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While I was perusing my daily reading, a thought crossed my mind about just how schizophrenic we as a (American) culture has become. On the one hand, we preach hard work — work hard, and your dream will come true. In fact, that’s part of what living the American Dream is all about. America is the land of opportunity — if you put your heart and sweat into things, you can make anything happen. On the other hand, we actively scoff at hard work. How many times have we labeled somebody as “smart”, “talented”, or “a natural”? By using words that relate more to innate abilities than hard work, we are in essence telling others that we value talent more than attempt, high IQ over effort.
But the reality is, success consists of a small part luck and innate abilities and a big part of work and planning. I like the list of Element of Success posted by Trent at The Simple Dollar. Of the seven items on the list, only two are elements outside of our immediate control — natural talent, and luck/opportunity. As Thomas Edison once said (and yes, somebody like Edison would know that it’s true since he’s achieved what most of us only dreamed of), “Genius is one percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration.”
As I thought further on this topic, it dawned on me that this kind of thinking spans more than just the way we think of success. More often than not, we frown upon any kind of synthetic, non-natural approach to obtaining most things in life. For example, do you know that we value natural happiness (i.e. I am happy because I have what I really want) over synthetic happiness (i.e. I can’t always have what I want so I will settle for second best)? But have you ever stopped and asked yourself, “Is one form of happiness better or worse than the other?” If you have, you will find that the answer is a BIG FAT NO. If you don’t believe me, check out the talk by Prof. Dan Gilbert of Harvard for validation.
So why do we behave this way? Why do we preach hard work on the one hand and scoff at work hard on the other? Why do we value natural happiness over synthetic ones? I think the answer lies in our egos. We preach hard work because we want to believe that we, too, can achieve greatness. But we scoff at the actual work to achieve greatness because if it were to really take hard work then we aren’t that smart or special at all. After all, if you are truly talented, everything should come to you effortlessly, right? Similarly, we value natural happiness because that kind of joy is obtained effortlessly. Synthetic happiness, on the other hand, is a consolation prize and only second best.
By the way, not everybody thinks this way. In particular, those who have the growth mindset actually embrace hard work because they believe it is only through hard work that one can achieve and stay at the front of the pack. Similarly, people with growth mindset would also be the first to embrace synthetic happiness because they realize ultimate happiness is a state of mind, not the result of any external circumstances. As long as you feel happy, it doesn’t really matter whether it comes in a natural or a synthetic form.
Now it’s your turn. Tell me what you think — do you agree or disagree with any of the content of this post? Please leave them in the comment.
If you read this blog often, you will know that I am a big fan of Jim Collin’s teaching in his New York Times Bestseller Good to Great. In fact, I’ve already written a couple of posts about what I’ve learned from the book so far (Discover Your Passion and The Hedgehog Concept). Another concept that I mull over often in the book is the concept Collins labeled “The Stockdale Paradox”.
The Stockdale Paradox is named after Adm. Jim Stockdale. He was the highest-ranking US military officer in the “Hanoi Hilton” POW camp during the height of the Vietnam War. To quote the book, “Tortured over 20 times during his eight-year imprisonment, Stockdale lived out the war without any prisoner’s rights, no set release date, and no certainty as to whether he could even survive to see his family again.” Yet during his capture, he never doubted that he would get out. In fact, he never lost faith that he would prevail in the end. The Paradox refers to how one could retain faith that he/she will prevail, regardless of difficulties, while at the same time confront the most brutal facts of his/her reality, whatever they might be.
On paper, it sounds easy to have faith. A natural response to having faith is to stay optimistic, right? But as the book pointed out, the optimists in the POW camp were the ones who didn’t make it out. Why? The optimists were the ones who would believe that they would be liberated by Christmas, then Easter, then Thanksgiving, then another Christmas. When their target dates came and went and they were not set free, they eventually died of a broken heart.
So if optimism isn’t the answer, what is? The answer, in my opinion, lies in the person’s view of his/her surrounding. When put in any difficult situation, people usually have two kinds of responses, depending on their mindset. One kind of response is to fix one’s attention on the outcome, while the other response pays more attention to the process. So to use Adm. Stockdale’s situation as an example, people who fixed on the outcome would plan their lives around that. They would spend their energy on looking forward to the release date, but each day that they remained captive, they would lose just a little bit of hope and gain a little bit more despair. It’s essentially what the optimists among Stockdale’s group did, and they all died in defeat.
