Wednesday, February 15, 2017

A Tale of Two Mindsets


Last week I bumped into the mother of the young graduate who had starred in all the musical productions at my children's former school (They didn't change schools. They have all since graduated!). Now, please understand that as far as we were concerned, her daughter was an exceptional talent. She sang beautifully. She played piano beautifully. She was the automatic pick for the lead in every school musical. And I genuinely loved watching her perform. I asked her mum how her daughter was enjoying the VCA. She hesitated, debating internally whether or not to be truthful which was not something I had anticipated. I guess I assumed I would get a rapturous response. "Well", she said, "It's not so easy. In truth, at school she was a very big fish in a small pond. Here she's a small fish, among a lot of fish and in a big pond. She's finding it quite difficult."

Carol Dweck's writings on Mindsets based on decades of research conducted by the Stanford University psychologist plays out in my life and in my work every day. I read the book years ago and gave it to my son. We never quite found it again but it was good enough that I ordered another one. I found its basic premise fascinating and it resonated with my observed experience strongly. I did think Carol could have got to the point earlier and finished it quicker. I was not alone. Apparently a lot of people said the same thing on Amazon. Perhaps it could have been an HBR article - a classic, no doubt - not necessarily a whole book. But why do we feel the need to jump to evaluate, and critically so? Who cares if it took a while? If we got anything out of it, it was worth it, wasn't it? Paradoxically, herein lies the crux of Dweck's polemic on mindset.

If you're one of the few people who haven't heard her, read her or TEDed her, Dweck says that people tend to have been socialised/parented into the adoption of either of two mindsets in their approach to learning and growth. If they have a "fixed" mindset they are more likely to spend time and energy proving they're talented or smart and don't tend to believe that achievement requires sustained effort. If they have a "growth" mindset they are more likely to see intrinsic value in growing and learning every day and believe talent, skills and performance are elastic, that we have good and bad days in terms of what we can produce and that we are able to be developed. How our parents and indeed, how we, define, praise and reward success can shape how people end up responding to failure; that is, what is rewarded and reinforced develops or impedes the growth of resilience and willingness to try especially with no guarantee of success.

I see some people paralysed by inaction because their fear of making a mistake is deemed scarier than the fear of non-accomplishment. I see corporate clients scared of making a decision, for example, terminating the employment of someone who's toxic lest there be some sort of reputational backlash that will make them look unfavourable as an employer of choice.

The book "Wheelmen" (Albergotti and O'Connell) chronicling the career of Lance Armstrong and the monumental effort of so many people to suppress evidence of doping in cycling, included a relatively innocuous paragraph that aligned perfectly with Dweck's theory on the fixed mindset. The authors describe the phenomenon whereby many physically gifted young athletes buckled under pressure once they began competing in Europe with stiff international competition. While they had achieved significant success at home and their parents were told '"This kid could be the next Greg LeMond"', they were not prepared for the fact that competing successfully internationally (and often at high altitude) required extraordinary discipline, hard work and sacrifice. Interestingly, less gifted but more driven riders didn't tend to fold. They trained harder to compensate. Armstrong was able to achieve well in the early "clean" part of his career because his family circumstances, his competitive personality, his pent up rage around some of life's blows and his ruthless drive contributed to his dogged determination to work harder and be able to endure, at times, extraordinary pain.

But obviously, not everyone bugs out, gives up or succumbs to paralysis. Of course some will want to deliver outcomes and know they are being paid to do so but the bid to live up to their own lofty standards or perceptions of others' standards is excruciating. They may bill four hours of work, but do another ten at home. They may still be making changes right up until the moment they go to air even though there's no time to change things on the teleprompter. Not only is this stressful for them, but it is for those around them.

It fuels the imposter syndrome because people with a fixed mindset who believe that talent and potential are fixed, won't necessarily believe that their success can be attributed to their skills, intellect or knowledge so they may struggle with self-esteem and wake up some days feeling like a fraud. Even Sheryl Sandberg has said she's had days like that. And Michelle Obama is reported to have thought in her early adulthood that her academic success at Harvard was due to reverse discrimination as a black American; that is, forces operating outside herself.

If we're praised from an early age for being smart, rather than for putting in effort, we may not know what to make of the fact that we find something difficult. Does it mean we are not as smart as we (and influential others) thought we were?

One of the things that lends credence to Dweck's work for me is studying the pre- or post-match interviews of champion athletes and teams. A former AFL captain and current AFL coach said he was so riddled with anxiety before a match lest he play poorly he was physically sick often (fixed mindset). Other footballers will talk about their confidence that if they keep following team structures, work hard, hit their fitness and nutrition targets and play as a team, success will follow (growth mindset).

Some of us expend a lot of time and energy competing and comparing. Others commit themselves to growing and learning every day. They experiment, seek feedback including constructive feedback and aren't frightened to try. They jump a little early and are prepared to embrace opportunities even if they feel "a little bit scared and a little bit excited" as one of my delightful coachees depicted it. I'm not talking here about brash overconfidence. In so many cases, the focus on growth and the appetite to try mean that their careers and their finances have just taken care of themselves. Their mindset is one of abundance, not scarcity. They focus on doing their best, not on what others are doing. And from an intra-psychic point of view, how much energy is released and how much goodwill is fostered if we aren't consumed with resentment, jealousy and the need to devise strategies on how to elbow others out of the way?

Some daggy 1970's motivational guru said we choose our attitude. Well, we may have a default mindset but we can choose to work on it. And while I'm trying to work on mine every day, I will try not to reproach myself for not having nailed it yet, for not being able to do it as well as some psychologists/consultants I know, for not being able to practise what I preach 24/7 and ultimately for not being perfect. I think that's a good start. Might you need to give yourself permission to do that too?

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