I’m not proud to admit it, but I had a pre-teen obsession with figure skating.
Drawn to the grace and beauty of the sport, I begged my parents to buy me skates, tiny sequined costumes and private lessons.
Soon, I was spending up to five hours a day practicing complex jumps and spin, with visions of gold medals dancing in my head. But I quickly learned that those medals were not easily earned. Yes, the sport was beautiful, but it was also painful and I spent a lot of time getting very familiar with the feeling of my body crashing, full force, into the cold, hard ice.
Though I probably obtained enough bruises and breaks to have warranted concern from child services, I was undeterred. My fellow skaters (some of whom where current and future Olympians) suffered and accepted similar damage.
If you’re trying to spin in the air and land on a single blade less than 1/4th of an inch wide, you’d better be okay with falling on your butt. A lot. No matter how good you might be.
Looking back, I realize this formative experience should have taught me a valuable life lesson; one that I could carry with me and apply to all areas of my life: basically, success is reached not merely through skill and hard work, but also by having the persistence to get up after falling repeatedly and try, try again.
I must be hard-headed or something, because that didn’t happen. Like, at all. Instead I grew up hating failure. I’d heard it was valuable, but in my experience it mainly seemed to be painful and I’d rather avoid pain, thank you very much. This avoidance seemed like a natural and healthy defense mechanism. And sticking with what I was naturally good at, and avoiding the things I wasn’t, was not just a less risky move, but a smart one.
Apparently I’m not the only one.
Carol Dweck, author and psychologist, says that people approach life in one of two basic ways: with a Fixed Mindset or with a Growth Mindset. With a Fixed Mindset, people believe they are born with certain amount of innate intelligence and talent, which is “fixed” and relatively unchangeable. They believe the level of one’s natural talent and intelligence will determine how successful they are at a given task or area of life; if one experiences failure, it is a sign that they lack the necessary ability. Therefore, people with a Fixed Mindset are likely to interpret early failure as a clear indication that it is time to move on.
People with Growth Mindsets, however, believe natural intelligence and talents are just starting points, the mere beginning of what they are capable of. They believe that with consistent effort and dedication, they can further develop and strengthen their abilities, and achieve much greater levels of success. As such, they readily seek out new opportunities for growth and learning. An experience of failure is source of valuable information for future endeavors, rather than a sign to give up.
Over the course of their lives, people with Fixed Mindsets may experience success early in certain areas of their life, but often fail to achieve their full potential. Those with Growth Mindsets tend to continuously build upon their successes, achieving higher levels of greatness, also, unsurprisingly, having a lot of fun in the process.
The mindset we have is largely determined by our most fundamental sense of self.
The Ego and the Highest Self.
As humans, we have two versions of our consciousness. I call them The Ego and The Highest Self.
The Ego divides all information into two piles: “me” and “the rest of the world.” The world is very distinct from you, and is full of danger. The Ego focuses most of its energy on keeping you safe and defending you from potential threats, including failure.
Although there’s nothing wrong with seeking safety, if you identify primarily with The Ego, you will have a Fixed Mindset. The world will appear more hostile, and it will be easy to believe that showing weakness or vulnerability could lead to being attacked. Believing that you’re fragile, you’ll avoid doing anything where you might get hurt.
Most of my life, I unconsciously identified with The Ego, so it was only natural that I came to avoid trying things I wasn’t perfect at, lest I faced rejection or criticism. I confused “who I was” with “what I did.”
If I failed, I believed that I, personally, was a failure. If I made a bad decision, I was a bad person—my abilities weren’t good enough for me to be anything better. In the face of such harsh self-judgments, I was always frantically searching for what was safe and easy.
The Highest Self sees itself as strong, creative, resourceful and deeply connected to the life around it. The world around it is not a threat, but a helpful learning environment. If focuses its energy on helping you evolve into your best self. When you identify with The Highest Self, you’ll naturally obtain a Growth Mindset.
When you choose to see yourself as resilient and capable of bouncing back after a fall, you won’t fear making a leap of faith.
You won’t worry if you don’t immediately know the answers, because you’ll know you’re creative enough to eventually figure them out. And you’ll realize that that all experiences, even painful ones, provide valuable information for further development. So you won’t confuse failure with not being good enough, but rather use the experience to help you become even better.
And the truth is that we are resilient.
If you fail, no one on earth can make you internalize that failure. No set of experiences can make you not good enough. It’s all your choice: you can seek greater safety, or you can declare yourself to be unstoppable and just keep getting better, and better, and better. And no one can tell you otherwise.
Tips for Gaining a Growth Mindset.
While I once saw value in my Fixed Mindset approach to life, a particularly tumultuous year changed my perspective. I was experiencing transition in nearly all areas of my life; new challenges were constantly being thrust at me, and I had the potential to fail any one of them. I had to make decisions without enough information, and each one might blow up in my face. I was out of my comfort zone, and I was going to fall on my butt at any moment. I spent nearly every day feeling terrified.
Then, in a moment of clarity, I realized I wanted to live my life going after what I really wanted, not merely avoiding what I didn’t. To do that I needed to gain some detachment from my ego and develop a more growth-oriented mindset. The good news is that we are all capable of doing this. It just takes some mental retraining.
Here are some strategies that are helping me, that I hope may work for you as well:
1. Stop labeling experiences “bad.”
Often, experiences don’t go as well as we wanted; it’s easy to label these as “bad experiences” or failures. Yet rarely is an experience completely devoid of anything positive. If we ignore these positives and focus only on the negatives, we’ll be much less likely to engage in similar experiences in the future.
For example, imagine you forgot some of the words while giving a speech. When remembering it later, that mistake is all you focus on. You will probably be reluctant to ever speak to a group again; it’s a difficult and mortifying experience.
But if you focused on the parts you did well, the applause of the audience, and the feeling of sharing a message, you would be a lot more likely to feel good about yourself and want to try again. Forgetting a few words can help focus your preparation next time, and you’ll likely do even better.
So, the next time you have an experience where you feel like you failed or disappointed yourself, identify at least three things that did go well.
2. Focus on the learning.
My job involves giving a lot of workshops and trainings. My fear of criticism used to be so out-of-control that I would actually avoid reading participant evaluation! Now, I try to view these experience as an opportunity to learn and grow, rather than to prove myself. Instead of being perfect (which I knew was impossible), I set a goal become the best trainer I could be. This made me feel that it was okay to try new things and make mistakes, because I could use this knowledge to improve my skills and technique.
Try this for yourself! Before you attempt something, identify at least one important thing you want to learn from the experience that will help you even better in the future.
3. Watch for Fixed Mindset thoughts.
The best way to gain freedom from The Ego’s Fixed Mindset is to recognize when The Ego is present by naming it. When you realize you’re having Fixed Mindset thoughts, simply acknowledge that these thoughts are coming from The Ego, not The Highest Self.
You might say, for example, “The Ego thinks that if I can’t do this, I’m worthless. The Ego is telling me that I’ll never be smart (…talented, brave, etc.) enough to do this.” By simply naming and observing The Ego, you’ll become less controlled by it, and increasingly identified with your Highest Self.
Love elephant and want to go steady?
Apprentice Editor: Holly Horne / Editor: Renée Picard
Photo Credit: Queen Yuna at Flickr