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Success Is Not Carved in Stone, Nor Is Failure

This will help you transition from a binary to a growth mindset.

It comes down to which pair of glasses you chose to put on every day. Photo by Bud Helisson from Unsplash


At my tender thirteen years of age, I was told by my piano teacher that I wasn’t ready to play a difficult piece at the time, Chopin’s Ocean Etude.

I blindly believed it for longer than I’d like to admit.

And that kept me from trying.

I was thinking in binary terms:

  1. I’m not good enough
  2. This piece is for skilled players

So why even bother trying?

What I failed to realize is that my level at the time didn’t matter, because it was just a temporal stage in my overall development.

Instead, I had to focus on where I wanted to be.

After some years, my thinking process changed: my piano skills aren’t set in stone, they’re a stage that can easily change.

It’s just a matter of time!

I could use my current level as a building block to accurately assess my ability rather than treat it as an unmovable setback.

This brings us to the process of unveiling our beliefs and choosing a different path for ourselves.

Do you feel capable of making a change?

If you can’t picture yourself differently, that’s because you’re stuck in a binary thought pattern. And that’s the first thing we should address.

We’re thinking in extremes instead of a continuum.

This is not to say that we perceive ourselves as either very good or very bad.

We don’t have to be too close to one pole to think in binary terms. It can be more subtle than that. And it’s just as harmful to your development.

When I was a teenager, I attended a violin summer camp in Serbia. We were all stuck in double rooms inside a large but humble hotel. Think of a gigantic block of concrete from the once socialist Europe, an entity with bare plain white walls and furnished with minimalist pieces of furniture, minimalist as in the socialist sense of the word.

I shared a room with a brilliant violinist a couple of years younger than me. Since this place was just a regular hotel, we didn’t have special rooms for practice.

So we had to manage with what we had in our tiny little rooms.

One played in the bedroom, and the other one in the bathroom. And that’s not even the worst part! Think of dozens of violin players playing at the same time (because practice is sacred at all hours), with a high-pitch cacophony of sounds gushing through the hotel walls. A sound jungle. But there wasn’t any alternative.

Naturally, I started comparing myself with my roommate. He played melodiously. Wonderfully. Everything seemed so easy for him. He was praised by other players and teachers as well.

He also thought very highly of himself, so “evidently” he didn’t have to practice as much as everybody else. He played for two-hour tops (which is a short time for classical musicians) and then wandered throughout the premises.

He kept playing very well, but he wasn’t improving.

He thought of himself in binary terms. He was already good. He must’ve thought that putting on effort wasn’t necessary. If you’re great, why would you need to practice so much? Wouldn’t hard practice diminish your natural ability since that will just prove that you’re not good already?

He failed to see that his playing was only one stage in his development. He didn’t see his skill as part of a journey but instead, it was already a destination. A fixed and unmovable position, and as such, not worth changing.

He was perhaps lucky to be a fine violin player, but imagine those currently not-so-skilled players stuck in this mindset.

No wonder many will soon abandon playing together.

What’s this fixed mindset doing to our sense of self?

When you think in terms of pairs (good/bad, strong/weak) you’re forcing people and things into tightly closed boxes, unreachable both from the outside in and vice-versa.

You’ve enclosed them with invisible tape that can’t be cut.

For instance, you do this with the way you label people:

  • “You can’t argue with him, George is just a lazy guy”
  • “She’s amazing, Martina has always been outstanding in everything she does”

In your mind, they’ll always be like that.

If George puts effort into his next assignment and gets praised at work, you’ll think it was his lucky day. And when Martina fails at her new pottery class, that’s something she’ll soon master. No way she’ll stay like that for long.

If we do this with others, don’t you think we won’t apply it to ourselves too?

Here are two examples:

  • “I suck at padel, it’s just something I’ll never learn to do.”
  • “I’m great at playing the piano, but don’t make me play in front of other people, I might get nervous and make a mistake.”

Whether you’re good or bad at something, and you’ve imprinted this binary perspective inside of you, you’re going to lock yourself up in the tiniest of rooms. With no key to get out!

This is what happens to a binary mindset…

You won’t try to change because your qualities are already set in stone.

You won’t believe that effort can get you out of it so you won’t even try. It’s worse than that because if you tried and failed anyway, you won’t have any excuse left and that will confirm that that’s the way you are.

