14 October 2017

Mindset

Last week on the radio, a BBC presenter interviewed Dr Carol Dweck. She was initially a child psychologist interested in why some kids succeed and why some fail (I'm leaving these undefined on purpose). She identified an important pattern that was predictive and found that it applied to adults as well.

She called the discovery "mindset". And it sounds deceptively simple. If you go at a problem with the mindset that you can learn then you will. It doesn't matter what the problem is, if you believe you'll make progress, then you will.

However, if you start with a fixed mindset that says you can't do it, then you won't learn, you won't make progress.

I sort of naturally have a growth mindset when it comes to certain things. I've taught myself to paint, play music, read Pāḷi and Chinese, and a bunch of other stuff, because it never occurs to me that I can't learn. I get interested and just work away at it. Nothing I've ever done was simple. I was never a natural at music for example. I sang incessantly as a kid, but so badly that my mum sent me to a singing teacher so that at least I would sing in tune (so she tells me). When I started playing the guitar nearly 40 years ago, I had no clue. I struggled with everything. I constantly made mistakes. But I just kept at it. I learned. I got better, slowly. It was hard. After 10 years I played pretty well. After 40 years I'm beginning to really understand the instrument. The learning never stops for me.

Now you may say that I have some kind of talent that perhaps you lack. But the research suggests that talent makes much less difference than we think. Mindset is is what makes the difference. Its the approach, that encompasses failure and is not destroyed by it, which makes the difference.

One of the upshots is that we should focus on process - an insight that keeps popping up. If you praise a kid, focus on what they tried, rather than what they achieved. Keep them excited about the process of learning rather the making praise contingent upon success. Ironically, if we make praise contingent upon success, then kids don't succeed as often. In fact they often give up.

How many times have we heard someone say "I'm no good at maths"? That is a mindset problem, not an inability to do maths. Actually, everyone can learn to do high-school maths - its just a matter of learning, and being convinced that learning is fun. If society or our teachers manage to suck the joy out of learning, this is not an indication that we are stupid. Yes?

And actually all along the way we fail. When you start playing the guitar or learning to drive or whatever, you fail every few seconds to start with. At the start, it's almost all failure. But you learn more from a failure than you do from a success; and if you learn then success starts to outweigh failure. If you are focused on *learning* then a failure is no big deal, because you learn more and actually enjoy it more. And with this mindset you succeed more often anyway.

A lot of people come to learn to meditate and the first time their mind wanders they say "I can't meditate" or "it's not for me". This is a fixed mindset. A growth mindset makes the mind wandering a fascinating learning exercise - you first of all realise that your mind simply wanders off without your permission(!), you start to understand why, you start to learn how to focus, and before long you are experiencing the incredible sensations of having a pinpoint focused mind. Then a whole new world can open up in which you use that pinpoint focus to examine your own mind. But only if you have a growth mindset, only if you approach it as something to learn, only if failure at first is not an obstacle to eventual success. Everyone can learn to meditate, with very few exceptions. Everyone would benefit from learning some basic meditation techniques, whether or not they want to take it further.

Learning goes on in a lively mind, it never stops. Every kid starts off with the lively mind. Staying lively has real benefits too. You are less likely to suffer dementia and other brain problems in later life. But you're also more likely to find meaning in what you do, because meaning emerges from being immersed in the process, not in achieving goals. Achieving a goal is a cadence, or punctuation point, in an ongoing process. And it is the process that really satisfies.

Very little else is satisfactory about my life and things have certainly not gotten any easier lately. But I'm still learning, still curious, still willing to take on new ideas and challenges. It's the process of learning that I love. It gets me out of bed each day and literally keeps me alive some days.

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