Craft or Daft? Two mindsets for learning, earning and changing (or not)

Believe you can change yourself?

The great utilitarian philosopher, Jeremy Bentham, was known to have split the world into two types of people: People who split the world into two types of people, and those who don’t. I think most of us are the former – we’re splitting up people all the time. Ourselves included. Dr Carol Dweck, author of the book Mindset, certainly splits us. Although in print for a decade, it’s widely regarded by many as a ‘game-changer’ in the world of social and personality pop-psychology. I’m no self-help book promoter, but if you wanted to $10 Kindle something for the train ride home, you could do much worse. According to Dweck, and when it comes to how one approaches their life, there tend to be two mindsets: The fixed mindset and the growth mindset. Take her mini-diagnostic (p12, 2012 ed.):

“From a personality and character perspective, do you mostly agree or mostly disagree with the following?

  1. You are a certain kind of person, and there is not much that can be done to really change that.
  2. No matter what kind of person you are, you can always change substantially.
  3. You can do things differently, but the important parts of who you are can’t really be changed.
  4. You can always change basic things about the kind of person you are.”

Which did you agree with more? 1 and 3 are the fixed mindset questions and 2 and 4 reflect the growth mindset. Dweck says we can replace ‘character’ or ‘personality’ in the diagnostic with other attributes like intelligence, artistic, sport or business ability, to figure out our natural mindset preference. She notes that some of us might be a mixture of both, but most of us will lean toward one or the other.

We don’t need to be Tony Robbins to realize these questions point directly at how we see ourselves. Whether we can shift our IQ by 2, 10 or 20 points might not be debatable from a scientific perspective, but how we view our brain and body’s capacity for changing (whether our abilities, personality or character) certainly is. Specifically, and according to Dweck, how we view these things will make a difference to our chances for achieving happiness and success in the future.

A summary? Those of us with a fixed mindset believe our intelligence and talent are innate traits that don’t change. These people get caught in language like I just can’t learn accounting or I’m not a design person, and they typically worry about not looking smart, get upset by mistakes, and give up sooner on tough tasks. For those of us with a growth mindset, we believe our talent or ability can change as a result of effort, perseverance, and practice. Prefer a graphical view of the two mindsets? Print this cracking visual by Nigel Holmes for your fridge or your desk.

 The thinker amongst us will probably say I’m both or it depends and, yes, it does. Although based on good research, Dweck does not argue that her mindset model is bulletproof science or applies one hundred percent of the time, and freely admits to it being a simple idea to assist us with our lives. 

But simple can be good. And I can relate. When I first began working as a coach, I always seemed to notice whether someone seemed positive or negative (I could generally tell by how much energy I had left at the end of the session). At the time, it felt like having a nose for 'isms. I could smell things right off the bat, first session: Nihilism, cynicism, skepticism, pessimism, naiveism, positivism and optimism, each of these rearing their heads through the little comments of clients: Well, you can’t change that; that's what the world is like; I guess I have to do the work now; you make your own luck; or she’s just one of those people.

I began to research. I found the ‘locus of control’ psychological research, and I liked it (I still like it, and use it almost daily). Locus is Latin for ‘place’ or ‘location’ and a person’s locus is either internally focused (you believe you can control your life) or external (you believe your decisions and life are influenced by factors beyond your control). Powerful stuff.

How was your last performance review? Do you tend to praise or blame yourself for the results (I worked hard; I have some talent here), or praise or blame someone or something else for the results (boss was in a good mood; I lucked it; it’s a sellers’ market; the team held me up)? I eventually got to Dweck’s book and her references to all sorts of research, and I began to use the concept with clients:

What do you believe about your life and how it’s going to turn out?

Do you believe you are capable of learning more (and what would you love to learn, exactly)?

What about earning (do you believe you are capable of reaching up for more tangible valuation of your time and energy)? What might be even better acknowledgement for you, than money or status? 

And changing? What is the most critical thing you would change in the coming twelve days, twelve months, or twelve years? 

The more sessions and workshops I ran on this concept, the more I heard stories of two types of people. Fundamentally, it seemed the split could be made by how each of the two mindsets dealt with their setbacks, struggles, failures, tough times and feedback; and, whether they sought achievement for their ego’s sake or it was the result of other drivers (often the fun or challenge of the work). Childhood and parenting style seemed to influence greatly what side of the fence each client seemed to fall (or choose).

