I just had an experience that I’d forgotten I could have. I thought I was above this kind of thing. My ego just barreled through and knocked me out cold. Then it did a little dance over my body.
Since reading Mindset I’ve been operating under the basic premises therein that a growth mindset allows you to improve while a fixed mindset acts as a roadblock to your improvement. I’ve been all about it, telling everyone to read the book, having my students read sections. I’m Carol Dweck’s biggest cheerleader. Her premise is not difficult to grasp, but as I’m discovering, it can be a difficult concept to adopt as part of your life on a daily basis.
As part of developing my own growth mindset I signed up for a math class through EdX. I wanted to model lifelong learning for my students, and it’s a subject I could use a refresher on. The class is a statistics course through UC Berkeley. The basic format is do some reading, watch a lecture, some practice problems, and then do a problem set. It just started and I was feeling (over)confident that this would be a simple brush-up and a good way to remind myself of the stats classes I took in high school and as an undergrad. The first problem set and lecture proved to be pretty straightforward, introducing types of variables, basics about percentiles, and how to arrange data so that it makes some sense. I skimmed the reading, skipped parts of the video lecture, and did fine on the first problem set. Ding! Round one goes to the fixed mindset approach.
With my hubris firmly in place I figured why not get a jump on the next assignment, check the sample problems, and jump straight into the problem set. The second problem set checked my ego. Hard. Did I go back to the reading and lecture before moving through the rest of the problem set? Nope. I just told myself “that was the first question, you’ve got this, just keep going. You’ll be fine.”
By the time I got 70% of the way through the problem set (with limited success, thank you instant online feedback) it hit me: “I’m rationalizing my lack of understanding.” I’m telling myself this class doesn’t matter. Telling myself there’s no grade attached. I’m not a statistician. I don’t really need this. I can just stop if I don’t like it. I’ll go do something I care about like reading a book. All of my emotional baggage related to math classes came back at me like a sucker punch to the throat. My heart rate and breathing were elevated and I had to stand up and walk away from the computer in order to calm down. Round two: technical knockout due to forfeit.
Damn. Talk about a fixed mindset in action. Even ten minutes after putting the problem set on hold I was telling myself it was because I didn’t care; that’s why I didn’t do well, not that I didn’t know the math. I was actively preserving my ego.
I could stop. It would be easy to stop. Easy to go back to fighting the fights that are inside my comfort zone. There is no grade here and I’ve made no financial commitment. This statistics course it not attached to a degree. If I give up though I give up on myself.
This experience puts me back on the same footing as my students. They experience this regularly with their classes and it serves as a healthy reminder to me to be understanding of their reluctance, frustration, and the difficulties they encounter. I’ve read books like Outliers and Mindset. I’ve adopted the theory and I still get blindsided by my ego and the ease of a fixed mindset. My students haven’t read these pieces and so modeling and teaching a growth mindset is even more important. I need to be able to provide support and context when they are unable to do it for themselves.
Well: Time for a rematch. I’m ready to get back in the ring and get the KO on my Greatest Obstacle. I need to (and will) go back to the reading and the lecture. I will finish that second problem set, and for the third problem set I’ll come from a place of humility and do the process from the proper state of mind. The ability to go back and fix problems is what sets the growth mindset apart from the fixed mindset, the willingness to pick yourself back up and try again. Watch out ego: I’m coming to get you.