Thursday, November 6th, 2008
This is a momentous time. The United States has just elected Barack Obama as our next President. The obvious “change” there is that we elected a black man, but that’s a side note. More important to me is that we have chosen a highly intelligent, very well educated thinking person as President; but that’s secondary too. The real change is a commitment to change, the realization that we can’t just keep on doing things the way we’ve done them for centuries. And it’s a statement that we need to be open to change within ourselves to prosper and succeed.
Here’s a quote from Mr. Obama’s nomination acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention last August:
“I get it. I realize that I am not the likeliest candidate for this office. I don’t fit the typical pedigree, and I haven’t spent my career in the halls of Washington. But I stand before you tonight because all across America something is stirring. What the naysayers don’t understand is that this election has never been about me; it’s about you.”
It’s about us. For the last eight years, American politics has been about “them”. It’s been about reacting to the terrorist attacks on 9/11. It’s been about reacting to the fear of possible “weapons of mass destruction” and a despotic regime in Iraq. It’s about counting on our government to protect us from the outside world and keep us safe. But it hasn’t been about protecting our quality of life, or about individuals taking responsibility to improve their own lives or to make the world a better place.
Well, now it’s about us. It is a time for change, but the change must come from within each of us. It is a time to take individual action, a time for hard work, and a time for Heroes.
A Book for Heroes
John F. Kennedy once said, “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.” Barack Obama said something similar Tuesday night, “I will ask you join in the work of remaking this nation the only way it’s been done in America for two-hundred and twenty-one years – block by block, brick by brick, calloused hand by calloused hand.” It may be uncomfortable in a nation of luxury and entitlement, but we all have to help to make change happen. The nice thing is, as we work to help the world, we grow stronger as individuals.
What do we mean by that? We recently read a book that is changing our lives – and it might change yours – in very positive ways. The book is “Mindset: The New Psychology of Success,” by Carol S. Dweck, PhD. Ms. Dweck is a Professor of psychology at Stanford University and a researcher “in the fields of personality, social psychology, and developmental psychology.”
At its heart, Mindset is a very straightforward, single-topic book about the advantages of having a “growth mindset.” The author defines a “fixed mindset” as a belief that what you are is what you will be. You’re athletic or not. You’re smart or dumb. You’re good at art or have no talent. A “growth mindset” is the belief that you can learn and improve any area of your life – If you suck at calculus or basketball or playing the piano, that just means you need to work harder at learning and getting better at it. People who have a “growth mindset” – and apply it to how they live their lives – are much more successful and effective in every area of life than those who have a “fixed mindset.” It’s a simple idea, and I had heard it before, but an incredibly powerful one.
If Mindset is a one-idea book, why do we think you should all read it? It has to do with… mindset. The fixed mindset is all about taking the easy way out. The previous paragraph gave you the “easy way” version of mindset. You didn’t have to work for it; it got handed to you. One of the things we learned from Mindset is that learning doesn’t work that way. We grow by making a commitment to growth, accepting that we can do very difficult and challenging things, then working towards them step by step. When we’ve been exposed too much to the fixed mindset, it’s easy to see work as a negative thing. If we were truly smart, we wouldn’t have to work to learn something new or to accomplish something important. That mindset can work great when we’re being successful, but it has no coping strategy for challenges or failures.
Mindset contains dozens of examples of people with fixed and growth mindsets, and of studies that demonstrate how much more effective people who apply the growth mindset are. Some of those examples are absolutely astonishing! How about the teacher in Chicago who gets all the “failed” troublemaking kids and refuses to treat them as losers? By the end of the year, every student is reading well. By the time they’re in 5th or 6th grade, they’re reading Chekhov, Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Socrates – and loving it. They get there step by step and by not having the option to quit when things get tough.
