Carol Dweck, an accomplished psychologist and professor of psychology identified in her book Mindset two approaches to what I would call problem solving. There is the fixed mindset approach and a growth mindset approach. When confronted with a challenge, someone in the fixed mindset often chooses not to see the problem as solvable.
“I can’t do that.”
“I’m not good at that.”
“They are so much further ahead. Why start?”
These are all phrases uttered by the fixed mindset. When in a fixed mindset, you choose to see the world in a certain immovable way and your position in it as immovable. You see yourself as incapable of effecting change.
I’ve spent the better part of the past six years immersed in the field of positive psychology. But I can tell you this in all honesty: Building a business is really fucking hard.
Those in the growth mindset tackle problems differently. They see challenges as a stepping stone:
“Oh interesting, I haven’t seen that done that way but I could give it a try.”
“I haven’t done that before but today is a great day to start.”
With the growth mindset, we do not define ourselves in relationship to the problem. Instead we acknowledge the problem’s existence and look for ways through or around it. I have found the growth/fixed mindset framework very useful as an instructor. Because I teach technology and coding, I notice that many otherwise very intelligent people often fall into a fixed mindset when starting to learn. They say “I don’t have the brain for coding.” “I didn’t grow up with this stuff so it’s too hard for me to get started.” These are just iterations of fixed mindset statements.
I start most of my coding classes with an introduction to the growth mindset. By doing this I am not alone. Growth mindset is pretty widely adopted in classroom learning especially in childhood education. It’s even often combined with mindfulness as a one-two punch approach to get students to rationally assess their emotional reactions to a learning a new subject. Emotions can often cloud judgement when facing a challenge.
The idea that you can rewire your brain is fundamental to learning. As an educator, I must believe that rewiring neural pathways is not only possible but a necessary part of learning a new skill. In the past 9 months or so building my own school I have faced a lot of challenges. I also have personally learned a lot. Not only have I learned and grown as an individual, I have had to manage the institutional learning and growth of an an organization. This involves managing the needs of different stakeholders.
We may know that putting a smile on things will often get us ahead.
Reboot Labs at its core is a very mission driven company. We believe that anyone can learn a technical skill and that it starts with belief in a growth mindset. I’ve spent the better part of the past six years immersed in the field of positive psychology. But I can tell you this in all honesty: Building a business is really fucking hard. There have been times when working with my team that I was questioned regarding the growth mindset. Because at times things became stressful, my team would question whether our values were out-of-sync with our processes. “We preach the growth mindset but we don’t always adhere to it.”
I’m a big believer in positive psychology, but I think it can often be misunderstood. Being in a growth-mindset does not mean you are always happy or that you cannot or should not acknowledge stress. In this video RSA ANIMATE: Smile or Die adapted from a talk by Barbara Ehrenreich, Ms. Ehrenreich points to the pitfalls of positive psychology.
Our emotions do not rule us but they exist for a reason and acknowledging them rationally and how they point us in the right direction is part of the learning process.
We may know that putting a smile on things will often get us ahead. The most successful of us in American business culture often embody a limitless and abundant happiness. For Ms. Ehrenreich this sort of boundless happiness, in the face of real struggle often ignores the realities of that struggle. Imagine you are talking to someone who is clinically depressed. While there is compassion in the suggestion “exercise more and get some sunshine” (indeed sunlight and exercise do have measurable effects), it ignores the reality of what is happening for that person chemically in their brain.
The growth mindset and a positive approach to problem solving is necessary for learning whether personal or institutional but growth does not always come without pains. Growth is the acknowledgement of the pain, stress, or frustration and the willingness and ability to see it as step of the process. Our emotions do not rule us but they exist for a reason and acknowledging them rationally and how they point us in the right direction is part of the learning process. Having a growth-oriented mindset means we are positively oriented but acknowledging setbacks, frustrations, stress is more important to growth than ignoring them.