Fixed vs. growth mindsets

Change by IPK909001

I’m not a great finisher.

I’m good at starting things off (idea, projects, initiatives), but once the track has been laid, I’m not great at bedding it in. Once something has been started, there’s an amount of work required to improve it and refine it and take it from being pretty good, to really valuable, to fucking amazing.

I’m not good at that work.

Yet.

I used to think that’s just how I am, that it was a fixed trait. I’m a starter, not a finisher in the same way that I’m a thirty-seven year-old, Australian, man and not a six year-old, Kenyan, girl.

As a result, I tried to optimise for my strengths – seeking things out which needed a starter, making it clear where my strength is and then doing that bit I was good at. It was all very self-perpetuating.

A leopard can’t change it’s spots. She’s just not the analytical type. He’s got no head for the details.

But this kind of fixed mindset isn’t very helpful in the long term because it suggests that change, while valuable, isn’t feasible.

One of the biggest challenges we face in life is that we assume that so many things are fixed, both internally and externally.

We assume that people are one way, and can’t be another. We assume that situations and institutions are the way they are, and that’s it. We act as if our personal circumstances won’t change, as it nothing could move us from our current position.

Whether these beliefs are due to perspective, culture or our inability to notice gradual change, they’re all deeply flawed, unhelpful and worth replacing with something more useful. And to do this, we need to start with ourselves.

The opposite of a fixed mindset is a growth mindset, an idea pioneered by Carol Dweck which was initially related to our notions of personal intelligence. The fixed mindset assumes that qualities are static, but the growth mindset recognises the inherent plasticity of things and therefore the potential for improvement.

This is not to say that change is easy, just possible.

I’ve been a starter, not a finisher for thirty-seven years, so that’s going to take a little unwinding. But it can be done.

All the requisite qualities for becoming a completer-finisher are there, they just need to be carved with some determination and grit.

So that’s what I’m doing, starting with this piece, which has been sitting in a ‘drafts’ folder for the last three weeks.

And even if I don’t succeed straight away, i’ll be turning 38 in a few weeks, so at least something will be changing.

Getting caught on barbs

close up of a single barb on a barbed wire fence

I’m reading a book about grit at the moment, but I’m struggling to finish it.

The Alanis Morissette “we’ll-call-it-ironic-but-it’s-not-irony” meter is going fucking wild.

If it were a book about mushrooms or surfing or Estonia or anything except the skill of sticking with difficult things, I wouldn’t have any problem putting it down.

“This book about mushrooms is boring, terribly written, bullshit” I would tell myself and I’d move on. But because this book is about seeing things through, I feel much more obliged to finish it.

Clever of the book, stupid of me.

This book has a tiny, built-in barb, which is catching on my pride. It’s threatening to expose that I might be the kind of person who quits important things (starting with this book).

In this situation, the tendency is to look for barbs and avoid them. But the real trick (and the more difficult task) is to look at what the barb is catching on, and give some attention to that.

This barb is catching on my pride. It’s not about the book, it’s not even about strategically quitting something, it’s about being perceived as a quitter.

Finding where the barbs dig in isn’t the most pleasant exercise, since you’re necessarily looking for tender, vulnerable spots but it’s super-valuable.

Once you find them, you can acknowledge them, slowly take the barbs out and work on letting them heal over properly.

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BTW – The book is Grit, by Angela Duckworth and it’s actually very good.