Have you ever thought of yourself as lazy, unintelligent, less capable than others? Have you ever wondered why you’ve underachieved in life, despite having been praised in your early years for being clever and good at certain things? I certainly have.
During my counselling training, I had the opportunity to seek an understanding of why I was so scared to risk progressing in life. From what I had learnt about person-centred counselling theory, children need to know that they are loved and accepted just as they are. However, the reality is that all children are exposed to “conditions of worth” to some degree, and learn that they are only acceptable to significant others if they think, feel or behave in certain ways. The way I made sense of my underachievement was that I only felt acceptable if I achieved. If I failed, I would be judged, therefore it was easier not to try at all. But how did this situation come about?
In my early years, I learnt quickly and tended to be more advanced than most of my peers in reading, writing, arithmetic and music in particular. I had a natural aptitude for these things and found them easy. Praise came my way for being “clever” at these things. And of course, kids love praise. You might think that this praise would have built my self-esteem and encouraged me to go on to ever greater things. Not so. In fact, the reverse happened. Eventually, learning stopped being easy and required effort. Because learning now required effort, I began to fear that I wasn’t clever after all. And if I wasn’t clever, then maybe I wasn’t acceptable. I developed a huge fear of failure and began to avoid attempting tasks that took me out of my comfort zone. Because my focus was more on avoiding failure than on learning, my performance started to deteriorate. In order to avoid disapproval and to maintain an image of being “clever”, I developed a number of strategies: I engaged in simple tasks that didn’t take me too far out of my comfort zone; I participated in activities in which I could develop competence quietly on my own, so that no one would see my mistakes; I even feigned illness occasionally, if I was expected to perform a task which carried the risk of public failure. I sought jobs that I knew I could do effortlessly. I was practically invisible in the workplace, which on the one hand helped me to feel safe from criticism, but on the other hand compounded my low self-worth, because I knew that I had the potential to achieve more.
Fixed mindset vs. growth mindset
I recently came across the work of Carol Dweck, a psychologist in America, who has researched the impact of praise on children’s performance. What she found was that the performance of children who were praised for being “smart” deteriorated over time, whereas the performance of those who were praised for their effort and perseverance, improved over time. The latter group accepted effort as a normal part of the learning process and believed that they could accomplish more challenging tasks if they just worked a bit harder. In other words, they developed a growth mindset. The former group came to believe that if they encountered difficulties, they just weren’t clever enough. They generally avoided more challenging tasks and became discouraged and demotivated. This group of children had developed a fixed mindset.
In my case, I had adopted a fixed mindset by the time I reached my teens, which inhibited my development for a number of years. In my thirties, through my counselling training, I was able to find a level of self-acceptance that was not dependent on intelligence or “success”, as I had previously defined it. As a by-product of this new mindset, I found that I was now able to learn, because my self-acceptance was no longer dependent on being seen as “clever”. Paradoxically, the more I came out of my shell, the more people did actually see me as “clever”, though this no longer held the same meaning for me in terms of how I felt about myself.
It is never too late to develop a growth mindset and move towards fulfilling your potential. There is growing evidence that, beyond what was previously believed, adult brains are remarkably malleable and capable of new feats, even in the last decades of life.
Developing a growth mindset
- Firstly, take the pressure off yourself! Accept yourself as you really are right now, with all your strengths and weaknesses. Beating yourself up will only hold you back.
- Know that you have an innate capacity and desire to learn and to fulfil your true potential. You got stuck along the way somewhere, because you somehow came to believe that intelligence is a fixed characteristic. Learn to see yourself as a person in the process of becoming.
- Recognise your fixed mindset voice. It might say things like, “You’re not clever enough. If you try, you’ll only fail, and then other people will see that you’re a failure. If you don’t try, you won’t be judged.” As you hit a setback, the voice might say, “See, I told you you couldn’t do it. You might as well give up now and save face.” As you face criticism, you might hear yourself say, “It’s not my fault. It was something or someone else’s fault.” The other person might be giving you specific, constructive feedback, but you might be hearing them say “I’m really disappointed in you.”
- Recognise that how you interpret challenges, setbacks, and criticism is a choice; you can interpret them as signs that you are inadequate, or you can interpret them as signs that you need to ramp up your effort, stretch yourself, and expand your abilities. It’s up to you.
- Talk back to your fixed mindset voice with a growth mindset voice:
“I’m not sure I can do it now, but I think I can learn to with time and effort.” “Most successful people had failures along the way.” “If I don’t try, I automatically fail and will feel bad about myself” “If I take responsibility, I can fix it. If I listen to feedback, however painful, I may be able to learn something.”
- Take growth mindset action. Over time, you will be able to choose which voice you listen to. Whether you take on the challenge wholeheartedly and learn from your setbacks and from constructive feedback, is now within your control.
Practise hearing both voices and acting on the growth mindset. See how you can make it work for you.