This isn’t to say I didn't hear stories of all clients struggling with a fixed mindset at times. I know I do, and it’s generally on Mondays, when I’m overtired, shattered or have received a verbal punishing on a project that I thought had gone well. Yes, I will happily admit to sometimes feeling like my world is fixed, there’s nothing I can do, except pity party, and lick my wounds in the privacy of my own home (before, generally, beer, sleep, and some downhill mountain biking). My clients are walking conflicts too. Each turns up in my coaching room like a split log of wood: Half has dragged themselves to the session with the view there must be something I can change or need to learn here, and it is obvious there is a growth mindset within them (they’re happy for that part to pay my fee). Yet it seems there’s a pipe up internally from the other half: What’s the point, people can’t change, and you should and could have spent this coin on a new coffee table.

Dweck finds this too, and in her book she promotes a way of thinking about how to see life as a long game, one of learning, gradual change and internal rewards (example, I do this because it’s challenging and enjoyable), rather than a quest to be rewarded (ideally publically and continuously, with many a trumpet) for one’s ‘talent’ or ‘calling’ (like this will drop out of the sky somehow).

I like this growth mindset idea. Yet I prefer the word craft, to growth. Craft has a sense of developing a skill, gradually building toward mastery, over years and years. It reeks of a long-term game, not short-term rewards (or self-help rhetoric). I am often paid to convince or enable clients of growth and craft, rather than fixed and daft (my word for focusing on external rewards and praise, with a combined expectation of feeling good).

What does a growth or craft mindset sound like in a person? Let’s take liberty with a celebrity (as we tend to do during times of Oscars and elections). Here’s Director Paul Thomas Anderson, one of my top 5 Directors, on filmmaking:

It’s back and forth all the way along. You definitely have moments of confidence, where you feel like, “we got something great today!” and you go home at night, completely unable to sleep, mad with enthusiasm and confidence. A couple of days later, you’re lost again and struggling to make sense out of something. But that’s okay” (The Filmmaker Says, 2013).

It’s just one quote, but with liberty taken, says a lot about Mr Anderson: He has a craft or growth mindset – there’s good and bad days, and so long as you keep moving in a direction, developing, toward a vision, well, what else can you do? And if we went by his films (first at age 26, and an average of A- by most standards), I’m pretty sure we can agree he’s done alright.

Authors in Dweck’s learning and development territory, like Robert Greene's Mastery (a personal fave), would agree. Growth folks have an apprentice-like mindset when it comes to doing great work, learning, earning, changing, and craft. And, let’s come out and say it, they’re much nicer to be around, than the daft. This isn’t to say a fixed mindset can’t achieve glory and great things, many clearly do, but it will never be enough. There is a bottomless quest for recognition, and a push against anyone who disagrees or criticises. This is tiring, for them and us. A recent fixed mindset example from art?

On the come-down from Sunday’s Oscars, we can debate why the Steve Jobs biopic didn’t receive a golden statue (even financially, it bombed). Simply, the idea was stale, and the film was outdone by fierce competition. However, what about the story itself? Truth or not (it’s been well criticized for being a one-eyed script), Jobs was certainly painted in a particular light: Fixed mindset. He couldn’t take criticism, always felt challenged by others, and loved to look smart and brilliant rather than humble and eager to learn. I was left hating and pitying Jobs (there’s that conflict again). Jobs’ character was written as the fixed mindset, his ego constantly coming before all others’ growth, or the craft of the product. We might sum up his character in the film with one of his own real-life quotes: “I want to put a ding in the Universe”.

In the film, you certainly did, Steve. But an amended quote might have been more accurate: “I want to put a ding in the Universe, as well as a whole heap of people I probably should care about”.

Screenwriter Aaron Sorkin pushed to remedy the tragedy of Jobs’ character arc, not by cancer as many might have expected, but by references to Steve's adoption, and an overly sentimental scene in an empty car-park where Jobs seemingly solves all with an apology to his daughter and an (almost) tearful eye. Art imitates life? Probably not, many commentators have had Jobs as a more reasonable man than this. But certainly art imitates fixed mindset. I wasn’t left thinking I want to be like him and I do hope you weren’t either (well done Fassbender, you probably nailed the brief).

Spotlight, on the other hand, Sunday’s supreme Oscar Best Picture winner, despite predictions otherwise, is a lesson in the growth mindset and what there is to learn from the long game of a deep craft, in this case, investigative journalism. Be sure to see it. 

