One of us lives on the east coast. One of us lives on the west.

One of us lives in a rural community. One of us lives in a city.

Both of us wander. Both of us witness. Both of us write.

This is a record of what we find.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Landscape and the Mindset of Growth

Erin Murphy posted a link to this blog post yesterday. (Thank you Erin and thank you Brain Pickings.) And it spoke to me.

Boy, it spoke to me.

Our mindsets make a huge difference in the quality of our lives. The moment to moment quality, as well as the long term, visionary quality.  I know this. I have known this. What we thinkof ourselvesis a sort of guiding light in the darkness, right? If we think negatively, that is the path we see before us. If we think positively…well then that is the path we see illuminated.

But Carol Dweck's work is an even more intense examination of how our thoughts can profoundly impact our lives. I won't go into her work here in detail, because you can go to the blog post and read it for yourself (and I urge you to, if you have time) but basically she found, in her research, that one of the most basic beliefs we have about ourselves stems from how we view—and live within—our personalities. And she found two distinct categories here: a fixed mindset and a growth mindset. 

A fixed mindset says:

I am who I am, and I need to prove it over and over again. I have to show everyone that I am smart and any indication that I am not smart (making a mistake, for example) will not be tolerated.

A growth mindset, on the other hand, says:

Who I am right now is simply who I am right now. I can learn and grow and improve over time, if I put in the hard work and keep an open mind along the way. I am curious and flexible and have room inside for improvement.

I realized after I read the blog post that I had heard of Carol Dweck before. I read an article in New York Magazine a while ago about children and praise, and her work was in it, front and center: “Emphasizing effort gives a child a variable that they can control,” Dweck explained in the article. “They come to see themselves as in control of their success. Emphasizing natural intelligence takes it out of the child’s control, and it provides no good recipe for responding to a failure.”

This is powerful, deeply satisfying stuff. 

The Ugly Duckling by Roberta Wilson
It speaks to me as a parent, for sure. I can remember when my son decided to go to an ice hockey camp and when we got there it was clear that he was the only kid who had never played before. He couldn't do it on that first day. Any of it. And every other kid could. He tripped, he fell, he missed the puck, he fell again. I remember feeling so sad for him—you know that feeling in the center of your belly when your kid is suffering in the moment…when success is so not available in that very second—and wanting to scoop him up and take him home.  But I didn't. (Not because I got wise and knew this could be a powerful moment, but because Derek, my husband, was already wise and urged me to wait it out.)  You can guess what happened. We (and the camp counselors, thank goodness) praised my son for his incredible effort, for small improvements, for hard work. He got better at ice hockey each day of that week. Not good, not good by a long shot, but better. And most profoundly for me…he felt so content within himself, both throughout the process and, of course, after it was over.

What better lesson can we hope to teach our kids?  I would venture to say that there isn't a better one. 

(Except to be empathetic and kind to self and others, perhaps. But…and this is oh so cool, in my opinion…I am going to guess that living with a growth mindset nurtures empathy and kindness. If you know how to work hard, and know you can change, then you can imagine that in other people too.)

What better lesson can we hope to learn for ourselves too?

I used to think that desiring something for more than a minute was a sign that I wasn't meant to do the thing, or have the thing…because it meant that I had tried to do it, or have it, and had failed. Failure the first time meant that the desire was off the table. Quite a fixed mindset, eh?

But now…

From The Curious Garden by Peter Brown
My New Year's post, the one about last year being a cocoon year for me, is about exactly this. In all ways, but especially in terms of my writing. I have never worked so hard and so long at anything. I have never made effort and perseverance as much of a ritual as I have with the process of writing. This is key, I believe. The ritual of effort and perseverance. 

And I would add to that, now that I sit for a moment and think about it. The ritual of effort and perseverance and longing.

Work hard, keep at it, and always, always honor the longing.

With gratitude,


  1. Tam - I've read this post three times today, and each time I love it more!

    "If you know how to work hard, and know you can change, then you can imagine that in other people too." Empathy, kindness, and hope.

  2. Tam, I've kept this in my inbox as a reminder to grow and fail and try again. Thank you!