How the book Mindset, by Carol Dweck, helped me get unstuck.
Perhaps you’ve heard of the power of yet. The idea is pretty simple. Rather than saying things like “I can’t do this”, “I don’t know that” or “I don’t understand this”, you add the word yet and immediately turn those statement from negative ones to empowering ones by implying that you eventually will.
I can’t do this yet.
I don’t know that yet.
I don’t understand this yet.
I’ve read Mindset twice. I highly suggest reading the entire book, and watching Carol Dweck’s TED talk on the subject. In a nutshell, Dweck studied how different individuals cope with challenge by watching young children solve problems that are meant to be too complex for them. While some kids were excited by the challenge, others reacted with complete and utter tragedy. This essentially led her to the discovery that from a young age, people can be divided into two categories. Those with a fixed mindset, and those with a growth mindset.
Like I said, I’ve read Mindset cover to cover (at least) twice — the first time was three years ago. Needless to say, this does not make me an expert on the subject. But it did completely change my life and how I see myself and others, which in itself speaks volumes considering how stubborn or set in my ways I can be.
The first read was when I had just started a new job. This new shiny job was at a big tech company and had the cool offices complete with designer furniture, ping pong tables, kombucha on tap, yoga classes on site and a “book bar” with free books for employees recommended by the executive team. Mindset was one of them. I picked it up because it seemed much less intimidating and challenging to grasp than books on programming languages, kata strategies, lean thinking and complex algorithms.
My introduction with Carol Dweck’s work was a rough one. As I flipped through the pages, I remember reading about these “fixed mindset” people and rolling my eyes. Feeling bad for them. My fixed mindset was so deeply rooted into my core that I couldn’t even see that the sections on fixed mindset individuals were describing me. I couldn’t shift my mind and take the advice I was reading. I was completely ignoring the feedback that I was receiving, shrugging it off because whoever was writing this book obviously didn’t know any better, nor did they know me.
Take a second to wrap your head around that. Perhaps you recognize yourself, a past self or someone you know in this description of fixed mindset individuals. I stress this point because perhaps reading this will make you understand some individuals in your life a bit better. The ones who feel attacked when you provide criticism or helpful suggestions. The friend who never wants to try new things. Your kid who gets jealous of their sibling’s good grades.
I eventually put the book down and told myself it wasn’t for me.
But I kept thinking about it. Could it be? Could I be one of those individuals with a fixed mindset?
So I picked it up again, vowing to myself that I would keep an open mind and read it objectively. I started recognizing myself and was able to identify some of my behaviours and patterns. Giving up when the going would get tough. Taking criticism negatively, and brushing it off. Feeling threatened by successful individuals around me. Avoiding challenges because I just didn’t “have it in me”. By stepping outside of myself and tying words to those behaviours, I was able to clearly see that they were negative and limiting — both to myself and others. It was unpleasant and painful.
But it was hopeful.
If I trusted what Dweck was saying, I could possibly change. I could apparently cultivate intelligence and unlock new skill sets and aptitudes. There was a world where I could expand myself past the natural abilities I had been given at birth. So I proceeded to carry this book with me everywhere I went as a reminder to embrace challenges, persist in the face of obstacles, not shy away from effort, take criticism gracefully and learn from it, and seek inspiration from the successes of others.
Spoiler alert — it worked! I had made a conscious decision to improve myself and consequently my life, and it worked. It was the sheer proof that what Dweck was writing about could be applied to my mind. For someone who had had a fixed mindset for over 30 years, this discovery was a complete revelation and game changer. It may seem obvious to some (I’m looking at you, growth mindset folks) but as a (former) fixed mindset individual, this was completely new and ground breaking material.
The first true test was taking the idea I had had for a long time of building a gaming PC and playing video games with my friends. With the exception of playing Nintendo as a kid and having an undying love for Zelda, I was new to both computer hardware and gaming. So I buckled up and started asking around for part recommendations and hand-me-downs, what kind of specs I needed, etc. It was a complicated process that took much longer than I had anticipated. Every question I asked came with a return question that I couldn’t answer, proving how little I knew, forcing me to dig deeper and hope that eventually I would make sense of it all. I felt discouraged at times but remembered that challenges were an opportunity to grow and learn. I put in the effort and persevered. I leaned on my well versed friends for help and took notes of their advice for when it came time to put the pieces together and build this PC.
I had previously envisioned that I could collect random parts and pieces from friends and colleagues who were upgrading their own machines and build the most beautiful franken-PC that ever was, but that became complicated and returned little result. A friend eventually recommended a local computer parts shop from which I ended up purchasing all of my parts and components. I felt slightly defeated by this, but with time I was able to see that there was some pride to be felt about looking at that order sheet and recognizing the parts and understanding what they were for. And that they were solid parts, too. I had learned!
Four months later with the help of a friend, I was pulling an all-nighter putting together my first PC in order to begin a season of Diablo 3 the next day. Some friends had agreed to take me on in the four person group. We would play intensively for the next week in order to rank high enough to be successful throughout the season. And we did it! The PC booted up the first time with only a minor fan issue that was able to be corrected immediately. The Diablo 3 season was also a success, ranking top 50 in the early game.
It was challenging and it was difficult — my natural inclination was to give up many times under the pretense that what I was trying to accomplish simply “wasn’t for me”. I had to learn a new game, a new platform, how to use Windows again.However, I had to replace “This is just too difficult” with “This is difficult now”. I had to tell myself that even though I wasn’t one of those kids who were naturally curious about computers and robotics, I could still learn how to do this, and do it. I was playing with folks who had played before, therefore they were obviously more skilled than me. I had to shift from jealousy to inspiration. I had to believe them when they said that it was okay that I was new, because they genuinely loved being helpful and watching me learn. A lot of effort was necessary for all of it. But it also felt really good and was a lot of fun. I also felt incredibly proud of myself for trying and persevering.
I also remember instances where I could feel the mindset shift in daily situations. Catching myself feeling jealousy and resentment in the face of a friend’s success, and taking a moment to acknowledge those feelings and setting them aside to make room for happiness and genuine pride for them. Breaking the pattern of being defensive during an argument with a partner, and instead listening to the feedback they are providing me in order to process it wholeheartedly and truly understand their point of view. Taking feedback at work constructively so that I could grow in my role and take advantage of all the opportunities for growth that feedback provides.
Practice makes perfect, and after over three years of waking up every morning and telling myself as I look in the mirror “You have a growth mindset. It will give you freedom”, I can say that the freedom I have gained is immeasurable.
I feel free to have difficult conversations. I feel free to be happy for those around me who are achieving great things and be inspired by them. I feel free to try new things and fail. I feel free to try, try hard, and try again.
Mindset is one of these books that I can say has genuinely changed my life. My paperback copy is well used, stained and marked by the many times I’ve picked it up to remind myself that I have the power to choose my mindset. Choosing to learn from failures and let them empower me rather than define me. Embracing effort and challenges in order to discover new things and grow. It has also allowed me to understand others better and foster empathy and understanding when I’m interacting with a fixed mindset individual.
I still have a lot to learn and put into practice. But I now have the ability to commit to the challenge and effort it takes. Cultivating a growth mindset has allowed me to become an avid potter, a gamer, a passionate cyclist, a better team mate and manager, a better partner and most recently, a web developer. Learning a new skill set as complex and elaborate as web development is something I could have never taken up with a fixed mindset.
If you haven’t read Mindset yet, I encourage you to.