Will changing our thinking really change our lives? And can we do it?
According to leading research in neuroscience and positive psychology the answer is a resounding yes. By making some shifts in thinking, we can create lasting change in our lives.
One of the leading causes of difficulty in our lives can be traced back to rigidity, a lack of flexibility, even in thinking.
I’ve witnessed this type of thinking starting in children as young as four years of age and it became part of my mission to help everyone I work with understand it in themselves. Working with gifted children has been a driving passion of mine, and they have some common characteristics which make them unique in more ways than simply a high IQ. There are lessons we can learn from these differently-abled minds; just as we can learn from all children.
One of my go-to books on teaching and growth is Mindset: The New Psychology of Success where author Carol S. Dweck, Ph.d calls it either a “fixed” mindset or a “growth” mindset. By understanding which mindset you possess you can assess your thinking.
Those with a fixed mindset find acknowledgement for their qualities and attributes to be the most rewarding; they enjoy knowing what they are good at and stay within those comfort zones. They tend to define themselves by their mistakes and their failures such as “I AM a success because I have these things to show for it.” Or “I AM a failure because these things have been shown to me about me.”
Fixed or rigid mindsets don’t like trying new things, or potentially threatening their belief that they ARE something; they want to be seen as the way they think they are and acknowledged for the special characteristics they have. The other type of mindset that Dweck outlines is what she calls, “growth” mindset and I’d call it “learning opportunity thinking”: understanding that you aren’t defined by what you do, and you can learn from every opportunity that comes into your life, if you choose to do so. You can look at outcomes as feedback and alter your actions based on what worked/didn’t work.
I was thrilled when a teaching opportunity at Denver University’s Ricks Center for Gifted Children came up for me over ten years ago. It’s one of the best institutions for gifted kids in the U.S. and quite an honor for me. Since I’d been a “talented and gifted” child who struggled in other areas, I understood these kids and wanted to support them. They were my “peeps” and I would get to apply what I had learned and studied plus get a chance to help them through areas I had struggled, and help guide them over obstacles. If they trusted me.
My job was to get them to do something they weren’t good at, martial arts/defense/life lessons, and to help them learn how to learn to make mistakes comfortably to grow. To teach them how to learn from their mistakes and reframe what a mistake was: it was a step on the path of learning or getting better at anything. Many gifted kids struggled with never wanted to be defined as anything other than “smart” so they didn’t want to attempt things they might feel “stupid” at doing. They weren’t always equipped to handle disappointment or what I call “emotional competency”.
One of the more common difficult characteristics these kids struggled with: rigid mindset. They didn’t like trying things they weren’t good at doing/they didn’t KNOW if they were good at doing, they defined themselves by their accomplishments or accolades, and they struggled with disappointment, making mistakes, or were anxious learning how to learn when something doesn’t come naturally. Since no brain and no child is the same, some also struggled with adaptability in change or routine. For some, things had to be” just so”. Most were incredibly hard on themselves. (To be fair, not all gifted kids are the same and others were completely caught up in the moment and would forget everything else).
To help with meta-cognition (thinking about your thinking): I taught the kids how to develop a mindset of growth IF they chose it. I never forced it on them, but when they were miserable because of rigid thinking I’d always question the thoughts and help them ask questions of their own thinking. Mindset is a choice. And being forced into anything creates eventual resistance and my job was Socratic, ask questions that allowed them to find their own answers.
Some lessons that came from years of teaching/in the field research:
- I had to teach the kids how to be OK with themselves as they were going through the process of learning a completely new skill or idea. Learn to be OK with yourself learning. It’s called learning.
- Reframe what a “mistake” is: I often called it a missed take, like in a movie. Call it a not win. Whatever works.
- Every outcome is a learning opportunity. It’s feedback. It’s information, like in a detective movie or a spy novel. (They really liked that).
- Some things you’ll be naturally good/great at, and some things you’ll have to work more at getting proficient. It’s OK. It’s worth it. Effort, practice and work are good for our brains, they like it.
- I supported them when they wanted to give up. Find support to keep going when you want to give up.
- I got to teach these brilliant little minds how to connect with their bodies and find the coordination that some of them had been missing. Connect to your body, learn meditation, breathing, exercise that has you stay in your body. Connect.
- I was able to show them how they grew at something simply by applying their effort and hard work, along with their brilliant minds and sunny dispositions. Track your progress, it’s challenging to see the little steps of success along the way, which is why I always made it a point to point them out to the kids so their brains would start to see them too. I never lied, I only tracked real progress.
- Learn something new. Something you might really stink at when you first try it, just for the sake of learning.
If you find yourself in any of the categories of rigid or fixed thinking, and you are also feeling unfulfilled or unhappy: I’d ask you to consider some changes to your own thinking. This can also apply to the person that defines themselves (or others) based on the accolades or accomplishments they hold, the stuff they have, the trappings of success, and the ways they define themselves as static. Knowing who you are is one thing, but allowing that to totally and completely define you is another.
“You cannot solve a problem with the same mind that created it.” –Albert Einstein
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Photo courtesy of Gerd Altmann/Pixabay