comment put matters into perspective for me. I learned that succeeding at something very difficult isn’t necessarily linear and can often be achieved via an unorthodox path. Knowing one’s own limitations can actually help develop a growth mindset.

  4. This is a great reminder. I’m constantly at war with myself to be this or that and often have to stop to breathe and remind myself that it’s about the journey, not the destination (since the destination seems to change like the wind).

  5. I do really like this concept of putting all the emphasis on effort, but maybe because it’s so different from the mindset I’ve had it feels strange to really embrace it. Although I do feel I’ve moved toward it since starting my blog and putting myself out there, but I’m still hooked on the results of efforts and find it really hard to truly value the effort I’m giving to something without seeing it add up to something.

    I’m torn about how to approach this with my kids too. I do plan to heir on the side of praising efforts over inherent traits because I do see the latter as limiting overall.

  6. I love that you pulled in the concept of old stories here. The older i get, the more i aware i become of them, and see how they can hold people back in life. “Live your efforts out loud.” — thats great advice right there.

  7. “Growth mindset prompts us to let go of limitations.” I love this! Thanks for sharing!

  8. Someone near and dear wrote me a handwritten note, that I keep on my desk at home, to remind me of the journey. It’s from “The Happiness Advantage” by Shawn Achor.

    “Happiness is the joy we feel striving after our potential.”

    1. Lovely–it’s also the joy in witnessing others (esp loved ones) striving towards their potential.

  9. If you like this kind of thing, read Ishmael by Daniel Quinn. It is a bit longer than Mark’s post, but not much (sarcasm).

  10. Dweck’s book “Mindset” is a great read. I love the concept that effort is superior to inherent ability/talent. After all, inherent ability is nothing without effort. I struggle with perfectionism, so I constantly have to remind myself that it is perfectly all right to fail. And fail. And fail.

    1. Definitely – I have this too. Failure is simply progress. The quicker you fail the quicker you learn!

    2. Tell me about it! I have some issue with perfectionism. Perhaps more accurately put, it’s what others view as perfectionism whereas it is me “doing the best I can” or “giving it all I’ve got,” which often is more than what others give!

      1. I don’t know who said it but it’s one of my favorite quotes:

        “Perfectionism is just procrastination masquerading as quality control.”

  11. I read Dweck’s book a while back, and it totally resonated with me. Growing up, I was always told I was “smart” by peers, and granted into the gifted programs. This means I didn’t have to work hard, right? It took nearly failing out of both high school and college for me to learn that no matter how “smart” you are, you still have to do the work!

    1. Emily, your comment reminded me of something my daughter said. She found out her IQ score at the end of her senior year at high school. She said, wow, if I knew I was that smart, I would have studied harder. A variation of your experience.

      She always did well in school even though she didn’t study that much. I guess she thought she could have been at the top of her class if she had actually tried harder. Life lessons.

      1. Damn does that ever resonate with me. I barely slipped by with a 3.0 GPA for my undergrad degree. I can only imagine what that would have translated to if I would have actually put my nose to the grindstone and studied better. Hopefully I can make up for it with my grad degree experience.

  12. Great motivational post!

    It’s always frustrated me when I’m talking about the paleo diet and people dismiss it- “ah you see it’s impossible for me because I can’t cook,”

    1. To quote the great philosopher Sterling Archer, “Can’t, or won’t?”

  13. I went to a therapist once, thinking I needed help with trusting people. She told me after a couple of visits that I didn’t have trust issues as much as self-esteem issues. My assignment was to tell myself 3 good things about myself everyday. I thought, sure, no problem. I came back the next week and…I couldn’t. I wanted to tell myself big things, that I was happy, useful, kind, etc. She said you might want to start with being proud your socks matched. Oh. Perspective. and perception, so relative. My yoga teacher just this morning suggested creating a mantra for our practice “I am ___” I filled my blank this morning with “OK”. very nice to come back to.

