I had a weird realization yesterday, while sitting in traffic, that I went through my entire formal education without liking to learn. I was a good student. I got good grades. I learned things. But I only wanted to learn the things that I was good at already. It’s only been the past year or so that I’ve truly appreciated and taken advantage of my ability to learn.
I’ve been thinking a lot about this because of a book called Mindset, by Dr. Carol Dweck. My husband, who is an educator and grad student and geek for educational psychology research, introduced me to it. The ideas and research are really interesting, but the book itself is not an great read, so I’ll save you the trouble.
The gist is that people can be categorized into either having a fixed mindset or a growth mindset. According to the book’s website: “In a fixed mindset, people believe their basic qualities, like their intelligence or talent, are simply fixed traits.” For example, you’re good at math. You’re a natural athlete. Your innate talent and ability leads to your success. And if you’re not successful, that’s the hand you were dealt.
Quoting the website again: “In a growth mindset, people believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work—brains and talent are just the starting point.”
It’s the book’s argument that the growth mindset allows people to learn and develop to their “full potential” while those with fixed mindsets remain stuck trying to prove themselves and hide their deficiencies rather than overcoming them.
I’ve lived most my life with a fixed mindset. I was always good at reading and writing, and I was constantly praised for being a talented writer. Things I wasn’t good at, I abandoned interest in. One telling example is that I still automatically tune out when someone starts talking in numbers or trying to explain a graph. It’s become a reflexive instinct, because I know that I won’t understand. (Coping mechanism: Ask good questions after nodding head silently.) And if I was considered the “best” but was challenged at it - I would resent the challenger, rather than trying to get better. I gave up on the oboe immediately after a girl who was obviously more “talented” at music beat me out for a seat in the better high school band. Luckily being the best at the oboe is not necessary to join a rock band in Austin.
Things started to change when I left my full-time radio job for freelancing and small business ownership. It became apparent very quickly that I had a lot to learn about things they don’t teach you in school. Filing taxes, using Quickbooks, how to price myself, getting jobs, networking. I didn’t really like learning those things, but for the first time, I appreciated why I was learning them. I would say I finally developed my active like of learning when I taught myself how to edit videos - and then to shoot video, and then add titles, graphics, and make DVDs (all from YouTube). It was immensely satisfying to do myself what I previously had to outsource. The world of what I could do started opening up. I wasn’t stuck as an “audio person” as I had defined myself, I was everything I could learn how to be.
What really helped accelerate my learning was to just start saying yes to everything. When a client asked me if I could do something I didn’t know how to do yet, I said yes. And I learned it. Now, I’m eager to have people ask for new types of videos, so I have the opportunity to spend time learning new things.
There’s a chapter in Mindset on parenting, or how to raise a child with a growth mindset. (Another thing I’d like to learn how to do.) It’s all sorts of beneficial for their development - rather than getting frustrated when they’re not the best or when they fail, they realize that they need to work at it rather than feeling cheated or entitled. Here’s the catch: You can never tell them they’re good at anything, or acknowledge any positive attribute as a fixed trait. No “you’re so cute!” No “you’re so smart!” Praise sounds more like this: “I’m proud that you worked/studied/trained really hard and that’s why you achieved your goal.” Kind of dry, but more meaningful?
I doubt I’ll ever be able to avoid letting it slip to my child that he is the cutest, but I really believe that emphasizing work and dedication over talent and ability will help him understand and develop his abilities in a mindful way. I wish I had known before I hit my late twenties, why I should have liked to learn all along.