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Mindset, Part 1: Why The Way We Talk to Ourselves Matters

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The Basics

This is a very big topic, so we’ve divided it into three parts. Welcome to Part 1!

Anyone who has children or works with children struggles with this age-old question: how do we encourage and facilitate learning?

The answer is – you guessed it – extremely cliched and groan-worthy: be the change you want to see in the young people around you.

That can be a lot tougher to do in practice than the cliche suggests, however. The first step is always the hardest (and the least obvious). Before we try to change anything, first we need to have a wee think about our own relationship with our skills, capacities, and learning as a whole.

That means thinking about what our own mindset is, especially in the face of unending and mind-numbingly mundane pressure, like we all face every day in work or class.

Wait, maybe we need to go even further back. What even is mindset anyhow...

That's what this post is about! After we figure out what in the world ‘mindset’ means, we’ll move on to talk about cultivating a helpful mindset, and how mental health, bullying or trauma, and our mindset can affect one another.

Why How We Speak to Ourselves Matters

I don’t know about you, but I sure am glad no one can hear my inner monologue. No one needs to know exactly how much time I spend thinking about Star Wars on a daily basis.

In my relief that brain-spying cams haven’t been invented though, I’ve forgotten that there is someone stuck listening to all my musings, and she’s taking careful notes for future reference.

You probably haven’t guessed it: that someone is me. And that’s a big deal when it comes to trying to learn a new skill, be it Krav, violin, or a language.

Why would our most mundane and private thoughts matter, you ask? Even though it’s in the privacy of our own heads and no one else is listening, self-talk plays a major role in shaping our mindset. It might not be immediately obvious what mindset’s got to do with the ability to throw an effective punch or defend against an attacker, but stick with me and all will be revealed.

‘Your focus determines your reality,’ to quote a wise Jedi Master.

So what is ‘mindset’?

As we move through the world, rambling away (pun intended), we’re processing what’s happening by labelling it and then composting it into a vast narrative resource that adds up as experience. We then draw on this collection of information to come up with evaluations of ourselves, the world around us, and what possibilities the future might hold.

That’s mindset. It’s a blanket term that refers to our beliefs, opinions and our general way of thinking and approaching life. This includes the way we speak to ourselves, what we focus on, how we describe it all to ourselves, and how we draw meaning from the world around us. You can probably imagine it’s got lots to do with our previous experiences and upbringing, our moods (don’t ask me about the state of the world when I’m hangry) and our mental health.

If you still aren’t sure what I’m on about, think of it this way: what does the inside of your head sound like on a way to an interview you’ve been really nervous about? How about when you do something really well during the interview? What if you make a big but totally avoidable mistake? What are you saying to yourself on your way home from the interview as you digest their feedback?

Considering how much runs through our heads on a daily basis, it can feel quite futile trying to keep track of it all to figure out your own mindset. Are there even different kinds of mindsets in the first place? Aren’t they just unique to each individual? Oh boy…

Growth vs Fixed Mindset

Given how much human beings love categorising and labelling things, it shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise that psychologists have come up with a number of mindset categories.

Another well-beloved human pastime is debating, so it’s probably fairly easy to guess that there are many disagreements and theories about these types of mindsets… But we’re not going to get into that. Mainly, there’s two that are of special interest to us and our focus on learning new skills:

Growth Mindset

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A leading psychologist in the field of skill acquisition named Carol Dweck says that, ‘brains and talent are just the starting point’ (2015) when it comes to picking up a new skill at whatever age. Basically, natural ability or talent aren’t the entire story.

That’s exactly what growth mindset is: the belief that we can improve our most basic abilities through dedication and hard work. Growth mindset works on the very simple premise that active work towards a goal adds up. Though talent might make it easier for some to pick up a certain skill faster, that’s not what really matters. Risking to sound extremely hippy-like, we’re all on our own journeys and the starting point doesn’t determine what heights we might reach or what views we might come across. In growth mindset, instead of focusing on the speed or ease with which we pick up a skill or produce a ‘perfect result’, we’re motivated by the process of learning how to do something so that we might do it reliably, consistently, and sustainably. Dweck argues that this approach to skills creates a ‘love of learning and a resilience that is essential for great accomplishment’ (2015).

To put it simply: who do you think is having an easier time at learning Krav and is more likely to become a Master?

A) Someone who finds training drills boring and only wants to learn cool new stuff, focuses on comparing themselves to other students to feel like they’re better than someone else instead of working on their own technique, and sees feedback as deeply embarrassing and evidence of their failure.

Or...

B) Someone who enjoys training, finds fun in both figuring out new techniques or revisiting things they know, and welcomes feedback as a way of identifying the next step in their training without worrying whether that makes them seem ‘less good’ in comparison to fellow students. One of these people is a lot more likely to be enjoying the learning process, and it’s got nothing to do with talent or skill level.

In the words of Dweck, people with growth mindset ‘worry less about looking smart and they put more energy into learning’.