On the other hand, if instead of paying all their attention on the outcome they attended to what was happening to them, then they would do everything they could to survive the day, including coming up with all the reasons and tactics to exist despite all the suffering, tortures and punishment. By focusing their attention on beating the enemy one day at a time, they would accomplished two things: they would have confronted the most brutal facts of reality, and they would have built the faith necessarily to prevail at the end. In essence, they would fulfill the Stockdale Paradox.
What kind of response one makes towards any situation depends on the kind of mindset he/she has. If you are interested in learning more about the successful mindset, Carol Dweck has an excellent book with the said title, Mindset – The New Psychology of Success. But if you are interested in the immediately actionable recommendation, I found the following to be helpful (from the blog Dumb Little Man):
Programming creates beliefs.
Beliefs create attitudes.
Attitudes create feelings.
Feelings determine actions.
Actions create results.
Programming refers to creating and reinforcing what you believe. If your belief is not yet one that fulfills the Stockdale Paradox, then create appreciation in your mind for processes over results in your everyday life, starting now! Reprogram yourself to believe that process counts more than the results. If you do it often enough, it will soon change your attitude and your entire mindset.
I know, the title sounds as if I am still hung up on him. Perhaps I am, perhaps I am not, but I am treating this as a case study. As a result, I vow to be as objective as possible with my analysis. The reason I chose to psychoanalyze him is I know so much about him, his personality, and his thinking, and those knowledge make this a relatively easy case study to put together. But before I jump to my analysis, I thought I would give you some background on him and our relationship:
We dated on and off for two years and befriended each other for another two. Our relationship was dysfunctional towards the end of the first two years, but our friendship really flourished during the latter two years. We became each other’s best friends and confided in each other on some of our deepest and darkest secrets. To say I know him well is a bit of an understatement; he told me things that he probably wouldn’t feel comfortable confiding in anybody else except maybe a spiritual leader.
The first thing I wanted to understand is, why did our relationship fail. Our culture, values, belief systems, family background, and even educational levels were comparable to each other. In theory and on paper, we were the perfect couple, yet that wasn’t the case. We fought a lot, and they were almost always about the same issue. You would think the solution to the problem is to resolve the issue, right? Well, the issue we contested so much about is actually rooted in a deeper problem. For the longest time, I was not aware of that deeper problem. But I am starting to have a clue now.
The deeper problem is our mindsets. In particular, his mindset was of a “fixed” mindset while mine was more of a “growth” one. To be fair though, he was starting to change from a fixed to a growth mindset the last time we communicated, but it was not enough to salvage our friendship. Also, I should say that I am not making any kind of judgment as to which mindset is better. Each is unique and has its own merit.
So what do I mean by “fixed” v. “growth” mindset? In general, people with the fixed mindset said the ideal mate would: put them on a pedestal, make them feel perfect, worship them. In other words, the perfect mate would enshrine the person’s fixed qualities. On the other hand, people with the growth mindset hoped for a different kind of partner. They said their ideal mate was someone who would: see their faults and help them to work on them, challenge them to be a better person, encourage them to learn new things.
In the two years we dated, I saw every failure as an opportunity from which to learn and grow, but he saw them as a statement of our relationship. We didn’t see eye to eye on a lot of things, but I saw each time we had a disagreement as an opportunity to learn more about him (and myself), but he saw the disagreement as our character flaws and incompatibility. When the relationship ended, he concluded that we were simply not good for each other, whereas I saw it as a chance to learn from our mistakes. That’s why when I approached him as recently as a month ago and asked him to give the relationship another try, he shied away from my suggestion and told me he wants to date others instead.
I’ll admit I am partly to blame for our failed relationship, but not because I constantly challenged him, but because I never put him on a pedestal, made him feel perfect, or worshiped him. Sure, I saw him as somebody very special, but I readily pointed out his flaws as often as I told him how much he meant to me. In other words, he wasn’t getting the validation from me of which he needed to believe he is good and worthy. I think that was what drove him to date a college student who is 15 years his junior. I don’t know the girl, but I can imagine her looking up to him and treating him as the god of her religion. He needs that, and I simply wasn’t giving it to him.
So my conclusion is this: More than anything else, a sustainable relationship requires two people with the same mindset. Both can be of either fixed or growth mindset, but not one of each. In the case of both having fixed mindset, each person would seek and (hopefully) get the validation of their worth from their partners. In the case of growth mindset, each partner should challenge the other and grow together. In both cases, the relationship is much more sustainable.