Adapted from the work of Carol Dwek and Andrew Huberman
“When you’re given a positive label, you’re afraid of losing it,
and when you’re hit with a negative label,
you’re afraid of deserving it.”
“Enjoying the Struggle and Rewarding the Struggling…is arriving!”
When I was 42 years old I initiated a lifelong dream. To play the piano.
It was exciting and scary.
Would I be good enough, how quickly could I learn, would my lack of ability depress me?
I was locked into a Fixed Mindset. (FM) Success or Failure…”Applause or Tomatoes?” To quote Fritz Perlz.
About a year into the process and making reasonable progress, I arrived at my weekly lesson. My piano teacher had a friend and colleague visiting. He introduced me and his friend asked how I was doing with the lessons and my piano teacher said, “Pretty good but with the usual adult ‘fear thing’.”
He was of course referring to the panic and shaking fingers that I experienced when I started each lesson with the recital of what I’d been learning during the week.
This panic, inculcated by my parents and a pernicious 17th century school system, is a reflection of FM.
Having a FM is a disease.
A FM is believing and acting as if you have to succeed, be brilliant and talented. FM says that mistakes are a sign of failure, of bad character, of poor application and a faulty personality.
FM says that the goal, the outcome, the award and the rating you receive, is everything.
Failure is a disaster.
FM says that you need to focus on success and run desperately from failure. It says you need to be a good person and a kind person never a bad person or a cruel person. It says “I have to be perfect!” FM is binary.
FM is either-or.
FM is all-or-nothing.
Vincent Van Gough was a total ‘failure’ in his lifetime and one of the greatest artistic successes in history, after he died.
Which is the truth?
Because life isn’t all about the outcome!
I’m not saying the outcome doesn’t have significance but learning to reduce its significance is transforming.
If you only focus on the outcome of your efforts you will live much of the time driven by fear, perfectionistic and goal focused, which when you achieve it, will perhaps leave you momentarily delighted, manic or excited and then ultimately deflated and looking for the next ‘hit’.
I had a client who spent seven years getting his PhD in the pharmaceutical arena and he walked into my office one day saying: “I’ve done it, I’m Dr X” and I said, “How does it feel?” and he said, “Wonderful, but why am I so deflated?”
He was deflated because all he was looking for was the end result: ‘Dr X’, the status, the kudos, the glory, instead of spending the seven years finding the value in the striving and joy and struggle of the creation.
In studying Carol Dweck’s extraordinary work I came up with the expression, Striving and Struggling and Softening, is Arriving.
This is Growth Mindset, (GM) is really an expression of how to focus on the journey not the destination.
Which means, this moment, the now, is where your energy needs to be.
It’s actually another way of accessing mindfulness, being in the present moment and for me it is a more effective way of accessing mindfulness than the traditional Buddhist practices.
GM is another way of discovering the Power of Now!
The alternative is the disempowerment of what’s next?
Where will I get my next reward?
My next piece of approval?
I met a guy who said that the meaning of life is, “What am I going to do next?”
Michael Phelps, the greatest athlete in modern Olympic history with 23 gold medals to his name, came out to the world a few years ago stating that after every Olympic Games he was so depressed he wanted to kill himself.
Driving success, the goal, to the exclusion of embracing the joy and power and fulfilment and the dopamine enhancing striving, of the journey, will kill your Spirit and no one can live without their Spirit, at least not happily.
The need for a mindfulness practice is essentially saying that we, most of the time, are in our heads, in the past or the future. When we are engaged in one task, our minds and bodies are straining into the next moment, trying to get it done, to get to the future. GM is to immerse oneself in the present.
Andrew Huberman, professor of Neuro-Biology and Ophthalmology at Stanford Medical School has researched how dopamine is produced in the body.
As you resist and struggle in the moment, your dopamine, which is a measure of energized motivation, drops. The more you do it, the more it keeps dropping and then your baseline of dopamine in the system keeps dropping.
Then you get your ‘hit’ at the end and you have a momentary high, but there’s too little dopamine in the system to maintain it and you crash. You also crash because you are relying on the end point to get happiness and we don’t spend much time at the end.
Huberman suggests that you learn to enjoy the struggle and reward yourself at stages along the way. This raises dopamine in the moment and doing it often enough also raises your baseline of dopamine! He also suggests that you don’t celebrate success too much, “Maybe every 2nd or 10th time!”
Begin to let go of external rewards and reward yourself!!!
If your success leaves you miserable, it might mean that it is driven by a FM. I say might because there may be a multitude of other issues, traumas and losses which contribute to your misery, most importantly including using external success to avoid dealing with your vulnerabilities.
