In our last blog post Nicole and I summarized the book “Mindset – Changing the way you think to fulfill your potential” by professor Dr. Carol Dweck. In this blog post we share our personal history with growth and fixed mindsets. How we currently deal with our mindset and how we changed the way we think, is the topic for our next blog post.
Looking back to my school days, probably from early primary school all the way through undergraduate college, when it came to my education, I had a very fixed mindset. I think the same was true when I played sports, which was mainly in secondary school. It was about getting good grades and winning the game. While reading Mindset, I reflected on this and where my mindset might have come from. Was it my parents? Teachers? Coaches? Dweck talks about the types of praise we give children – she says “Praising children’s intelligence harms their motivation and it harms their performance.” Instead, we should praise effort, persistence, and good strategies.
I don’t know how my mindset exactly got formed, to be honest. My parents never pushed me to be perfect in school or sports, and if anything, they were constantly telling me to not be hard on myself. If I was upset at losing a game, they were the first to remind me how hard I played and that I gave it my best effort. Was it my teachers? Maybe some of them. Our educational system (speaking in my case about the United States) definitely rewards good grades and test scores. Want to get into a prestigious college program? Better get a high GPA and test score on your ACT/SAT. So I pushed, and I did it. And then I got to college and I thought, now you can’t expect to get straight A’s because it is so much harder. But then I got straight A’s my first semester, and the same mindset of “you have to keep doing that” set in. Only it WAS harder in college and took much more effort to keep it up. This lead to a large amount of stress and anxiety so bad that my stomach would flop as soon I came back into my college town after a break. Looking back, there was so much more I could have actually learned in college and certainly had more fun doing so had I not been so focused on perfection.
I think my fixed mindset continued into my first job. Not to get straight A’s of course, but to maintain perfect. To make no mistakes. I worried about making the slightest mistake because I worked in a crime lab – a mistake could mean that a criminal might get away. It wasn’t until I burned out (surprise) and switched careers to something I loved that my mindset began to change. I finally realized that striving for perfection was not only impossible, it was causing me more harm than good. Now, I truly love both learning and my job. I don’t expect myself to know everything or to never make a mistake. I crave problems and figuring them out – I think I always did, but now there is only joy with no anxiety mixed in. Of course my fixed mindset is still here, lurking, and pops up in certain situations. Reading the book helped me realize that and now that I’m more aware of it, I want to embrace it and lean into those situations to encourage my growth mindset to take over. I still have a lot of growing left to do but I’m confident that embracing the growth mindset I have found will help me get there.
As a kid, I grew up in a pretty competitive environment. Both of my parents were very competitive and my brother and I were also always competing with each other. I was a smart kid and in school I was one of the top performers. I was also a very curious kid and I had a broad interest and read a lot. Unfortunately, I had too much energy and got distracted pretty fast. That made me not one of the most popular people in elementary school. I guess I had to prove myself in another way. Being the smartest or the best in class was important to me. I wanted to prove that I was smart all the time. It made me unhappy and it made that I was a sort of geek. I am not sure how I was praised back then. All I can remember is that I was a bad loser and I was focused on results and wanted to be seen.
I also developed a big “defensive” wall around me. Scaring away from things that I felt I could fail and over-shouting myself to show the world how invulnerable I was. I became good at talking myself out of dangerous situations where I could fail making a fool out of myself. I made other people believe I had it all under control. As said in my earlier blog post “mastering my mindset“, people perceive me as extremely confident and fearless and it started right after elementary school were I developed this incongruent behaviour. The results were that I got seriously depressed once or twice a year, dropping out of school for sometimes two or three weeks.
I remember doing central exams in High School. They made me super nervous and literally made me sick. Those weeks were horrible for me. Each morning I woke up not being able to eat or drink and anything that I would eat or drink would come out not long after. My fear of failing in combination with a fixed mindset telling me I had to get good grades was killing me. I graduated without taking any re-exams, but only because my grades were very good before taking the central exams.
In sports, I had the same mindset. I had to be the best in everything I did. My father taught me and my brother to play chess. But after a few years, my brother became way better than me and I quit playing because it was not fun anymore. I was a keeper at (field) hockey and here my “not wanting to lose mentality” kicked in driving me to be better. I became keeper in the first place because that way I could not be compared to other people on the field, a safe choice. I remember standing in the goal with tears in my eyes because the opposing party scored a goal. I told myself that I had to be perfect. No ball should pass me, which of course is a crazy thought.
Asking for help has often been a thing for me during my career. When I started working, I had to be good at what I did. Asking for help I considered to be a sign of weakness. This caused a severe burn-out when I was 27. I was developing software and I was responsible for everything: design, coding and testing. There was no team, I was the team, and the customer wanted a lot of new things. In stead of asking for help, I started doing overtime. This resulted in a lot stress, which made me sleep worse. After a couple of months, I couldn’t go on anymore and I collapsed.
Even recently when I took guitar lessons for a year in 2018/2019, my fixed mindset kept showing up. I kept asking questions to my teacher to keep him talking and playing instead me playing for him. I used excuses not to record my playing (which was a regular part of what he did with other students) and I didn’t really enjoyed practicing. Playing a musical instrument makes mistakes very easy to spot, you hear them instantly. My perfectionism and fixed mindset concerning playing guitar made me eventually stop playing. I will pick it up later, because I like playing music, but back then it just didn’t really work for me.
Currently I think I have a combination of a growth and a fixed mindset. My growth mindset is getting more and more dominant and I like that. I worked hard on my mindset and it’s paying off now. Because of my learning about mindset, I am able to recognise when my fixed mindset shows itself. When that happens I take a step back and reflect on why this mindset is there and what caused it. Often it is system 1 (ref: Daniel Kahneman Thinking Fast vs. Thinking Slow), a learned habit possibly linked to a fear deep inside myself. But eventually I am learning how to deal with it.
In our next blog post we will talk about how we currently deal with our mindset and how we changed the way we think.