Perhaps by now you have heard of the idea of “growth mindset”. It is the idea that your attitude towards facing challenges makes a huge difference in whether you will overcome the challenge or give up. I first started hearing about this a few years back in the context of education. The idea is simple: some children are taught that what matters is effort. In other words it doesn’t matter what grade you get, or whether you raise your hand and know the answer or not, what matters is that you try, and that you learn. From this perspective failure doesn’t really matter, it is a part of the process of learning.
The other opposite mind set is called fixed mindset. People with a fixed mindset think they are either good enough based on natural talent or they are not. Fixed mindset people tend to give up a lot sooner when faced with a challenge. If they can’t do something right on the first few tries they give up and try something easier. (Presumably fixed mindset people would be terrible at skateboarding.)
This difference in mindset is why some people, when confronted with an obstacle just give up, while others keep trying until they figure out how to overcome it. The latest findings in psychology suggest that the mindset we have is a huge indicator in growth and success throughout life. It’s the difference between saying “I can’t do this” and “I can’t do this yet!”
If you are familiar with this theory then none of this is news. (It is championed by Carol Dweck and seems to be popping up everywhere lately, here is an in-depth article over at Brainpickings.com.) The basic take away is that educators and parents should praise children for making an effort more than for getting the answer right or wrong (which does feel a little counter intuitive at first.) But here is where I think it gets interesting. If you see a chart explaining growth versus fixed mindset they tend to leave you with the impression that there are two kinds of people in the world “growth mindset” people who suceed at everything, and “fixed mindset” people who are just losers!
Obviously in real life things aren’t that simple. Rarely do we meet someone who claims to be good at everything, or terrible at everything (in fact I would recommend avoiding both of these hypothetical people if you do ever meet them.)
The truth of the matter is that most of us say we are good at some things and bad at others. For example I have always thought of myself as a highly creative person, I am good at certain things like creativity, thinking outside the box, writing pretentious poetry etc. The flip-side of that is I have often said I am bad at lot’s of practical sorts of things, for example “I am bad at math”, “I am bad at being on time”, “I can’t keep a budget because I am just bad at keeping track of money.” We all do it. We claim we are bad at certain things and that is just how it is. In other words we have a fixed mindset for some things and a growth mindset for other things! Everybody is both sides of the spectrum at once!
Now think about it. This means that we are not really bad at anything! There are just certain things we haven’t had the grit or determination to get good at yet. In other words there really is no such thing as being bad at something, there is, if we are being honest with ourselves, only laziness about getting better at some things. Often when we tell ourselves that we are bad at something, really it is just an excuse to be lazy and not make the effort to do something the right way!
You are not actually bad at anything (maybe you are just a little bit lazy.). Let that sink in for a moment.
Here is an example. I used to lose stuff all the time, I was the absent-minded professor, it seemed I couldn’t leave the house without misplacing my wallet, my keys, losing sunglasses, forgetting my hat at the last place I had sat down etc. I told myself, well that’s just how it is. I am bad at keeping track of things. I can’t help it. Finally after spending a small fortune on hats I decided enough was enough. I bought a hat rack and I bought a small hook to place near my front door for my keys. I made a spot for all of the stuff I had a tendency to lose and every time I left or entered the house I got into the habit of stopping and checking that I had everything. It took time and effort but within a few weeks I had retrained myself to not lose stuff all the time! It turned out I wasn’t inherently bad at keeping track of things I just hadn’t learned how. And telling myself I was just bad at losing stuff kept me from making the effort for a long time!
I want you to try this. Make a list of five things that you think you are bad at. It could be anything at all, no matter how big or small
- I am bad at doing the dishes
- I am bad at playing guitar
- whatever . . .
Write down five things that you have always just thought you suck at. Now think about what effort would it take to get good at that thing. The truth of the matter is you just haven’t put in the practice to master that particular skill yet. Write down what it would take to get good at thing. The last step is to decide if that is something that you think is worth the time and effort to get good at. You might say “I’m bad at math, and that’s fine, I’m just not interested in it.” But if it is something you would like to improve you can.
If you do want to get good at whatever it is, then cross out the sentence where you wrote you are bad at it, because it is not true. And write down your intention to make an effort to improve at the thing you would like to improve.
And then get started!