Something I’m realizing more and more is the power of mindset.
As someone who’s struggled with specifically mental ailments, I’ve come to realize that changing the way our brain operates and performs is just as important- if not more important- than exercising and increasing our physical capabilities. I’ve come a long way physically from my weakest: through yoga and other exercise I’m now able to do things I was simply incapable of just four years ago. I can run, jump, and truly experience my body now. But my mindset is something that I’m still striving to improve.
The day before classes began, I attended a lecture given by Dr. Flora Lu, the Provost for Colleges Nine and Ten, as well as being an Associate Professor in the Social Sciences division. Her talk was an introduction to the theme of my college- Social Justice & Community- as well as a speech meant to inspire the freshman class as we enter our first year of higher education.
The beginning of her talk delved into the aspects of social justice that we’ll be addressing as the year goes on, including topics of race, disability, and environmental equality. As the talk progressed, however, she presented the idea that our mindset has an immense power over our success in college and beyond.
“I want you to imagine, hypothetically,” she said, “That you’re receiving the results of your midterm in class. You studied really hard for this test, you really prepared, and you got a C-.”
My heart immediately dropped at even the hypothetical suggestion of not doing well on an exam I’ve given my all. As a recovering perfectionist and forever Type-A personality, the idea of failure even in the presence of my best efforts is the very definition of devastation, and yet, she went on to make the situation worse.
“And you look over at your friend next to you,” She continued, “And they got an A.”
She paused and let the situation soak in. Then she asked us, just for a moment, to imagine how we would feel to be in that situation. How would we react? How would we internalize the idea of imperfection? How would we perceive our friend who had, objectively, superseded us?
Immediately, I felt jealously. True, tangible jealousy, and, perhaps more than that, embarrassment. Someone had done what I couldn’t, someone had proven their abilities were greater than mine. I knew that, were this situation to come into reality, I wouldn’t handle it well. I would internalize my shame, creating a toxic inner dialogue and filling my head with self-limiting beliefs.
“You’re not good enough.” I could practically hear the malicious voice that lingers in the back of my mind, usually dormant, reviving in the wake of the situation.
Dr. Lu flipped to the next slide in her presentation. On it was a diagram, displaying two sketched brains. One was labeled “GROWTH MINDSET,” the other was labeled “FIXED MINDSET.” From both brains extended a line towards the center, which merged and stretched down the length of the image. Along the now singular line were bubbles each containing a word or phrase: Challenges, Obstacles, Effort, Criticism, and Success of Others. On either side of the bubble hung a small description, labeled under the concept of a growth mindset or a fixed mindset.
The work on the graphic, by Carol S. Dweck, Ph.D, presented the idea that success is expanded by a growth mindset, whereas it can be stalled or stunted by a fixed mindset. Those with a growth mindset versus those with a fixed mindset react to various aspects of life very differently, and in turn their actions are extremely different with extremely different results.
Those with a growth mindset embrace challenges as ways to expand their knowledge and abilities, whereas those with a fixed mindset tend to avoid them, often for fear of failing or being inadequately prepared for the task. Similarly, those with a growth mindset persist in the face of obstacles where those with a fixed mindset tend to give up very easily. This could be very likely a direct relation to the fact that those who are growth-oriented see effort as a path to achieving the things that they want, and those with a fixed mindset see it as fruitless or unnecessarily difficult.
The way the two mindsets interact with the world and people around them is just as interesting and just as divisive. When one is in a growth mindset, they are willing to learn and expand from criticism they are given. When one is in a fixed mindset, they tend to ignore criticism that comes against them, and often disregard feedback they disagree with or take as an insult to their abilities. The success of others is another way to understand the differences between the two mindsets: in a growth mindset you view the success of others as an inspiration, and in a fixed mindset, you view the success of others as a threat to your own.
Unsurprisingly, those with a fixed mindset tend to reach a plateau and never reach their greatest potential. Those with a growth mindset tend to achieve higher levels of achievement, and even have what Dweck describes as “a greater sense of free will.”