Dweck describes an extraordinary experiment where two groups of kids were given a task to do and were scored on it. One group was told they were brilliant and the other group was told that they worked really hard. They then had to send the results to other kids at another school.
40% of the kids in the ‘brilliant’ group lied about their results. The ‘worked hard’ group didn’t lie.
“What’s so alarming is that we took ordinary children and made them into liars, simply by telling them they were smart.”
What I also love is that parents so often say to their children, “Haven’t I told you not to lie,” having no idea of how they have indirectly taught their kids precisely why they should lie.
I said that FM is a disease in our culture and it is. It is natural for parents to tell their children that they are brilliant, smart, beautiful and talented, but it is destructive to their self-esteem and it raises their levels of anxiety. They may achieve success but the cost is overwhelming.
- I have a friend, Mark Casey. He has been a partner at Deloitte for decades. I was visiting him many years ago, it was after work and he hadn’t come home yet and I was chatting to his wife. He walked into the house, “Hi Honey I’m home,” he said and she replied, “How was your day?” and he replied, walking into the room, without a hint of self-righteousness, “I was awesome,” pumping the air with his fist!!!
I asked him what made him say that. He replied, “We had a meeting with one of the big banks. The meeting went badly, but I kept my cool and I know where we are going.” The italicized words are GM.
How many people do you know who can do what Casey did!?
A FM would have said, “Crap meeting, what a mess. Bunch of idiots, I need a drink.”
Can you arrive home after work today and tell your family how
you were “awesome” when the
- I have a client who has a 2 ½ year old kid. The kid is scared of having her hair cut at the hairdresser.
We talked FM and GM. She went home and discussed it with her husband. The husband then said to the kid, “Do you want to go and have your hair cut at the hairdresser?” And the kid replied anxiously “No dad I don’t.” So he said, “Okay, you can let me know when you’re ready to go and then you can learn to be brave and have fun.”
Absolute genius on the part of the husband. “Learn to be brave”. That’s GM. As opposed to, “You must learn to be brave.” Which is saying if you’re not brave you’re not okay.
It’s now 3 weeks later and the kid went to the hairdresser. The Mom texted me saying, “She handled it better than I thought.”
The tricky part is that the Dad probably needs to do a lot of work to really understand and be able to repeat this on a regular basis.
Research shows that public speaking is considered by most people to be more scary than death. I think the research is somewhat questionable but nevertheless it does reflect that people have immense anxiety about public speaking.
Anxiety – on an interactive level – is saying “I daren’t make a mistake because then you will tear me to pieces”. I will be lacerated for my mistakes, not accepted. I’m referencing IPA, Interactional Pattern Analysis here with thanks to Charl Foster who created the model and Jeanie Cave who has developed it exponentially in the most extraordinary way. IPA is not so interested in anxiety (and other emotional issues) on an internal – intrapsychic – level but rather how it is expressed or created through patterns of interaction with others. Working with patterns of interaction can be far more effective and faster than working with internal mechanisms, although there is definitely a place for the latter.
When you learn to write at school they either say to you, “Wow you’re so clever and so good at writing” or, “That’s useless or it looks like a mess.”
The receiver of both options is hooked into a FM.
The one who is successful lives in fear of failure and the one who is deemed a failure gets depressed or is motivated to become a success, but a miserable one!
A GM way of working with this is to say to the first kid, “Wow, you really worked hard to make sure that you did that well and you kept trying even though you wanted to give up.”
To the second kid you could say, “I can see you are struggling let me help you to keep working at it so you can overcome your difficulties and push through them.” You are teaching them to thrive on challenge.”
I created a concept out of the work of Dr John Demartini called The Law of Conservation of Stress and Pain.
Think of your life between birth and six years old and what stressed you – Bedtime and not being able to eat enough sweets and get enough presents.
Between six and 12 years old – teachers and tests and bullies and being chained to a desk having to learn subjects you had no interest in.
Between 12 and 18 years old – sexuality and romance and rejection and achievement and what to do with my life?
Between 18 and 24 years old – establishing responsibility, university degree or a career, paying rent.
You can go on doing this up to the age of 90.
This law is based on the first law of thermodynamics which says, “Energy cannot be created or destroyed it simply changes form.” Ice if heated becomes water if it continues to be heated it becomes steam, it doesn’t disappear, it just changes form.
So stress and pain are always changing form.
They never disappear.
