Thursday, January 19, 2012

The Second Great Fear (Part 2)

Tomorrow night, I will be singing a solo at the departmental talent show. This is a very big step for me. And it all came about because a book changed my life.

First off, I have always yearned to be a great singer. But my singing voice was rough, a little gravelly, unsteady, and too loud. I was so self-conscious of how I sounded that I shied away from opportunities to sing. I was sure that people would secretly laugh at me, like one of those American Idol wannabes who are deluded about their "talent." And so I kind of gave up on it.

Then I read a popular press book written by a brilliant psychologist, Prof. Carol Dweck. It's called "Mindset: The New Psychology of Success."

Buy it. Now.

Prof. Dweck's decades of research revealed a basic human difference that reliably predicts a vast array of life outcomes. Beginning with her study of childrens' learning processes, she found that kids fall pretty neatly into two categories:

Fixed Mindset: a belief that one's intelligence, talents, and abilities are stable and unchanging
Growth Mindset: a belief that intelligence, talents, and abilities can change through effort

Pretty simple, right? But it turns out that this simple distinction makes a world of difference in how children - and adults - think, behave, and perform. As a small sample: In her studies, kids with a fixed mindset tended to choose simple puzzles rather than difficult ones, even if they were praised for their abilities. Meanwhile, kids with a growth mindset tackled more difficult puzzles with relish, even if they were told they might not be able to solve them.

Other insights:

- People with a growth mindset are more likely to seek new knowledge, while those with a fixed mindset stick to what they know
- People with a growth mindset seek out feedback, while those with a fixed mindset avoid it
- People with a growth mindset increase their effort after a failure, while those with a fixed mindset reduce effort
- People with a growth mindset compare themselves to more talented people to assess their progress, while those with a fixed mindset compare themselves to less talented people

And here's the clincher: People with a fixed mindset actually shun practicing their skills. Why? Because if you have talent you shouldn't need to practice! With a fixed mindset, hard work is perceived as evidence that your talent is in question. Prof. Dweck provides numerous examples of outrageously talented athletes, artists, etc., who plateaued in their progress because they stopped working hard -- not because of hubris, but because of fear that if others saw them practice, they might be "found out" for not being as talented as expected. And then, of course, are all of the "Rudy"-like stories of people who, armed with a growth mindset, worked their tails off to achieve outrageous success even though they lacked natural talent.

The best part of the book is that mindset turns out to be a choice. Dweck shows how you can alter your approach to the learning process by practicing a growth mindset. Having taken her challenge seriously, I can report that the effort has made a difference in my teaching, my parenting, and my overall zest for life.

Oh, and my singing! After preaching this material to my students, I realized that the only thing standing between me and my love of song was a fixed mindset. I timidly made an appointment with a voice teacher. The first thing I said was: "I really don't have a very good voice. I hope this is worth your time." She waved her hand dismissively and said, "Nonsense! Anybody can learn to sing. Let's get to work."

Growth mindset! Right there at lesson one.

So, what does this have to do with calling? In my last post, I showed how fear of success can stand in the way of realizing your gifts. Fixed mindset is the source of the second great fear. It's not really the fear of failure. It's the fear of being judged by others. If you are going to pursue a calling, and really excel at it, you will have to shed your fear of feedback, and consider it your friend. You have to forget about being perfect to impress other people, and instead embrace the possibility of failure as an opportunity for learning and growth. You have to care more about learning than about performing.

Vocal performance is not my calling in life. But the funny thing is that as I've gradually overcome the fear of being judged for my singing, I've felt liberated in other ways as well. I'm a little more accepting of myself as a teacher and scholar, a little more willing to stumble for the sake of improvement. It truly is a new worldview that makes it much easier for me to see my work as a calling and to excel in it.

Growth mindset. Try it on for size!


  1. Some of my favorite quotes mention failure.

    "Failure is, in a sense, the highway to success, inasmuch as every discovery of what is false leads us to seek earnestly after what is true, and every fresh experience points out some form of error which we shall afterward carefully avoid." - John Keats

    "If thou art a man, admire those who attempt great things, even though they fail." - Seneca

    "I have not failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work." - Thomas Edison

    "People dreaming but never daring, never willing to say, “I can,” never trusting their dreams to the real world of action and effort—people, in short, who are so afraid of failure that they fail." - from the book "Believe!" by Richard DeVos

  2. Absolutely LOVE that book. Your last paragraph is the clincher. Amazing what we can change about ourselves when we just start with something. Great post.

  3. Terrific post, Jeff! And fantastic performance! I, for one, am glad you embraced the growth mindset with your performing.

    Heather was shouting the praises of "Mindset" the other day. I definitely need to pick one up!

  4. Hi Jeff, good post you have there, well done on the growth mindset.

    If you and your readers enjoy Dweck's book then you should take a look at Introducing: Psychology of Success, which I wrote and was published the second half of last year. It covers 26 easy, practical ways to achieve want you want in life, finding out what's valuable to you, and overcoming the obstacles that come up along the way.