[A short narrative on how our mindset determines our learning potential.]
“I’m not smart!” a friend exclaims.
I’m about to disagree, but before I can, she continues. “I find the work too difficult, and put it off until I get really stressed, and then give up.”
She slumps her shoulders, and cups her head in despair.
If I agreed, I would no doubt share in her commiseration, but I did not. I could see my friend is highly intelligent, and demonstrates the ability to think very deeply about a whole range of topics that she finds interesting.
I say to her, “It’s normal to feel overwhelmed when we lack the skills, but when we gain the skill set, we gain confidence and we realise that we can do it, or do anything for that matter.”
She looks up at me, but is definitely not convinced.
I continue. “I have felt the way you are feeling right now. It is normal to doubt ourselves, and become stressed, but thankfully we can learn.”
My friend, being the very polite person she is, said: “I wish I believed that, but I really struggle. And the more I struggle, the more I think, I can’t do it!”
I could feel her pain, and decided that I needed to share with her how I once felt the same way about my intelligence.
“I have felt the exact same way as you right now and did so for many years! I was told from a young age that I wasn’t smart and even belonged to a family that had “dumb” genes. I believed I had my genes against me, and as far as I could tell, there was no way one can escape one’s genes.”
I was on a roll and nothing was stopping me now.
“It wasn’t until I began discovering ideas that challenged traditional arguments about intelligence and genetics that I began to believe that I had the potential to become a teacher.”
My friend, by now, began to radiate a smile, something I love to see in her as it brings out her inner glow, and I could see, her true personality.
I decided, since I had a captive audience (as my friend is one of the best listeners I know) to continue my sermon.
“I always had an attraction to books, and as I began to read more and more, I found myself reading books that challenged ideas that I always assumed to be true. After learning that intelligence is a social construct, meaning an opinion made by people, not a scientific fact (like the Earth revolves around the sun), I began to realise that what I believed as a child was no longer true.
The idea that some people are “born” intelligent and others are not is an opinion of a set of individuals who benefited from the belief. In fact, I found out many years later that the reason why these people believed that some people are born smart and others are not, is due to what is called a “fixed mindset.”
At this stage, my friend was really engaged, and I could see her posture change as her confidence returned.
“A psychologist, Carol Dweck, in her research about what causes some people to succeed and others to not, found that people with a fixed mindset believe that their intelligence is fixed, and there is nothing they can do to change it. They even believe that they are born with only so much talent, and no matter their efforts, they can do nothing to change their inborn talent.
Worst of all, when they begin to struggle, they believe that they are struggling because they are not smart enough. Not because the work is challenging and requires tremendous effort by anyone who lacks the skills.
This belief about innate ability developed when they were young, listening to parents, siblings, school friends and others say they are not smart, or that smart people have a “natural ability” and it is better to not to risk humiliating ourselves by trying to do something preserved for the innately intelligent.
Finally, my friend interrupted me, and exclaimed, “That is what I remember hearing when I was little. You are not smart like your cousin, so don’t even try.”
I could see the sadness begin to return to my friend’s face. The memory was clearly still just as painful as it was all those years ago.
I could relate. A lot. I too was told the same things. It was like parents, teachers and other members of society thought that they were doing me a favour by telling me the “truth.”
What they didn’t realise, and neither did my friend or I, is that that truth, as it was labelled was in fact an opinion, and often an opinion based on one set of observations. Such as, misspelling a word, or giving the wrong directions (still painful memories for me), or even using the wrong word. Rather than see my transgression as an opportunity to learn how to fix my error, the adults would say, “Some people are natural spellers. They are lucky.”
What I didn’t know then, but now know with all my heart, is that we create our own luck. Through realising that we each have within ourselves the potential to do anything that we set out to achieve, whether that is completing a degree at university, especially one that interests us the most, or travelling around the world, we can develop the confidence and ability to do anything.
What Dweck and many others have illustrated through their research and writing is that how we see ourselves, particularly our potential to achieve things, is determined by our belief system.
Let’s take a closer look at the differences between beliefs from a growth mindset and beliefs from a fixed mindset…
A quick look at the above infographic reveals that when we believe that we can grow our intelligence through our own efforts, we are far more likely to learn the skills we need to succeed. Whereas, if we believe that our intelligence is fixed, we will resist learning because we think that we either don’t have the ability, or worse, that trying (really hard) will highlight our inner weaknesses!
I see this in people who believe that they are governed by forces outside of themselves. They may believe that they are genetically wired to only have so much intelligence, bravery or talent, or they may believe that they are not destined for great things because the stars don’t align for them, or they are not favoured by fortune, or any other reason outside of themselves.
(Click here for further details and a great infographic on the differences between the two mindsets).
It is clear that having a fixed mindset diminishes our responsibility, and although the beliefs can seem very real, and apparently harmless, they can prevent us from realising our potential, and overcoming the challenges that help us grow.
Yes, and no. She did when she spoke about struggling to complete the assignment, as we all do from time to time. Even me. Most of the time, I believe that I have a growth mindset but when faced with something that I perceive as an enormous challenge (or something that feels very frightening – such as selling) I realise that I’m afraid of failing.
There is a fear that I will do whatever it is badly, and in our society, doing something badly can be interpreted to mean that we are not intelligent. Very much a product of our schooling, where it wasn’t about making mistakes and learning from them. It was about perfecting things that we could already do.
Having this realisation, as my friend later told me, helped her push past her fears and doubts and strive towards her goals. As they have done for me.
It is natural to feel afraid, but when we realise that we can grow through effort, learning and persistence, as espoused by Dweck, we can achieve what our hearts desire.
Check out Carol Dweck’s video on TedTalks.
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