When our four-year-old daughter came home from her first day at a Montessori preschool, she handed me a swatch of cloth with several buttons sewn neatly onto it. “Where did you get this, sweetie?” I asked.
“I made it!” she exclaimed proudly. She also informed me that she had chopped apples with a “grownup knife” and cut flowers with pruning shears.
I couldn’t believe it. This girl had barely used scissors and never played with a needle before. We weren’t excessively protective parents, but we had no idea that she was capable of doing tasks like these (without hurting herself even). Part of the secret, we learned, was the mixed-age class. In a group of kids ranging from three to six, the older ones were instrumental in inspiring and instructing the younger ones. The teacher explained that when a child sees an adult perform a complex task, she won’t assume she’s capable of doing it herself. But if she sees another kid do it, she naturally thinks, “I’m going to do that, too!” This is one of the many ways I’ve been inspired and instructed by children – and it has informed how I work with adults.
When my wife founded The Dragontree, we wanted to provide a space for people to relax and heal. It wasn’t until some years later that we recognized a shared ambition to support people in whole-life wellness, which includes helping people to discover and actualize their potential. But while a young child may assume she can do what another child can, this isn’t always true for adults. We see other adults doing great things and often think, “I don’t have what they have.”
Most adults have old, fixed ideas about their capacities, largely influenced by teachers and parents. The best research on this subject comes from Carol Dweck, who studies childhood learning and self-esteem, and coined the terms fixed mindset and growth mindset. A fixed mindset refers to a belief that one’s ability in a given area, whether strong or weak, isn’t going to change. Thoughts such as “I’m not good with numbers,” or “I can’t sing,” or “I’m not an organized person” all indicate underlying fixed mindsets.
In contrast, a growth mindset entails the belief that, whatever your current ability, you can work at it and get better. Dweck found that kids with growth mindsets enjoy a challenge, are more confident, and have a stronger work ethic. It probably seems obvious that knowing you can improve your lot would be more empowering than believing you’re stuck with it, but we rarely take the time to investigate and question our deepest beliefs.
Indeed, one of the tricky things about changing a fixed mindset about, say, your skill at math, is that you may also have a fixed mindset about your inability to change your mindset! (“It’s just the kind of person I am!”) Thus, there’s a something of a catch-22 here: in order to shift from a fixed mindset to a growth mindset you must have a growth mindset around changing your mindset. However, I find it useful to remember that these two configurations – fixed and growth – aren’t equally valid. It’s not a case of “different but equal.” A fixed mindset is inherently incorrect. Though we may fiercely insist that it’s true, it’s not. We can change. We can grow. We can improve. Always.
In his 2014 TED Talk, The Psychology of Your Future Self, psychologist Dan Gilbert teaches that people usually believe they’re unlikely to change much in the future – but they’re wrong. “All of us are walking around with an illusion,” he says. “An illusion that our personal history has just come to an end. That we have just recently become the people that we were always meant to be and will be for the rest of our lives.” It’s true, his studies show, that our rate of change slows down somewhat as we get older, but it doesn’t slow down nearly as much as we believe it will. “At every age from 18 to 68 in our data set,” Gilbert continues, “people vastly underestimated how much change they would experience [in values, personality, friends, and preferences] over the next ten years.” He suggests that it’s easier for us to see how we’ve changed in the past than it is for us to imagine how we’ll change in the future. “Human beings,” he states, “are works in progress that mistakenly think they’re finished.”
So, if the science shows that you’re bound to change whether you believe it or not, why not believe it? A willingness to believe (i.e., hold a growth mindset) moves you from the passenger seat to the driver’s seat. If you believe you’re capable of change and growth, you can be a conscious creator of the life you desire.
A critical factor in making productive change is the recognition and acceptance of your current status. Many of us have a hard time giving ourselves an honest self-appraisal because of our upbringing. If you or your parents were raised during wartime there may have been a “stiff upper lip” policy of denying weaknesses and carrying on stoically.