A FM is trying to achieve a state of permanent completion and happiness, saying that when you achieve some particular goal you will be happy and that all pain will be gone.
This is a lie.
They lied to us – not intentionally – but simply because their parents lied to them and the parents parent’s lied to them, going all the way back to being cave people!!!
A GM says, “Embrace the struggle, the learning, the growth, as it is happening and stop focusing only on the goal.”
I italicize the word ‘embrace’ because the way you struggle is critical.
A great gift from my dear mother was how she taught me not to run from challenge and threat and stress and pain, but unfortunately she taught me to do this with a clenched heart and a tight fist. I like to refer to this as a tight and constricted energetic signature.
Our energetic signature reflects the energy inside our system and in our behaviour. When someone simply shakes your hand, the energy might be aggressive, meek, tentative, invasive, questioning…This simple act communicates a great deal about who we are and the quality of your connection with others.
Dweck’s work has taught me to relax into the struggle, to learn to enjoy it!!! It’s about changing the energetic signature with which I connect to the world.
It’s not easy, it takes time, but just notice how it changes how you feel about your life.
There are so many motivational speakers and there is so much literature out there these days on achieving your goals, but this is misleading because goals alone, are not the answer.
Some years ago I saw an interview on television with Trevor Noah the great South African comedian. He was asked if the threat of failure when he took over the Daily Show in the United States weighed heavily on him.
His answer was pure GM. He said something along the lines of, “I don’t think of it that way. It either works out or it doesn’t work out and then I just move on. You’re like a river, you meet a rock you just flow around the rock and continue flowing.”
As Dweck says, “Kids with fixed mindset tell us that they get constant messages of judgment from their parents they feel as though their traits are being measured all the time.”
And isn’t this just what most of our schooling is about.
It turned me into a depressed wreck.
A hole I’ve been climbing out of for decades.
In essence GM is praising effort –the Now – and FM is praising results and talent.
FM is a static view of life. I get to some point and then I “park off”, which actually means, “I stop living.” GM is about constantly “evolving.”
Doing the Work.
Most people interested in personal growth, love to read about it and not really do the work.
Theories can be fun, but pretty useless if you want to grow.
My preamble to doing the work is very important.
For some people the wounding and the criticism created by FM will make it very difficult for them to simply implement these strategies on a conscious level. The trauma from the past may be overwhelming and in such cases I would recommend deeper emotional work first.
In addition, some people have learned to live with a nervous system that is very hyper-aroused. This work is more difficult for them.
I’m working with a client at the moment. Incredibly successful woman, nearing retirement. Very wealthy but filled with a sense of meaninglessness. Her whole life has been a drive to be perfect. Every mistake has stood out as a beacon of failure.
She’s extremely likeable but she hates herself.
We’ve been doing Brainspotting, a brain-based therapeutic technique, to help her to release the pain of self judgement conditioned into her by our culture. When this pain is been released I will then help her to develop a GM.
Here are some of Dweck’s Suggestions around developing a GM.
- Don’t focus on how clever or beautiful or talented your kid is. Get them to focus on effort and learning and growing and standing up after falling down and praising them for that rather than the result.
- Ask them what they learned today and discuss strategies for overcoming setbacks and growing.
- If a kid says he did better than someone else say, “Great, but what did you learn?”
- If your child says he’s a champ! Say to him, “Champs are the ones who don’t give up.”
- Teach your kids to love learning and to reward themselves as they struggle and strive and to look at information in new ways, rather than just working hard for the result.
- There are many other suggestions in her book…
- Become aware of your triggers that push you into FM. Failure, stress, criticism, anxiety about performance are all potential triggers. Name the FM to get control of it.
- You then learn new GM ways to move away from the old FM strategies.
- So when you berate yourself for failure or making a mistake you can begin to switch to, what did I learn, how can I grow, from this, how can I develop myself?
- In doing this work I realized something very significant. In conflict situations, a big proportion of my clients and people I know socially say, “Why does he do that,…?” And then proceed to complain about the other person’s behaviour. This is very much FM. A GM approach would be to focus on how well you handled the conflict and focus on the learnings from it, rather than trying to understand the other person’s motivations. In addition when people do this it detracts from their skillfullness in managing the conflict.
- If you can’t learn or grow and develop from some setback, forgive yourself and smile and move on. Sometimes we think we have to learn from everything. It’s so pressured and demanding. Of course learning to forgive oneself is another long story. Perhaps my another blog…
- The FM is continuously trying to get their ‘To Do’ list finished and this is very stressful. A GM stays in the process not so concerned with the end result. So you can begin to slow down into what is happening now and thinking less and focusing less on the outcome, the end goal. If your ‘To Do’ list is truly overwhelming, you will not succeed with this strategy.