It’s scary!

And when we’re in this mindset we’re filled with fear.

We’ll always avoid a challenge greater than the one we think we’ll overcome. Oh, and if it happens in a public setting, like playing in front of a crowd, that’s even worse! Others will also see how flawed you are, and you won’t be able to hide your incompetence.

But there’s always a choice.

A choice that starts with how we want to think about ourselves and others.

What’s the alternative to a binary thought pattern?

Somebody in the fixed mindset will tell you that you can’t change the way you think. Or that you can’t choose to think differently.

It’s in your genes. It’s in how you were raised. It’s just biology. Or any other crap they’ll come up with (or that your own mind will come up with).

Remember that you’re always your worst enemy. You believe what you tell yourself, so chose your mind words wisely.

If you accept to think how others tell you to, you’ll be one more player rooting against you.

Our minds are strange things.

If our brains were simpler than they are, the brain wouldn’t be able to think about itself. And we would be mindless bodies running around.

Thank god for complexity!

You can choose to have a growth mindset.

What does that mean?

For starters, it means that you don’t think of yourself as being stuck in one place either figuratively or literally.

You’re constantly in motion:

  • You might start at a different level than others, but any skill can be improved.
  • If you can always work to become better, then your true potential is unknown.
  • Your focus is on learning instead of avoiding seeing your deficiencies. If you can’t see them, how are you going to upgrade yourself?
  • You seek challenges because they’ll show you where you are, and where you might be.

Can you see that everything is related to movement in the growth mindset?

Female education as an example — why your type of mindset matters:

We have to address binary mindsets from a young age. It becomes harder to overcome afterward. (Photo by Les Anderson)

A couple of years ago there was a strong campaign to encourage people to learn how to program. Successful tech founders like Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg, and even sports players, like NBA basketball player Chris Bosh, were part of this campaign.

It was meant to encourage everyone to learn how to program. However, the world of programming is predominantly filled with men. We have strong cultural views that reinforce this gender unbalanced distribution.

You’ve probably heard of the stereotype that areas like engineering and computer sciences come naturally to men because their brains are hardwired for logical thinking skills.

So female students will most likely have these two related beliefs:

  • First, given their gender, they‘ll think they’re not likely to be good at activities that require reasoning and math skills. So they won’t even try to change that belief and prove themselves wrong.
  • Second, even if they have a degree of this “geek gene”, the fact that they have to work too hard to get results, means they’re not gifted enough for this area. In their minds (or anyone having a binary mindset), their ability is set in stone. You have a certain level (if any) and that will determine how much you’re able to achieve with what you’ve got.

No wonder only 18% of graduates in the computer science field are women (in the US).

Stanford Professor Carol Dweck has extensively researched the topic of fixed mindsets. One of her studies, described in her Self-theories book, showed that although girls with high IQ perform better than other groups, they’re also more likely to have a fixed mindset.

Their view of intelligence and abilities as gifts, rather than something you can cultivate through time, makes them vulnerable. Anything that can threaten their self-view of being an exemplary student will be avoided. That means that they’ll be less likely to seek challenges.

Lesser challenges, lesser opportunities to grow. Lesser opportunities to grow, more confirmation of a fixed mindset.

A degrading vicious cycle.

This applies to anyone having a binary mindset but when you have strong stereotypes, like the ones related to women, the task becomes more challenging.

You’re not just changing your mindset about skills but also about your gender.

The Takeaway

Think about it. If you’re neither good nor bad, and there’s always room for improvement, doesn’t it feel liberating?

We can define ourselves through our own effort, and we’re responsible for our growth.

You are in charge.

However, it can also seem daunting. The idea of trying and still failing is scary. And if we haven’t got any more excuses left, there’s no one to blame but ourselves.

It’s not about judging how poor we perform, but rather thoroughly assess those weak points and work on improving them.

People in the binary or fixed mindset are more inaccurate about their ability and performance. They don’t want to see their flaws because it harms their sense of self.

But when you want to improve, you must be open to gather accurate information about yourself. How else are you going to overcome them?

“Anything that’s human is mentionable, and anything that is mentionable can be more manageable,” as Mr. Rogers frequently used to say.

By Pavle Marinkovic on .

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