Later generations faced a different obstacle – the self-esteem movement. In retrospective studies of the movement that picked up speed in the 1980s, Dweck and others found that kids who were always told they were great tended to grow into young adults with fixed mindsets that didn’t serve them. They saw themselves as awesome regardless of the facts or their quality of participation. And the inevitable dissonance that resulted when they underperformed often provoked disillusionment or depression. The fixed aspect of a fixed mindset implies a kind of rigidity, and thus a painful reckoning when disproven.
I believe it’s important to love and accept oneself completely (what you truly are is awesome) but what happened here might be seen as a form of “bypass.” Rather than help kids to face their deficiencies, we decided it was favorable to pretend they didn’t have any. The self-esteem movement, at least when understood and applied shallowly, aimed to help kids believe in themselves by giving them a gold star no matter what. The “participation trophy” is a good example. How can we grow (or track that growth) if we aren’t honest and accepting of our actual starting point?
Now, let’s get back to that disparity between adults and young children. In our work through the Dragontree to facilitate the emergence of people’s greatness we’ve encountered so many folks who see themselves as fundamentally different from (i.e., inferior to) those they see as great. I’d like to challenge this belief.
While Dweck’s research deals mostly with intelligence and success, we feel the growth mindset also applies to things like our capacity for healing, happiness, power, spiritual connection, and love. For instance, beliefs such as, “There’s no soul mate out there for me,” “I don’t have a connection to a higher power,” “I’m going to be sick for the rest of my life,” “I don’t have what it takes to change the world,” and “I’m just not an optimistic, light-hearted type of person” all reveal fixed mindsets and are therefore untrue – except perhaps in this moment.
If you feel an urge to emerge – to come into your power and make a positive difference – but something is holding you back, I encourage you to first unearth the fixed mindsets that are undermining you and challenge them. If it feels like too much of a stretch to completely reverse a negative belief, start by “trying on” a minor shift in a positive direction, coupled with an openness for things to get better. For example, if you’re mired in “I’m going to be sick forever,” trying to replace it with something like “I feel like a million bucks” may produce some cognitive dissonance; your mind may simply not buy it. But beginning with a statement like, “I allow myself to heal,” is harder for your mind to argue with. And even if a negative belief about yourself is factual right now, holding a growth mindset entails admitting that you don’t know what will happen in the future. Thus, a very small nudge in the direction of growth might look like replacing “I’ll never meet my soul mate” with “I haven’t met my soul mate yet.”
If you don’t believe you have what it takes to be great, answer me this: what do think is the actual, measurable difference between you and, say, Martin Luther King, Mother Teresa, Mahatma Gandhi, or Rosa Parks? Were they smarter than you? You can learn. Were they more spiritual than you? You can open yourself to that realm of experience. Were they more dedicated than you? You can begin a consistent devotion to your dreams right now.
This last point is worth emphasizing. In order to be a conscious creator, you need to be able to hold a vision of the change you wish to see. That is, you need to hold it consistently until it’s actualized (and then update it as needed and continue the practice). For many who are mystified as to why they’re unable to bring about the changes they desire, the answer is as simple as this: they keep changing their mind and/or getting distracted. If you notice you’ve been doing this, don’t punish yourself for it (we live in incredibly distractible times); just recognize it and get back on track.
Finally, if you have trouble believing you’re capable of greatness, it may be worthwhile to journal about “What is greatness?” Greatness isn’t the same as fame and it doesn’t require breaking world records. (I’m not trying to convince you that even if you spend your life doing bong hits and playing Nintendo, you can still be great in your own way. Let’s be real here.) Human greatness may not have a universal definition, but I believe it’s much more common than we recognize. There’s greatness in storytelling, greatness in healing, greatness in communication, greatness in teaching, and greatness in feeding the poor. There’s greatness in the smallest of places.
I’d love to hear your feelings about greatness and living to your potential. What have your challenges been? How have you overcome fixed mindsets?