Learning takes enough brainpower; there’s no reason to complicate it even more by upping the stakes to all or nothing. ‘If I don’t get this, everyone is going to think I suck!’. Remember our buddy self-talk from earlier? Keep that in mind.

Fixed Mindset

A fixed mindset believes that our basic qualities are... well, fixed. Non-negotiable. You either got it or you don’t. It’s all about that je ne sais quoi that everyone else can spot from a mile away. This worldview believes that we can’t improve our intelligence or develop our talents, let alone develop skills for which we don’t have a talent. Dweck argues that people who live with a fixed mindset are more concerned with ‘documenting their intelligence or talent instead of developing them’. This is accompanied by the belief that ‘talent alone creates success—without effort’.

It’s basically a never-ending fight to continuously prove that we are talented. Any set-back, struggle or failure is proof of our hopeless lack of talent and evidence that we should give up forever. The stakes are through the roof...

Do you think that makes for a fun learning environment that you wouldn’t mind revisiting, especially when you’re having a hard time in life or just generally not doing so great in your development? This brings us to another shady element of the fixed mindset: the assumption that talent makes everything not only easy, but enjoyable as a rule.

Nothing is hard work when there’s talent or inspiration at play, right?! No sacrifices, compromises, negative emotions, struggles, imposter syndrome, or extended dark times when we want to give up! It’s all rainbows, sunshine, and endless achievements or creative output non-stop! Anyone who doesn’t have that is either lazy for not working everyday or simply without talent.

What Kind of Mindset Do I Have?

OK, enough talk, let’s get to the interesting part! Here’s a few questions that can get you thinking about your own mindset:

  1. Have a think about your intelligence and problem-solving skills. Do you consider those capacities as something you were born with, skills you developed, or a bit of both?

  2. What about your physical capabilities? Do you think you could develop a new physical skill that doesn’t come naturally to you to a fairly high level (maybe that’s dancing or climbing; whatever makes you go ‘oh no’)?

  3. How do you feel when you receive feedback? Does that change depending on whether there’s others around or not?

  4. What’s your goal when you do your hobbies or try to learn a new skill? This can be anything: killing time, fun, being the absolute best at it, secret dreams of becoming an artist or writer, world domination… Up to you.

  5. Can you think of any other valid goals why someone might pursue a hobby or a skill? Can you imagine yourself ‘walking in their shoes’ for a few weeks?

Remember, there aren’t any right answers, nor are these intended to give you a ‘diagnosis’. The goal is to get you thinking about how you view your abilities and how that affects you when you face new challenges or when you’re supporting your child in their growth and development.

A Word of Caution

Be careful: all of these Fixed / Growth / Whatever labels might make it seem like we’re either one or the other and that a fixed mindset is the dumbest thing ever to adopt. Real life is always a lot more nuanced than that. It’s a very good idea to approach certain limitations with a fixed mindset, for example. It is certainly advisable to accept the fact that human beings aren’t built to fly unassisted.

It’s also entirely possible that you might approach certain parts of your life with a growth mindset (e.g. perhaps your work or a new skill) while other areas you view with a fixed mindset (’Oh, no, I can’t dance, I’ve got two left feet!’). People are complicated and we often hold any number of contradicting beliefs.

It could be that today we feel great and have no problem viewing the world through a growth mindset where the day after, perhaps after receiving a brutal rejection, we adopt a fixed mindset while we process. It’s also very possible that someone has adopted a fixed mindset as a way of dealing with the grief of being unable to pursue a dream, or perhaps as a way of permitting themselves to prioritise between different commitments. Long story short: it’s extremely important to always view these mindsets as tools with a purpose and to speak about them with compassion. They didn’t come from nowhere, and we don’t exactly choose them either. We’re all fighting our own fights and we have no right to judge or look down on people for being on a different journey than our own.

Further Academic Reading

On the limitations of Growth Mindset as a psychology theory applied in the classroom (paywall): Yeager, D. S., & Dweck, C. S. (2020). What can be learned from growth mindset controversies? American Psychologist, 75(9), 1269–1284. https://doi.org/10.1037/amp000079

Growth mindset in an applied study of student performance improvement: Yeager, D.S., Hanselman, P., Walton, G.M. et al. A national experiment reveals where a growth mindset improves achievement. Nature 573, 364–369 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41586-019-1466-y

Claro, S., Paunesku, D., & Dweck, C. (2016). Growth mindset tempers the effects of poverty on academic achievement. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 113. 201608207. https://www.pnas.org/doi/epdf/10.1073/pnas.1608207113

About the Author:

Yana is one of our Junior Teaching Assistants and a Level 1 KMG Certified Instructor entrusted with some of our Foundations Adult classes.

She was originally an Informational Warfare and the Linguistics of Ideology researcher, but is currently taking a break from academia after growing increasingly tired of trying to explain to people what in the world that actually means.

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