Finding Your Mindset: Fleas in a jar

What do you get when you put together fleas jumping in a jar, epigenetics, and Michael Jordan? Surprisingly you don’t get scientific evidence for innate talent (you were born with wings) but a mix of mindset-environment interaction, which can either break or make you.

In a recent article in Forbes about how people excel and help each other grow, Benjamin P Hardy shared some of his personal insights in how he has been helped by others to excel. What he concludes is that often our environments play just as a big part of who we can and do become as does what we have abilities for: “The expectations of those around you establish your own personal rules and expectations”. If you are a flea jumping in a jar, you adjust your jumps to those of others and the height of the jar that you are in.

In a curious but not too disconnected way, this also applies to mindsets. Carol Dweck’s “Mindset: The New Psychology of Success” outlines how our mindsets direct the way we feel, think and behave because mindset is where we really all start from in evaluating our capabilities and defining who we are as a person. Dweck also recognises the importance of the environment in which we work, play, and grow in, and how that makes a crucial difference how we think about our own capacity and that of others to learn.

How many of us know people who just seem to excel in sports, at work, in leadership so naturally that it seems just innate? Yet, Carol Dweck debunks the idea of innate talent. She argues that if we use the fixed mindset (we are not naturally talented in something, cannot learn to be and hence should not try) then that will direct the way we live our lives and think of ourselves. The growth mindset (ability to learn and see in others the capacity to learn) enables you to learn. Fixed mindset favours “effortless success” as it’s based on your talents whereas the growth mindset recognises that learning and excelling in something actually requires hard work. Dweck has found that often the most talented sports (like Michael Jordan) and business people are not the ones who were discovered at age of 5 with amazing superior talent but actually those who are willing to put in the hard work and keep trying.

This is not a new revelation as such. We’ve been hearing similar messages for a long time about success: put in the hard work and you can excel. The difference I think is that in the era of social media and global online interactive platforms, there is a growing expectation that you can be discovered by anyone and made a star relatively quickly. Granted, this is happening to some but for the majority of us if you want to build a good brand you need to put in the hard yards and make consistency your best friend. Showing up consistently is about commitment but also about long-term learning. You don’t become great by merely sitting on a coach and dreaming big. Each high achiever has gotten off the couch.

How we perceive our own capabilities and those of others profoundly influences also how we act towards them and how we even interpret other people’s behaviour. I am constantly reminded of this with my son. He gets very annoyed and frustrated when he can’t learn something straight away (granted he is not even three yet) but my reaction to it has changed. Rather than getting frustrated myself, I try to focus on the learning opportunity and remind him and myself that most things in life are the result of learning: trying and trying again until you get the hang of it. Creating an environment where you can fail and learn is essential for growth mindset but especially for children it’s crucial they hear that message and understand what that means.

The number one signal that someone is in the growth mindset is their unstoppable desire to learn. People with fixed mindsets think of themselves as “finished products” who already know everything. People with growth mindsets recognise their limitations in what they know and are eager to learn as much as they can. As Dweck points out, this has direct relevance how people lead: imagine a company director who has a fixed mindset. They are much more likely to shut down new innovative ideas coming from staff or from outside the company because they already know the best ways of doing things. People with fixed mindsets derail companies even if they are genius in what they do because they won’t give credit to others (since they have to know it all) and they fail to embrace innovation and change because they are not interested in learning.

Although Dweck’s book can easily be interpreted that you either have a fixed or growth mindset, the lines are blurrier than this. We all have certain areas in our lives where we practice, even if unknowingly, a fixed mindset but in other areas we are eager to learn and really put time and effort in it. I think the important message is how we can tip the balance in our lives towards the growth mindset in more areas and not feel like we have failed when we catch ourselves in the fixed mindset mode. In fact, the two mindsets have completely opposite attitudes to failure: with a fixed mindset, if you fail, you are a failure, whereas with growth mindset, if you fail, you’ve tried and can learn from that.

I’d challenge you to consider your own life with this frame in mind. In which areas do you find yourself thinking: “I don’t know how to do this”, “I am not good at this”, “I am just not a person who can do…”? These are the red flags of a fixed mindset. You don’t have to excel in everything and it’s rare for someone to be great at each thing they try. But for 2018, what is one area in your life that you recognise where you have fallen into a fixed mindset but you want to change? It can be anything small, even how you enter into arguments, a sport you don’t think you can master, or why all your plants seem to die… (“I do not have a green thumb”).

For me, my two priority fixed mindset areas are “I’m not good at group sports” and “I hate statistics”. For 2018, these are things that I want to explore further even if it means just learning how to structure a survey and analyse statistics, or how to fail at group sport (Hm can you detect a mindset there?). But doing a group sport might just make me discover that years of disliking it have been years wasted.

I’d love to hear what areas come up for you when you think about fixed mindsets or even examples where you feel you already have a growth mindset and what strategies you use to help you keep learning. Learning from each other is one of the most important conversations we can have because sharing our experiences can propel us towards changing the way we think about ourselves and others around us.

ps. Not jumping high enough? Science says changing jars matters for learning: if you jump with high achieving fleas, you’ll jump higher and faster.

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