    1. OK is a great place to be in the morning! At a work conference recently, all the participants were challenged to express gratitude each morning for having another 24 hours in this world. If you can start the day looking at it as a blessing, everything will be a bonus.

    2. I realize it isn’t exactly the gist of your comment, but there’s really nothing wrong with being mildly distrustful of others until they’ve proven themselves, and caution doesn’t necessarily equate to low self-esteem. In this day and age, trust that hasn’t been earned and has, instead, been doled out automatically is pretty likely to get one hurt or ripped off, or both.

  14. Another great and thought provoking, article, Mark! Thanks!
    BTW, this has been my life experience; “Just try”!

  15. Great post, and very interesting. i feel really strongly about this actually. Because I am an elite athlete, and have run times in 5ks and 10ks that most can only dream of, they assume that it is easy for me, and that I can just rely on my talent. In fact I pride myself on being the hardest worker. I don’t make it look easy, and when i finish the race, I cross that line knowing I have given every ounce of my energy. I try to show people through my blog that it is not about what you are given, but about being the best YOU can be. This was a great read!

  16. I really struggle with this! I had read a similar article a while back, but it was in terms of gender encouragement and how society tends to tell young girls “how good they are” and “how smart they are” and tell boys things like “you could be good at that, if you applied yourself”. It’s the same messages, and girls don’t develop that “grit” to work hard at new things. Again, these are generalizations, but it follows the same thread of your article of a growth mindset.

  17. Further to this, I think it’s hard for parents/teachers etc. when there are people who pick up quickly on things. That was always me growing up. I was a “smart” kid, and people tell you that. It’s hard to encourage a growth mindset when the child really didn’t have to work that hard to accomplish the task.

  18. Very, very interesting. Ahh, to be young and immortal again! Now I have the “worm at the core”.

  19. I really liked this post but I wonder about the idea that we can do anything we put our mind to. For example, I took French in college. I spent 3-4 hours a night on homework and went to the listening lab nearly everyday to learn pronunciation. My teacher even gave me extra help. In the end, he gifted me with a D grade. I am not a stupid person but somehow languages escape me. I even have a hard time with accents. I am forever apologizing to people for not being able to understand them.

    On the other hand, I look forward to learning new things and am curious about a wide assortment of subjects. I have not really ever been afraid to fail at something. Although, fear gets in my way when it comes to physical things so I can’t say I am adventurous when it comes to physical feats.

    Today, pushing myself out of my comfort zone, I finished installing some cabinets a friend built for me. I had never done this before so it took me awhile to figure out how to do it and it’s not a perfect install but good enough. I sent pictures off to my friend for some validation I suppose, and to thank her and so she could see her beautiful work installed.

  20. Comments to girls often include variations of “You’re so pretty” which can also present mindset issues for developing girls who go through an awkward stage and don’t see themselves as pretty. Better to use self-improvement comments: “good thinking, great work, hard worker.” Why are boys valued for their strength or intelligence and girls are valued more for their looks? This is still going on and the “princess” mania just feeds into it.

  21. I’m not sure about this one. As a kid, I was praised for being smart – and told that because I was so smart, great things were expected of me. I worked hard as a result, but I never felt the risk of losing the “smart” label because that was who I was – it was part of my identity. So I felt a lot more secure in myself than someone who is praised for working hard, and who fears losing that praise the moment they sit down to relax.

    I saw the product of that sort of upbringing, btw, when I worked 80-hour weeks at a law firm. It took me only a few months to realize that the work environment in question was abusive and to start plotting my escape. The offspring of Tiger Mothers, who were praised only when they worked hard, put up with the 80-hour workweeks, the constant stress, the sleep deprivation, and the abuse, and never questioned it – because they were working hard and that’s what they were brought up to do.

  22. I’m even more enthralled with this website now that I’ve learned that Mark has looked into Dweck’s “Growth Mindset” research. When my kids were little, I heard brain researcher give a lecture on applying this to raising kids. It was the most powerful lesson I’ve learned and it totally changed my parenting style, and I believe that it’s profoundly affected my kids.