- If you are a perfectionist, you are probably pretty successful, but mostly, perfectionism comes from a FM. So, instead of noticing where you messed up, can you begin to notice what you did well and learn from mistakes rather than judging them. If you can’t learn, forgive yourself for making them. You can also learn to soften and relax as your work toward a particular goal. FM is tight and hard and driving, mentally, emotionally and physically. Learning to soften into life is immensely powerful. Perfectionists usually live in a state of ‘urgency’ and urgency is a trauma response. It is always on the lookout for the next mistake. Softening makes the NOW more rewarding and easier to be with.
- When I started to do this work on myself, it occurred to me that I had experienced so much threat as a child, that much of the time when faced with challenges that were threatening to me – an inevitable part of life – I would push myself to get through them simply in the hope of getting to a place where I could relax, drink tea and eat scones with apricot jam and cream.
- Key Takeouts.
- Before stressful events and encounters:
- Ask yourself: How can I learn and grow from this?
- Can I focus on being authentic and spontaneous and real?
- Can I stay in the struggle, stay in my power and create a soft boundary?
Challenges and threats were not a part of life to be embraced, they were something to be survived and got through as quickly as possible. Zorba the Greek is famous for the following phrase.
He’s talking to his boss who is stressed out, in FM.
Zorba says to the superior, “Boss, life is trouble, only in death is there no trouble. I take off my belt and I look for trouble.”
I struggled for years to implement this and GM help me. I don’t ‘take off my belt and look for trouble’, but rather soften and relax and see how much I can enjoy the challenge and the empowerment that comes from embracing threat with tenacity and internal power.
I am not particularly in favour of positive thinking, but it does have its uses. So I suggest the following:
Welcome the threat and the anxiety and feel it in the body and in the mind and give it space and then switch to the feeling of grasping the challenge with tenacity and vitality and power. When you dread an interaction, feel the dread, make space for it, then say “How can I grow and learn from this. Make that your focus, rather than the outcome. I call it Reciprocal Switching. Embracing the fear and then moving to the power, back-and-forth as many times as is necessary, ending with the ‘power.’
- Brian Hiner an ex US navy SEAL. One of his books is entitled GUTS Greatness Under Tremendous Stres is worth reading. There is much GM in his work.
- He has a beautiful way of defining gratitude. Instead of saying, “I have to present to the CEO” which is resentful and resistant. You say, “I get to present to the CEO.”
This is GM in buckets.
Instead of, “I resent getting up in the cold to exercise, you say to yourself, “I get to get up in the cold to exercise.” It’s an invitation into gratitude that is really powerful. Very different from the parental, “Be grateful!”
Don’t expect this to work if your stress is overwhelming.
I have a client, a man who was desperately abused by his father, who took his son to see a ‘low cost housing’ area to “Teach him gratitude”. This is abuse. The son was well behaved “For a week!”
And while he was being well behaved, what damage was he experiencing emotionally!?
- If for example a big trigger for you is frustration that you aren’t learning something fast enough or achieving your objectives:
Notice each moment that this happens. In each moment Feel the power of Striving…that the striving is arriving. That striving is your primary goal. We spend much more time striving than enjoying or achieving the goal.
GM is intense courage, tenacity, problem solving. It’s the Mastery Position of moving toward threat, not contracting against it.
It’s an attitude. It’s in the mind, in the body and in the Spirit.
GM can be experienced in unusual ways.
One of the most beautiful stories I’ve ever heard is told by Carolyn Myss, a medical intuitive in the US.
She met a man who told her about a defining time in his life. His name was David Chetlahe Paladin. (That’s one of his paintings above.)
He was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1942 to go behind enemy lines and to send messages in morse code in Navajo, which of course if the Germans intercepted, they would not be able to understand. He was captured and tortured for two years, his tortures including having his bare feet nailed to a wooden floor and left standing there for two days. When the war ended he was in a coma for two years in hospital.
When he regained consciousness his muscles had wasted away so he was on crutches and in calipers. He went back to his people to say goodbye and to tell them that he was going to admit himself to a veteran’s hospital for the rest of his life.
The elders had a meeting about this and returned to David saying, “David you have lost your Spirit and no man can live without a Spirit, so we are going to tie the end of this long rope around your waist and we will hold the other end and we will throw you into this deep lake and you need to call back your Spirit. If you can’t we will let go of our end of the rope. Okay?”
