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!

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Two Fears that Keep Us from Our Professional Callings (Part 1)

I had a fascinating conversation with one of my students the other day. We’ll call him Marcus (not his real name). His experience highlights one of two major fears that I believe prevent us from finding and pursuing our calling in life. 

Marcus is an imposing figure. A former collegiate athlete, he is large, confident, and passionate. From past conversations, I knew that he had overcome a great deal to get into college, including a violence-filled adolescence. Today, though, he practically oozes natural leadership...

…which is why I had been a little puzzled that Marcus often seemed to hold back in class, and to adopt a somewhat passive role on his team. My questions were answered, though, when he came to speak to me in my office. As near as I can reconstruct, this is what he said:

“I have realized that, with my large stature and my loud voice, I can easily dominate other people. I don’t want to be the kind of person that dictates out of force. So I’ve really been trying to stay more in the background with my team.”

I had two reactions to that comment: 
1) This guy is remarkably sensitive. I really admire that.
2) What a waste of a natural gift!

I commended Marcus warmly for his maturity in recognizing the dangers of forcing his will on others, and we talked about how challenging it was for him to overcome the aggression of his younger years. 

But then I said, “Your stature and your voice are great assets, Marcus. What a shame not to use them to serve other people.”

Marcus seemed a little surprised by that comment. I then shared with him a wonderful quote. It’s often misattributed to Nelson Mandela, who used it in a speech. The original author is Marianne Williamson. You may have read it before, but it merits frequent pondering:

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, 'Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?' Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won't feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It's not just in some of us; it's in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”

I have to admit that I didn’t really understand that quote for some time. But then I started reflecting on the many ways I have chosen to fade into the background, to worry about others’ perception of my talents, to pass up a chance to speak out about something when I knew I should have. There are dozens of ways that we can “play small.” And we sometimes feel that modesty requires us to suppress our talents. Jesus' words for that were "hiding our light under a bushel."

Marcus has figured out that his gift for influence is dangerous if he uses it self-servingly. Now he has to discover that it will be glorious when he uses it to serve others. I think that’s true of virtually any of the thousands of human talents we might be blessed with.

So, which of your gifts are you suppressing so that others won’t feel awkward around you? Do you fear your own innate greatness? I don’t believe you will discover your professional calling until you allow yourself to “shine, as children do.” And, as Williamson pointed out, when we shine with a spirit of giving, we don’t overshadow other people. We “unconsciously give other people permission to do the same.”

Stay tuned for my thoughts on the second fear!