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The Learning Path of a Fixed Mindset

by SAMANTHA MIDGLEY

Josh’s first stage of learning (Chapter 1: Innocent Moves) is turning his love for and natural curiosity towards chess into a disciplined art form. Josh talks about how his teacher, Bruce Pandolfini, helped him on the path to learning how to be more disciplined with his chess without suppressing his love for the game. Looking at my own journey of learning, I would say I’ve been stuck in this stage for most of life – struggling with turning my love of a topic into something I could practise with discipline. My chess equivalent would be dancing. I’ve loved it since I was 4 years old but I never took it as a serious discipline and failure to do so for dance has seeped into every other area of learning in my life.

When I read Josh’s book, it provided me an opportunity to reassess my process (or lack thereof!). I realised my approach to learning is that of a perpetual beginner. When I find something that peaks my interest, it becomes all consuming and I put all my attention and focus towards it up until the point where:

  1. it gets too serious (is no longer fun),
  2. I uncover something that turns me off the subject, or
  3. there is a lot at stake to lose in continuing (mainly my ego)

and so I move my attention towards focusing on something else. This has happened enough times for me to recognise and notice the pattern and want to do something about it. Making that change has been an interesting path for me. I’m thankful for The Art of Learning, particularly the section on creating your own triggers, as this has been a huge saving grace for someone coming from a fixed mindset, who was so reliant on external triggers.

Josh’s learning journey is one of a growth mindset. I learned about the growth mindset 3 years ago. It’s one thing to know it, but it’s another thing to act on it and have it as part of your being. My biggest hurdle to following TAOL process was overcoming the brittle mind of a perfectionist; the talent-as-a-trait fixed mindset, that I developed growing up, starting with my dancing. I can’t tell you how many times I was told I had dance talent but I never knew what I was supposed to do with it because it’s supposed to be a thing that comes when needed, right? My mum told me she was regularly approached by other teachers offering more rigorous dance training to develop my talent. I was given the choice, and I chose safety and loyalty to my dance teacher because she gave me hugs and loved me more than the other students so I never took up the challenge. Perhaps if I was asked what my reasoning was this would have uncovered the underlying fear of the unknown, but alas, my decision, my consequence.

At the age of 13, I remember saying to my parents that I wanted to be a dance teacher when I grew up. I don’t know who answered me, all I remember is the answer itself, ‘that’s not a career, you can do so many other things’. Which wasn’t wrong of them either because I was also a bright (another fixed mindset word) student. Mirroring my approach in dancing, my discipline for studying was hit and miss. If the teacher at the time had a personality that I liked and made learning fun, or if I felt they took a liking to me, then I would perform really well because it became a game to impress them with my cleverness. I honestly don’t remember failing that much in primary school, but I do remember when the social consequences of winning came into play, which was close to the time that I started pulling back on my efforts in class. I found out that best friends got pretty sore at you and didn’t want to play when you performed better than them in class activities. So unless I particularly cared about the class, I started pulling back my efforts.

The social game became my subject of interest. I was fascinated by relationships and the connections we have with people, and this is what consumed my thoughts when I wasn’t formally studying subjects through school or university. Relationships were the one thing I truly cared about and mattered to me. This was my game. So when it came to competing and performing at university, or dancing, or a sport, instead of questioning my process when I failed, I just took it as ‘this is me. I just fail sometimes and that’s ok. Who cares about grades or winning when I have people who love me and I love them?’ You can probably see where this is going…what would happen if I experience failure in my relationships, the one thing that did matter to me? My mindset was not well-placed to handle this type of scenario.

The ‘who cares’ mentality is a dangerous place and can be one that mimics signs of depression. For me it came from moments when I knew I hadn’t done the work, I was put in the situation of needing to perform and I failed, or the outcome was not what I had expected. In those moments, my personal experience from a fixed mindset has been ‘disconnect and protect’. Why? Because the question that comes to mind ‘what is it about me that isn’t good enough’ is too confronting and soul destroying from a perspective of a brittle mind.

From talent-as-a-trait there is nowhere to budge and the mind becomes like glass. Before I was willing to break through it, I held onto any belief that made enough sense just to keep the glass intact. My process of moving past the fixed mindset was to break the glass – yes my mind- but this only happened because of something I cared very deeply about – the social game. Remember Josh’s story about the man in the Amazon jungle who went mad after he came face to face with a jaguar? This is what happened to me. I was so sure of myself and my social abilities until a jaguar (it’s equivalent) intercepted and I felt like I was fighting by the skin of my teeth just to stay alive. There is a scene in the movie Peaceful Warrior where the main character says “sometimes you have to lose your mind before you come to your senses”. By metaphorically breaking the glass and with it all sense of reality that I once knew, I had the opportunity to build myself up from scratch again. I threw away my old raison d’etre for a healthier one because the old mindset had failed me. Now I’m able to openly follow The Art of Learning as I’m no longer a victim of my environment. What excites me about this journey is building up pieces of my own life puzzle and instead of relying on other people to fill in the blanks for me, I’m creating the pieces by choosing to dive deeper into the activities that I love.

That brings me to where I am now along the learning path. I could give you a dreamer’s version, which tells you only the good stuff, but honestly, what I have to say about the Investment in Loss stage is that it’s really hard! All I am doing is making sure I show up continuously to my dance practice, giving my absolute best and tasking myself small challenges when I lack the external pressure to do so. I’ve been showing up earlier and doing more stretching. I’ve been smiling throughout the whole class even if I’m feeling hot and sweaty and tired. I’ve been extremely focused on my posture and hand movements. These very small and subtle tasks are not at all impressive, but somehow make a difference to disciplining my mind toward continuous learning. The hardest part has been acceptance of myself and where I am in comparison to where I want to be, and the amount of self-talk involved to make sure I don’t quit or give in because it ‘feels too hard’. For example, a couple of times I was stressed out from work and instead of opting out and taking the night off to relax, I showed up to my dance class. Doing so highlighted to me that the moments that are imperfect and not ideal are the moments for me to prove to myself that I am capable of more. Showing up when I haven’t felt like it has slowly taught me not to step down when things become overwhelming and feel too hard. In fact, Investment in Loss seems like a stage of a lot of self-talk. I have found that I have focused less on others around me and how they are thinking and feeling or what they are doing, and turned the spotlight onto myself, which has amplified the noise inside my mind. It doesn’t feel great to say the least. Here is hoping soon that I get to the stage of being able to calm my own mind by proving to myself time and time again that I’ve got this.

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