How about the idea of encouraging children by avoiding criticism and telling them how smart they are? That’s great, right? According to multiple research studies cited by Dweck, it’s a disaster! Children – and adults – learn by our mistakes and by being challenged. Children who did well on a test and were told they were really smart saw no reason to study. When they later did poorly on a harder test, they were devasted – “If doing well means I’m smart, then failing means I’m stupid.” They had no coping method and no tools for growth.
Children who were given the same series of tests, but were told, “You must have worked really hard to do so well on that test,” had a totally different experience. They too had trouble on the harder test, but they interpreted their failure differently – “I did poorly on that test, so I’ll have to work harder so I can do better next time.” With that simple change in mindset, these children continued to learn and did much better on the retest.
We Hope You’ll Change Your Mind
Now, you might not think that applies to you. Readers of this blog are probably really intelligent, well-educated people. There’s a good chance you read challenging works of literature, philosophy, or science. Well, if that’s the case, you could be in even greater danger! Thinking you’re smart by genetics or education makes it easy to think, “I’m brilliant because I succeeded at something. The moment I fail, I’ll stop being brilliant. It’s safer not to try at all.” You need to reinterpret yourself and take the attitude that, “I did great work on that project!” instead. That way you will reinforce the growth mindset and continue to work, learn, take risks, and grow. That’s why we think you should read Mindset, really thinking about the ideas and examples in it, and work to apply them in your own life.
I (Corey) remember a conversation, early in my career as a programmer. Someone asked me why I was willing to work long, crazy hours. I said, “Work is all about learning. I learn something new every day. If I ever stop learning new things at a job, it’s time to move on.” I used to get really embarrassed when someone said to me, “You must be really smart” or “You’re a genius!” because I felt I was just having fun learning new things. Unfortunately, somewhere in there I think I started believing the compliments and maybe forgot a little about how much real work it takes to create great software.
What do you do when you’ve been on the top of the world, a success, a star? Especially what do you do when you then have a couple of projects that are canceled, or that simply fail? What happens next depends on your mindset. If you believe that “success = brilliance,” then clearly “failure = stupidity.” Guess what, you’re now a has-been. You don’t dare start any new projects or take any big risks because they might not succeed and gasp! you might discover that you were a one-hit wonder. There, safe, whew!
What I learned from Ms. Dweck’s book is that being “safe” is the real failure. Every great accomplishment comes from incredibly hard work and the flexibility to keep learning and growing while you’re working at it. If you lose the growth mindset, you lose everything. Mindset came to me as a badly-needed kick in the ass.
That doesn’t mean I won’t screw up. It’s very easy to slide back into laziness. Even when you do everything exactly right, failure is always a possibility. But with the growth mindset, failure is just the start of a new opportunity. It’s a lesson and a chance to grow. Learning isn’t comfortable… but it’s fun. Hard work can be stressful… but it’s a lot less stressful than knowing you aren’t accomplishing anything. “Meaning” can be hard to come by, but it’s really rewarding when you find it and work for it.
A School for Change
By the way, The School for Heroes isn’t a “fixed” place either. It’s a living, growing site that will constantly be changing and adding new features. Within the next few weeks we’ll let you edit your personal page (you can already add a personal statement), view a roster of the students in each class, get to your Heroic assignments, let your friends know about your hero class and how to take the test, and much more. Soon we’ll have a forum where you can talk to other heroes-in-progress and discuss your work, plans, and ideas.
Of course, Lori and I have a lot of work to get all that done. We’re eagerly taking on the challenge and watching our hard work slowly turn into a real school for – and of – heroes. We hope you’ll all stay with us and take the missing features as challenges and growth opportunities. From a fixed mindset, every missing feature is a failure – The school obviously needs all those things. From the growth mindset, each one is an exciting opportunity for growth and change. The School for Heroes will never be a static site and you are all essential to helping it grow and become what it promises to be.
Read Mindset, please. Its message is both powerful and important. We live in a momentous time, a time for change, a time for heroes. Can we really make a difference – in ourselves and in the world around us? To quote our new President-Elect, “Yes, we can!”