Challenge 2 – 30 days of growth mindset

I wrote this post several days ago, but have held off on posting it because I’m scared of putting this out there. Also I had intermittent internet over the weekend, so it was difficult to sit down and finish it off, and other things were happening at the same time, and . . . See me blaming external factors for not achieving something? Where have I heard that before?

But I’ve decided if I’m going to do this project properly and honestly then I have to post stuff, even if it makes me feel uncomfortable. This is my project, and I want to learn from it – and part of that is posting about my experiences. If someone else has a different interpretation or different experiences, that’s not a bad thing. I might be able to learn something from that. Right? Right.

Pre-challenge post: Challenge 2 – 30 days of growth mindset

In my last post I talked about the book Mindset by Dr Carol Dweck, which explains the differences between the fixed mindset, where we believe our basic intelligence and talents are fixed, and the growth mindset, where we believe we can change our abilities and intelligence with effort and by learning from our mistakes.

I’ve been thinking a lot about how this sits with me since I started reading it. I identified very strongly with the fixed mindset people described in the book. This is despite me regularly saying to myself (and to Kramstable) that it’s important to keep trying, to learn new things, to see failures as opportunities to get better and so on. After reading this book and developing an understanding of these mindset concepts, it’s occurred to me that I’m only paying lip service to these types of statements. I don’t live them and, deep down, I don’t believe them.

At school I was the classic fixed mindset kid that Dr Dweck describes. I got a lot of messages affirming that I was smart. This got me approval, and I rarely had to try very hard to get good results in school. I was “the smart, sciency one” and Lil Sis was “the arty one”. Her art adorned the walls. Mine never did, and I quit art after Year 7.

I felt enormously threatened when “the arty one” got good results in school, especially in science and maths, because they were MY domain and she wasn’t good in those areas. How dare she go outside her arty box!

(I have never admitted this, even to myself. It took reading this book and reading case studies of fixed mindset executives who felt threatened by other people within their own company who were as good, or better, than them, and who actively undermined their “competitors” to make themselves continue to look good, even if this was bad for the company overall. OK I never stole her calculator or accidentally fed her homework to the dog (we didn’t have computers back in the olden days) but I carried a lot of resentment with me at the time.)

As the work got harder progressing through high school and college, I continued to put in the same amount of effort, and my results declined accordingly. By Year 11 I was no longer the academic darling of my class. From being top of my year three years out of four, I didn’t come top of any of the ten subjects I studied in Years 11 and 12. I went from getting distinctions (80) and credits (70) to getting higher passes (60) and passes (50). As for advanced physics, well we won’t go there. The only subject I scored higher in was maths. For some reason it was important to me and I was good at it. I did, however, struggle with calculus, which was my personal bugbear. The rest was easy. On the final exam, I think a lot of the calculus questions were unanswered because I couldn’t do calculus.

When I got my result, 140/200, the “I just scraped through with a credit” mark, I boasted that I would have been the only person to get a credit without understanding calculus. It was funny at the time, but I can see now what this really meant. It meant I didn’t even try. I’d given up before I started.

After that, when I was deciding what to do at uni, my choices were between medicine and engineering, as well as a course in sport science I’d been accepted into the previous year but had deferred. One of my friends said, “You know you’ll need to do calculus if you do engineering.” So what did I do? Did I say, “I struggled with calculus at school but there’s no reason why I can’t learn how to do it. That’s what uni’s for. To learn.”

Nope. I chose medicine without a second thought.

The story doesn’t end there. I thought I’d be able to get through university medicine with not much more effort than I’d applied in high school. Not surprisingly I lived through the first year with the constant fear of failure on my mind rather than committing myself to thoroughly learning and understanding the material. I passed the first year, and began the second year, where things started to get Very Intense.

I lasted a month, after which I decided it was all too hard and I wanted out. I couldn’t commit myself to five more years of having to put in effort that I’d never had to before. I justified my decision by saying I didn’t really want to do medicine. This has an element of truth to it. I’d really wanted to do the sports science course, and had been convinced to do medicine as a stepping stone to a career in sports medicine that would let me keep my options open, rather than going down a more specialist path early on.

But now I wasn’t doing either, and afterwards I wore having started medicine as a badge of honour. “You must be really smart to have got in,” people would say if it ever came up in conversation. Maybe I was “smart” but I never became smarter. I never used what I had, never developed it, never grew.

Having read Dr Dweck’s book and looking back at the decisions I made, I believe I know what might have been a major contributing factor. A fixed mindset.

I’m not going to blame that for what I’ve done or haven’t done in my life. As Dr Dweck says in the book, this is not about judging myself. It’s about “tuning in to the implications for my learning and for constructive action I can take right now, [and asking] what can I learn from this? How can I improve?” And in the final chapter of the book she writes about “changing the internal monologue from a judging one to a growth-oriented one”.

My #steppingonthecracks project is about my personal growth. I’ve often wondered why, when I’ve set out to make some changes in my life, I’ve struggled, even if they’re beneficial changes.

I think there are many reasons, ranging from the change being too big to sustain, my caveman brain finding change to be dangerous and wanting to keep me in my safe place, not seeing the results I expected quickly enough . . . But with this new information, I think that having a fixed mindset, a belief deep-down that I really can’t change what I’m capable of, is another key factor. And now that I know this maybe I’m in a better place to do something about it.

I thought about making growth mindset one of my 30-day challenges, but I also think this is such a shift for me, and so overarching, that it needs to be a theme I weave through the whole project – as I said, the project is, at its core, about personal growth.

Stepping on the cracks, colouring outside the lines, taking risks, learning to do things that I believe I can’t do, doing things that straight lines girl doesn’t do. At its very simplest, transforming “I can’t do that” into “I can’t do that yet”. (Thank you to Kramstable’s school principal for putting it so clearly – growth mindset is something his school has recently adopted and I’m looking forward to jumping on board and seeing where this goes.)

Dr Dweck’s book poses some questions to think about and some ideas about applying the concepts in each chapter, so I’m going to spend the first 30 days thinking about them and seeing where I can apply the lessons from the book to my daily life.

It might seem contradictory to be saying on the one hand that I accept that I have certain innate traits and tendencies that are what make me who I am (as I discussed in this post), but on the other hand I want to explore growing and changing myself. It’s a beautiful paradox, and I think Gretchen Rubin summed it up beautifully in one of her recent mini podcasts. She said, “I want to accept myself and I want to expect more from myself.”

Ms Rubin quotes two of her favourite authors W.H. Auden and Flannery O’Connor on this, and I will end with what they said:

“Between the ages of 20 and 40 we are engaged in the process of discovering who we are, which involves learning the difference between accidental limitations, which it is our duty to outgrow, and the necessary limitations of our nature, beyond which we cannot trespass with impunity.” (W.H. Auden)

“Accepting oneself does not preclude an attempt to become better.” (Flannery O’Connor)

I think this aligns perfectly with my own intention to “be who I am and do what I think I can’t”.

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