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How to Succeed with a Growth Mindset

A couple decades ago a Stanford University psychologist by the name of Carol Dweck [1] 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 [2].”  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 [3] 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 [4]? For becoming fit? For changing our eating habits [5]? 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 [6], 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 [7] 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 [8], 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 [9] 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 [10] 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 [11]. 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 [12]. The promise behind these various challenges is we bounce back with more strength, know-how, wisdom and resilience [13].

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 [14] 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 [15] 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 [16] 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 [17]. 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 [18]. 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 [19]. (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 [20]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 [21] 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 [22], 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 [23], 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 [24] 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 [21]? What if we all but ignored outcomes [25]? 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 [26].

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 [27] 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 [28], 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 [29] 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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