    Basically, a child’s brain is wired to receive a dopamine hit if they are praised. Therefore, how you direct your praise actually shapes your child’s brain! If you direct praise at achievement “You got an A!” or “You scored 12 points in that game!” you create a fixed mindset brain. Conversely, if you direct your praise at attempts, “I’m so proud that you are trying your best,” or “I saw you running your hardest down that court, and try for that basket ten times!,” you create a growth mindset.

    The difference is huge because in fixed mindset, the dopamine surge comes only after mastering something, and with a growth mindset, the dopamine surge comes with the attempt. Therefore, fixed mindset people tend to give up on mastering something–example, playing the piano–because they don’t get the dopamine surge until they could play the tune. Meanwhile, the growth mindset people don’t give up because they get their dopamine surge by *trying* to get the tune.

    Another example the lecturer gave was the fixed mindset kids took bland college courses, or repeat courses that they could do well in, because they need the “A” to get the dopamine surge. Why take something unfamiliar and hard, when you may not get a charge out of it three months down the road anyways? Better to take something easy…Spanish 1 that you already took in high school. However; the growth mindset kids took courses that sounded interesting to them, because they get the dopamine surge from the experience of the class.

    That’s kids, but I agree with Mark that we adults can rewire our brains as well; just got to start rewarding ourselves for our attempts!

    1. Nice post! I agree that we humans are versatile enough that although some of the largest advances and changes can occur most quickly in children, it doesn’t mean it can’t apply to us!

  23. I remember reading another article that was based around the same study and had forgotten about it! I think it’s a great reminder that we are capable of things we don’t, so the thought that “you’ll never know if you don’t try” comes to mind. Anything you want to try, is worth trying. But how can anyone “do their best” if they don’t actually put forth the effort.

    I was part of a FB group once that insisted on daily posts of workouts. I do miss it to some degree. I can admit that knowing that I almost would have felt guilty (or maybe I did at times) if I didn’t have anything to post. In fact, they encouraged you to post if you had done nothing! Talk about a support group! I miss that!

  24. Great post. It all starts with our mind. Our brain is the hardware and what we think is the software. Here are 3 quotes from Henry Ford:

    1. Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t–you’re right

    2. Anyone who stops learning is old, whether at twenty or eighty. Anyone who keeps learning stays young

    3. Failure is simply an opportunity to begin again, this time more intelligently

  25. We studied Carol Dweck and her studies in my Montessori Teacher training and I see the results daily in my class by praising growth and hard work, the process becomes the important part and the children strive to excel.

  26. great words here – and I think this also may help explain why some “over achievers” struggle – or why talented kids “under-achieve” or give up –

    anyhow, my favorite take away form this meaty post is the live out loud point – and the way you offer different ideas for finding community support. because we were built for community and fellowship support – but not all of us want “social support” in the same amounts or at the same levels at different times – but even a little bit can be key to success –

    🙂

  27. Great article. It’s sort of like the philosophy in Ashtanga yoga. There are “gateway” asanas (like Marichyasana D in the primary series) that you must practice and master in order to complete the series. To me, it’s a metaphor for life. You face challenges (emotional or physical), and there’s nothing you can do but face it head on and work at it, i.e. practice. It’s a real struggle, but the more you practice, the closer you will achieve ease and grace into the asana and overcome the struggles you are faced with in both the practice and life.

  28. In my opinion there are few better ways to hit a goal than to publicly state it. One of the benefits of Social Media is the stakes involved in declaring your new regime, which will be your guide for navigating through the tough times. Nice post Mark!

  29. Documenting things on my blog has been the biggest and most important thing in my life. I’m constantly trying to improve it. Another great article.

