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.

The Joshua Center

ROGERS, AR – Marriage and Family therapist, Jordan Harris Ph.D, provides trauma and couples counseling as well as small group trainings at the Joshua Center.  Within his therapy groups, Jordan uses the concepts of Investment in Loss, the Downward Spiral, and developing a growth mindset to model new frameworks and encourage mindset shifts in his clients.  All group activities are framed as opportunities for learning and validation is offered for effort and process over success.
 
“I believe therapy is all about growth. A lot of what I do is translating what I’ve learned so that others can use it in their relationships. Underlying my whole approach is a deep belief that almost everything is learnable, and if you master the fundamentals you will be able to do things others perceive as magical. One of the three books that have influenced me the most is Josh’s The Art of Learning. Josh really highlights the importance of mastering the fundamentals, embracing pain for growth, and learning from your intuitive leaps. I’ve found these principles so incredibly powerful, not just in my professional life but also in my personal life. ”  

Holyoak Music Studio

MAPLETON, UT – Candice Holyoak, owner and piano teacher at Holyoak Music Studio, began incorporating The Art of Learning principles into her teaching with a focus on helping her students develop resilience and a growth-minded relationship to learning.

Holyoak explores the concept of Valuing Process Before Results by teaching her students a specific process to follow when learning a new piece of music that breaks the practice into smaller chunks and builds proper technique and accuracy over time. She also offers her students opportunities to include a variety of additional practice elements of their choice to build a sense of ownership of the process of learning the piece.
Holyoak introduces her students to the concept of The Middle Way through a metronome exercise that encourages them to stretch their boundaries and push the limits of their current abilities. As they progressively increase the speed at which they play a given piece, students develop an understanding of what they are capable of today, and what they need to work toward moving forward. In addition, this exercise allows students to practice Investment in Loss by examining the points at which their playing broke down and planning for how to improve.
An exploration of Beginner’s Mind starts with a discussion of a baby’s approach to learning and the curiosity and joy they have for the process of discovery. Holyoak expands on this principle with her students by bringing out their own curiosity, helping them ask questions about “what if” and “why” as they play new pieces of music.

“What I love about The Art of Learning”, Holyoak explains “is that Josh has broken down the mystery of mastery, making explicit the “things that can’t be learned” – the principles that great achievers have known and learned implicitly. I want my students to have the opportunity to be consciously aware of these principles for learning, so the doors of mastery will be open to them as well, if they choose it.”

826 Valencia

San Francisco, CA: 826 Valencia, a non-profit organization founded by author Dave Eggers and educator Ninive Calegari, provides free after-school writing tutoring to children in under-resourced communities with an aim to support them in telling their stories, developing confidence and pride, and making the world a better place.

Writing and homework tutor Felicia Spahr is using The Art of Learning principles to develop student engagement, expand student creativity, and deepen students’ understanding of the valuable role writing can play in their lives.

“These kids are really bright,” Spahr explains, “but many of them seem apathetic and jaded when it comes to doing school work and writing.  I would love for them to not only feel excited and challenged by learning, but also feel a sense of ownership over the process. It would be beautiful to see a student excited by a school assignment and find their own path to integrating that love into their life in their own unique way.”

Spahr believes that using principles from TAOL will benefit the students because of the structured approach it provides, while still allowing a sense of freedom for both herself and the students. Her aim is to bring that sense of excitement and challenge to the students in her writing group.  Through Listening First, Spahr will help students identify their passions and strengths and bring them in to their writing. By using improvisational acting as a planning process for writing, she will help them explore Using Adversity as an on-ramp for creative inspiration and Investment in Loss as a tool for revision, first within the improv and later within the writing.  Finally, her students will explore Valuing Process Before Results throughout, as they experience the open-ended creativity of both improvisation and writing.

MYEP Ltd.

BANGKOK, THAILAND – Adam Prance has been an educator in international schools for the past 7 years.  After becoming frustrated with the limitations of the public education system (while recognizing its value and importance), he has developed his own education project with the aim to both teach English to Thai adults, and to introduce them to the ideas from The Art of Learning in hopes that they will encourage their children to develop a growth-oriented mindset.

The Art of Learning, in my mind, is the most practical and nuanced exploration of performance and training that I have come across,” explains Prance. “Many of the principles are not new, stretching back thousands of years; but what TAOL does is make them relevant to the modern world with a powerful narrative. The work of Carol Dweck exposes the mistakes made in the so-called self-esteem movement and Josh Waitzkin’s own experience demonstrates these principles in action. “

This 20 session program will introduce students to each of the learning principles outlined in the book, connect each principle to real life scenarios, and provide the participants with practical actions they can take in their own lives to begin to internalize the concepts. The program is expected to work for participants of Intermediate level (B1) and higher.

Each session will work through a PowerPoint covering a learning principle in addition to exploring the grammar and syntax of some sentences. The session leader will share personal stories from their own life and participants will be encouraged to do the same if they feel comfortable, as well as answer questions that dig into the concepts.

“Thailand is a rapidly modernizing country with a very traditional education system (often with up to 50 students in a class). Many in the younger generations recognize the shortcomings of “chalk and talk” education and want to counter the potentially damaging consequences on their own children – or on themselves.”

Exercise Medicine Group

BENDIGO, VICTORIA, AUSTRALIA – Jamie Tarrant is an Accredited Exercise Physiologist, and the Director of Exercise Medicine Group Australia. He leads a team of progressive health professionals who prioritize the learning process through movement based and self-reflective activities for young adults – providing the scaffolding to become the best versions of themselves. Programs center on the felt sensation and directing attention inwards with a long term view on sporting performance, reducing injury rates, decision-making and presence.
Tarrant and his team are embarking on a 4-year program in collaboration with the Girton Grammar ‘Sport Excellence Program’ in which students will explore The Art of Learning principles as they relate to physical activity. Term One hones in on the Resilience principles, with students spending roughly three weeks each on Valuing Process Before Results, Investment in Loss, Beginner’s Mind, and Using Adversity. Through games and activities that teach balance, breathing techniques, proper form, awareness and response to challenge, and reflection, each student will deepen his or her relationship with these learning principles in connection with both their physical, emotional, and academic lives.
When asked about how his work with The Art of Learning Project has affected his students and staff, Tarrant explained, “The Art of Learning principles have brought attention to not only what we are teaching, but how we are teaching to achieve creativity and excellence in our clients and students. The structured incremental learning focuses on the development of a deep understanding of the fundamentals – ‘bridging the gap’ between academic research and the students’ long-term skill retention and self-discovery”.