Potential of the Mind

En el comienzo de este ano escolar yo tuve mucha dificultad en la clase de Frances. No podía captar la gramatica. Y termine el semestre con una C. Me entendieron? Did you all understand? Why or why not? Well because some of you can speak Spanish while others might not have learned to. If you don’t speak Spanish, would you like to? What I’m wondering is, if faced with an opportunity to learn something new are you willing to? Do you think you are easily able to learn new things it or do you think it is too hard? Well too often we doubt our abilities. According to Dr. Carol Dweck, author of Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, this is because we tend to believe that intelligence and talent are fixed traits: one is born with a certain amount and that is it– we are either intelligent and able or not and difficulty or failure means we aren’t. This is called having a fixed mindset. When we give up on class after receiving a bad grade, when we don’t try out for the school musical because we think we can’t sing, when we compare ourselves to others who appear more talented than us. But there are two ways to look at things: with a fixed mindset or with a growth mindset. People with a growth mindset believe that intelligence and ability are developed through effort and hard work: Instead of wanting to appear or be instantly perfect, they seek opportunities to learn and to improve even at the risk of feeling frustrated or foolish. So today, we’ll explore these two powerful mindsets, examine their influence on how we perceive things and judge our own potential, and finally how embracing a growth mindset leads to true success.

Our success is directly related to our beliefs about intelligence and talent. Psychologist Martha Farah of the University of Pennsylvania claims that by simply believing that we will do well the brain releases dopamine- the chemical that produces motivation and feelings of reward. Does this mean that just by having a positive can-do attitude that we can get into the college of our choice or even compete in the Olympics? No, we cannot always control the result of our efforts, what we can control is our way of thinking and the effort. It is our actions that determine our success. But it is our mindsets that determine our actions.

Let’s imagine you do decide to learn to speak Spanish and sign up for a class. A few sessions into the course, the teacher calls you up to the front of the room and starts throwing questions at you. Deletrea poder, conjugua ser, y traduzca el gandaor. Bueno, que les pasa? Put yourself in the fixed mindset. Your ability is on the line and you feel you have to prove it. You feel your face start to burn, your heart pounding and the teacher and class evaluating you. Calmense. Now put yourself in a growth mindset. You’re a beginner- you’re here to learn. The teacher is a resource for learning. This exercise is part of your process. As you imagine yourself in these two classroom scenarios, which one is more familiar to you? Do you have a fixed mindset or a growth mindset?

Because we live in a society that prizes perfection and is critical of imperfection, many people fear making mistakes and will go to great lengths to avoid making them. A fear of failure or of making mistakes is the hallmark of a fixed mindset. This fixed mindset assumes that people who make mistakes are unintelligent or lack ability– if they have to work hard at something, they must not be good at it. For example in sports, many believe that natural talent is an athlete’s greatest asset. Well Billy Beane, a former Major League Baseball player was considered a “natural” who as a sophomore in high school batted .500 in one of the toughest leagues in the country. But when we went pro, he struggled to make the adjustments necessary when playing tougher competition. He lacked one thing: the mindset of a champion. When something went wrong, when he was frustrated, he searched for something to break. He just didn’t know how to fail. As he moved up from the minor to major leagues, things got worse with each turn at bat becoming another opportunity for humiliation. He wouldn’t ask for help because those with natural talent do not need coaching or practice, hard work is for the “less able.” The idea of failing was terrifying and Beane was trapped by his huge talent. As he matured, Beane came to believe that scoring runs—the whole point of baseball—was actually much more about process than talent. After turning playing career around, he became the general manager of the Oakland Athletics and began building a team with a growth mindset, a team that worked hard, that saw failures as opportunities to learn. In 2002, he led the team to 103 wins and a division championship. So, like Beane, when we make mistakes they need to be analyzed and corrected to avoid repetition; we need to accept our failures and embrace the knowledge and opportunity they provide.

When we are afraid to face our mistakes or to learn something new, we end up stifling our creativity and are disempowered. Psychologist Robert Sternberg found that the No. 1 ingredient for creative achievement is the ability to learn from experience- being creative means being open: coming up with original ideas by widening the way we think. Let’s say that we must write a short story for English class and we open up a blank Word document on the computer. Staring at it terrified not knowing what or how to start writing, we get up from the computer and eat something, take a nap, or go out. We procrastinate! But creative acts are born of hard work for it takes skill to bring something imagined into the world. Skill that is developed through reading, exploring writing styles, brainstorming: exercise, repetition, and reflection.

We all have our work cut out for us be that studying for tests or as an adult in the workplace, the best way to approach our job is by developing healthy work habits and by constantly setting attainable goals. According to Dr. Heidi Halvorson, the secret to accomplishing goals is the motivation to get better: to develop our abilities as opposed to the more common motivation to be considered good or to outperform others. Think about Thomas Edison. We may know him for inventing the light bulb but I would argue that his greatest invention is the creation of a systematic approach to innovation. Edison scholar Michael Gelb asserts that Edison achieved his goals very methodically and that he believed that, “If we all did the things we are capable of doing we would literally astound ourselves.” According to Edison’s method we must define exactly what we want to accomplish in detail, express our goals in terms that energize us, create a clear timeline for ourselves, and hold ourselves fully accountable for achieving those goals. It is a myth that invention is the sudden production of a solitary genius. For the invention of the light bulb, Edison had over 30 assistants and other scientists helping him. It is having the proper mindset, drive, and support that makes greatness possible.

So are you ready to put your new growth mindset to the test? Let’s have a Spanish lesson. Listen closely and see if you can recognize some words that share common roots with words in English. Que piensan de estas ideas? Estan todos de acuerdo? Were you able to really pay close attention? If so there are rewards to be had, beyond learning Spanish. Neuroscientist Yaakov Stern of Columbia University claims that the more we challenge our minds to pay attention when learning a new skill, the more our brain cells grow- expanding that area of the brain resulting in a stronger and smarter brain. So you see, the benefits to learning something new extend far beyond what is actually learned-our brains become more powerful and flexible! Tapping into our hidden potential by having a growth mindset helps to reduce tension, enhance creativity, improve memory, develop a positive attitude, and to better solve our problems. Adopting a growth mindset is changing from a judge-and-be-judged framework to a learn-and-help-learn framework.

Our potential is our capacity to develop our skills with effort over time, and our ability is developed through learning. We must be willing to try, try many different things and not give up if we fail! A person’s true potential is unknown, it is impossible to foresee what exactly they will accomplish. But if we learn to hear our fixed mindset “voice,” the voice that tells us we can’t, recognize that we have a choice in how we look at things, talk back to it with our growth mindset voice, that tells us we can, then take action we will be more likely to meet success. So next time you struggle ask yourself do I have a fixed mindset or a growth mindset?

Ornella Hernandez
Age 17, Grade 12
Convent of the Sacred Heart
Silver Key

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