  30. I have just this week after reading lots of MDA forums and taken stock of my situation decided to let go of perfection in my Primal lifestyle. Today I was out with my daughter and we stopped at Starbucks
    I had a Salted Carmel Mocha with whipped cream. I briefly thought -I shouldn’t be drinking this- but stopped myself and said – JUST ENJOY THIS! – so I did. I have no guilt over it and my time with my daughter was awesome. After not eating sugar and grains processed foods for months now I know I feel lots better. This is my motivation to Grok on!

  31. The climbing guide who taught me accepted no excuses and when I expressed doubts about whether I could do this or that route, he always told me to dig deep… “you might surprise yourself. ” I always did and it totally changed my view to a growth model. Now I always say I have little natural talent but I just like to climb and I don’t give up. The attitude has permeated almost every other aspect of my life and I have let it spill over to my classroom teaching. Truly it’s the process. Trying really hard feels good regardless of the results and learning should be ongoing.

  32. This reminds me of the saying I’ve heard on a tv show where celebrities battle in a cooking contest, that you’re never better than your last dish.

  33. I read Carol Dweck’s book and was so inspired that I decided to attempt to become a golf pro – I had never played golf until I started this process. I started a blog at GoingProExperiment.com and so far it really has helped to keep me focused on the process, and I have enjoyed documenting my progress (and lack of). I haven’t thought to use Dweck’s “growth mindset” with regard to health, but it makes sense.

  34. Great post, I’m in the process of achieving a Bsc in Psych and recently covered this topic….it really clicked with me and made me think about the type of person I am in such a positive way….I would never have been called clever and my mum always said try harder next time….I thought she was just mean but actually it has made me very grounded and work hard for everything I have. While also giving me the confidence in myself to know I can do it if I put the work in.

    I live life through my telling myself ‘Reach for the stars and if you fall a little, you’ve still done your best’….and I say it to my kids all the time.

    Some people on the Psych course are talking about….’I’ve just done enough to get a pass’…..why would I want to do that, maybe I will only get a pass but I’ve tried to get as high as I possibly can…….

    I really believe in a growth mind, it sets aside all the excuses people can give. I’m looking forward to including this on my nutrition courses, it’s a nice way of saying, no excuses.

  35. Great post! As a teacher, I’ve always tried to talk people out of the mindset that they simply are one way or another. My father gave me a copy of Dune by Frank Herbert when I was a young teen and one of the quotes I always remembered was how the first lesson taught to Paul was that he COULD learn. Change, grow, learn. Otherwise, you aren’t living, you are stagnant and stagnant ponds smell nasty.

  36. EXCELLENT post. If you’ve not read it already, I am sure you would enjoy the book by Thomas Sterner ‘The practicing mind’ – the principles you describe above are very much the same as that in this book. Your website and this book changed my life! Thank you

  37. I loved this post and the timing couldn’t be better for me. Just this morning, my four year old daughter joyfully exclaimed – “Let’s go make a mistake!” – which made me laugh and realize that’s the mindset that brings true growth. I go through my “adult” life totally focused on not making mistakes, which is a mistake.

  38. Thank you for the wonderful post, Mark. There was a lot of helpful truth there!

  39. Having a growth mindset has changed every aspect of my life. Mindset can make or break any endeavor!

  40. Someone in one of the previous comments said that this post was written for them. I have to concur because I feel the same way. Great article!

  41. Mark: I would have coffee with the person who says “I’ve done enough”.

    Life does not need to be endless effort or exploration. There are points in time where resting on your laurel and admiring your efforts is enough.

    And once you have had that coffee, you say goodbye to your friend and get back to your own passions and efforts.

    1. I agree. I’ve had a growth mindset for 20 years and achieved everything I set my mind too, sometimes going around obstacles and over the rubble of failure. At this moment however I am trying to enjoy my home my kids and free time with them. Its a challange because I’m always thinking and curious but just cant get motivated to do anything but hang out with my kids, maintain and finish my house and just be okay with not striving at the moment.