David agreed and he said that in the water he prayed for his anger and hatred at his Nazi torturers to be released from his body. And his prayers were answered. He said, and here is the first incredible teaching, “To let go of my anger and hatred was more difficult than being tortured!!!” I say this is amazing because when we are in FM we are clinging to the victim position, moaning and complaining about life, in resistance to life and it is easier to do this than it is to let go.
The elders hauled Paladin out of the water. His Spirit had returned and he became a Shaman, a Christian minister and a painter. And here is the next incredible insight into the story.
Myss says of Palladin, “I have never met a human being who walked with the power of Grace itself, as this man!”
I read this story about 10 times. I want to be like Paladin. I’m not there yet. Maybe I need to be tortured…Just joking.
- Life is a double sided affair. So…life is organized and chaotic, peace and war, calm and turbulent. GM says, I embrace the chaos and the mess, I relax into it, softening the stress and desire to “Get it sorted!” Don’t expect to do this perfectly. We are all deeply infected with the FM disease. Do bits at a time…take your time…
- One of the best mothers I’ve ever worked with was going through a very difficult time recently and this affected her daughter whose school marks crashed. The mother was really hard on her, stressing that this was unacceptable and that there had to be “consequences” (FM) for these bad marks. The Mom worked on herself and apologised to the daughter. She got herself into GM. Stress and trauma naturally push us into FM. The problem is that so many people live stressed and traumatised and they don’t even know it!
The striving and the joy of the struggle needs to become meat and gravy for you.
- Sitting around the dinner table at night, ask each other “What challenges did you enjoy and relish today?”
- I define the ‘Ego’, not in the Freudian sense, where the ego is managing the psyche, or in the meaning behind, “He has a big ego!” but as the mechanism by which we are ‘wanting’ and ‘not wanting’ certain things to happen. I’ve worked out that we do this about 500 times a day!
The Ego is essentially avoiding that which is unpleasant and is driven toward that which is pleasant. It is always grasping. The Ego is FM on steroids. Finding the pleasure in the challenge and the growth in the pain, as far as is possible, is GM.
To Quote Carolyn Myss again, “Everyone has had their self-esteem raped.” Which means we have all experienced guilt and shame. Most of us have experienced difficulty with apologising to our intimate partner when we have had a big argument. I think that internalised shame is one of the main reasons for this. I suggest you work with this by doing the reciprocal switching, between feeling the shame and withdrawal and then feeling the power and the vulnerability of the apology.
- I had an amazing client, very driven, perfectionistic and achieving. She was the perfect example of FM. We started to work on developing GM. She came into a session one day saying “I’m really doing okay some of the time with GM but then I slip up and I fall back into FM.” She was criticizing herself and using a FM to try and be perfect at GM. What a fabulous paradox!
A Note on Intimate Relationships
My friend Adyashanti – he isn’t really my friend, but he’s an amazing spiritual teacher – quotes a friend of his whose been happily married for 35 years, who said that “marriage is an ordeal,” I think he’s right.
Dweck says that a FM thinks a marriage doesn’t require work. Precisely!
GM says it does, a lot of work!
GM is largely described as an intra-psychic issue. Ie, you change your attitude internally toward life and the world. IPA says, ‘How does this translate interactionally?’ ie what does it look like in relationships.
IPA has 17 variables defining our interactions. I would like to choose just one that is very significantly related to GM.
It is the variable of control.
In IPA this is defined as: Is this person effectively and meaningfully in control of themselves, their lives, their environment? Do they take control effectively when appropriate? Do they allow others to take control when appropriate? Do they allow others to take control when not appropriate?
In a GM a person takes meaningful control of themselves, their lives and their environment.
This is about having a great internal attitude which manifests as great boundaries.
We are all control freaks, (I don’t mean this judgementally, simply as a statement of fact) which means we are using an excessive need for control to try to control that which is, well, not controllable and this is not meaningful, in fact it creates enormous stress and a sense of meaninglessness!
Further to this, I think that our energetic signature is in fact an intrinsic aspect of behaviour, because the energy with which we do something is part of the behaviour.
- Developing a GM takes a lot of work because the conditioning of FM is endemic to our culture and it runs extremely deep.
- A final reminder – the striving and learning and growing of GM needs to be slow and soft and loose not fast and hard and tight.
I long for the day when teachers no longer say to kids learning to write, “Well done, you’re so clever” or “That looks terrible you’re capable of doing much better,” and instead say:
“Can you feel the magic of writing and the energy you’re putting into keeping going, to struggle, even though it’s difficult?”