I immediately began to try and categorize myself between the two definitions, and as I did so, found that I- like probably most people- don’t fit perfectly in either one of the categories. Like most other facets of life, I wasn’t either black or white, I was a shade of grey somewhere in between.
In fact, I came to the conclusion that I have a growth mindset with some important caveats.
While I have definitely achieved many things in my life thanks to embracing challenges and even seeking them out, I oftentimes find myself shirking away from those that I don’t feel “worthy” of. As a Junior in high school, it took months of persistence from my teacher to enroll in AP Calculus, a class I immediately rejected as outside my abilities because I don’t consider myself a “math person.” I was fixed in the belief that because I don’t have inherent mathematical abilities or gifts, I wouldn’t be successful in the class, even though a year later it was proven that through hard work and effort, I could get an A in the class. It was a challenge I definitely didn’t embrace until others pushed me into it, at which point I was forced to enter a growth mindset if I wanted to see positive results.
Perhaps the only categories I found myself squarely on the “growth” side of were persistence and effort. My entire life, I’ve been unrelenting in my dedication to work ethic and personal responsibility (largely fueled by desperate perfectionism in the larger portion of my life, but still tireless effort nonetheless). You might label it as simple stubbornness, but I simply don’t give up when I truly want something. I just find a way to make it work, and that, more often than not, requires extra effort that I have no qualms about putting in. At 16, I dedicated myself to a 200 yoga teacher training program, while still maintaining my grades and commitments in school and otherwise, because I wanted it. It didn’t matter to me that it was hard, it mattered to me that I achieved the things that I wanted.
But the category of criticism was tricky for me. I often times take criticism very personally and struggle to apply it. If I’ve poured my heart and soul into a project, class, or article and someone criticizes it, I see it as a criticism of my personal worth, not just of what could be improved in the project at hand. As such, I have one of two reactions: I either shut down and make excuses for why their feedback is invalid in an act of self-defense, or I internalize it as a point of shame and allow it to feed a negative inner dialogue.
Beyond realizing that I exist in the grey area of the two mindsets, which I can only assume isn’t uncommon at all, I discovered that my mindset shifts based on the circumstances around me.
If I’m in an environment where I already feel capable and smart, I’m far more likely to be in a growth mindset. If I’m in a yoga class or workshop, where I already have a fairly large understanding and knowledge of what’s being presented, I feel ready to expand upon what I already know and am doing. Because my personal integrity and self worth isn’t being challenged, tackling challenges and obstacles doesn’t feel like it will result in a degradation of how I perceive myself.
In contrast, if I’m in an environment where I feel inexperienced, inadequate, or not naturally gifted, I’m much more likely to be in a fixed mindset. Because I’m not “naturally good” at something, I’m fearful that I’ll come across as incapable or unworthy even if I put in the work. I see challenges and obstacles not as a path to expansion, but as a way to reveal my insecurities and lack of abilities. I project the idea that my worth and ability is being challenged on those around me, and see their criticisms and help as hurtful or direct attacks on me as a person.
Knowing this, I feel empowered stepping into my first year of college.
I know that I’m leaving a space where I felt capable-high school- and entering a space where I feel uncertain, fearful, and worried that I won’t be “enough.” That I won’t be smart enough, good enough, dedicated enough. I’m entering a space where my instinctual reaction will be to enter a fixed mindset as a way to protect myself from feeling this inadequacy.
But in being aware of this, I now have the power to flip that mindset on its head.
My eyes have been opened to the ways I close down in times of fear, and now that I’ve identified these ways, I can consciously choose to change them. I can choose to enter a growth mindset, I can choose to learn from my mistakes or perceived failures. I can choose to make this a time of expansion and growth instead of allowing myself to be held back by my own perceptions of the world.
Our minds are powerful, more powerful than we’re consciously aware of on a day-to-day basis. If we choose to address and harness this power, we can change our lives.
And I’m ready to change.