And, read Dweck’s Mindset, for something may shift within you. As Matthew Syed comments on the 2012 edition cover, it’s “essential reading for anyone with aspirations”. Surely, he's referring to all of us.

New Career? Average to Epic in Four Super Steps

Olivia, the General Manager, came to me for career coaching. 

She seemed tired. I hadn't met her before but, as a coach, I've developed a good radar for low or no mojo, exhaustion, and certainly a lack of interest in work and home life. Let's be honest, not many of us call a coach or therapist because life is amazing. Olivia didn't look too enthused, to put it lightly, and the baggy eyes and wringing hands indicated she was far from her ideals. I held my thoughts, and after the practicalities of the coaching arrangement, began with my usual how can I help?

I think I'm depressed. It's my current role. It's shit. The malaise has been rising over the last couple of years, and I think it's probably boredom. I need to talk out what I really want to do. I'm unsure. I also probably need a push to actually just do something. My partner has tried pushing me for the last six months, but I haven't done much, and he's sick of it. Frankly, so am I. Is this the sort of thing you do? 

Yes, it is the sort of thing I do. Most weeks.

Olivia had tried finding some simple advice, but it hadn't worked. She was more confused than ever. She'd tried the interweb, but we all know this reeks of one-minute-magic career and life advice: Silver bullet quizzes that promise your future, but provide little more than narrowed possibilities of basically, well, everything. Career advice can be overwhelming at times. I value simplicity. 

When someone like Olivia comes to see me for career coaching, I use a framework of four simple steps that I've developed from both research and experience. Think of them as focus areas, for designing and delivering yourself the ideal working life:

1. Dreaming.

2. Scheming.

3. Believing.

4. Achieving.

These phases have a linearity to them, but they aren't always sequential. In fact the process is probably more organic: We start out doing something we thought was right. Re-correct. Adjust. Work harder. Meltdown. Start again. Slowly we come to a clarity of our ideals, the specifics of exactly what it is that we want for ourselves; how we might go about getting that; finding some will and blind courage to go get it; before finally, shipping the goods. 

The four stages in detail (sorry, no silver bullets here, folks):

1. Dreaming (open the fire hydrant on your ultimate life).

Instead of what do you want to be when you grow up, how about what do you want for yourself, now?

What's your ideal? A human being is lost, and arguably not up to much, without ideals (and, ideally, their own). Yes, this is the part where you really open up a can of whip-ass on what you really want. 

What do you love? What do you enjoy? What do you want to do more of? Who have you met, what have you seen that gets you curious? When are you in the flow? Come on, seriously, what gets you in a frenzy and leaves you at the bar rambling for hours?

Yeah but, I'm not sure I know what I want.

You probably aren't sure. That's ok. That's probably standard.

But here's two common reasons why, and two common solutions: 

One, you're like Olivia and down in the dumps about where you've ended up. So, start with what you don't want and flip that on its head. 

Olivia didn't want boredom and an ever-growing sense of malaise and meaningless. We all have days like this, yes. But she was at the six-month mark, and that was time to recalibrate and restart. She dreamed of challenge, creativity, mastery and something purposeful. 

What do you dream of? Or, what is your nightmare?

Two, you have no real idea of the opportunities out there in the world. 

You've lead a sheltered or narrowed-in-one-direction existence thanks to ma, pa, 'that' teacher, boyfriend, ex, the system, whatever. Dramas to boot. Yup. We all have 'em. All bother. No bother. Your fervour for learning and change should only be the greater. It's time to stretch your legs friendo, and seek out the possibles. Do the therapy, work through your issues, then head for the open road.

Practically speaking? 

  • Become a kid again. Kids don't seek permission for dreaming. Forget the shoulds, money and manners. Substitute with draw, paint, write, yell, find, explore, feel and ponder: What could be, for me?
  • Find the people you really envy (as well as admire or aspire to be like or follow). Envy provides us with a compass, although we don't like to admit it. We envy those with more freedom, more cash, more meaning, more sense of self, more friendships, more health, more courage to dream, and less care for what others think. And rightly so. Envy has its place in evolution. It kicks our pity parties into overdrive and we climb into the heaving hierarchy of betterment. 

What do you envy and how does it tell you more about what you want?

Dreams are free. Make sure you help yourself.

2. Scheming (find out about real world things and create a plan).

Scheme? Plan, design or programme of action to be followed; a project.

The best scheme developers have the best and most information to hand in making them. What do you know about what you want? How might you know more? How and what does it look like and involve?

Scheming involves understanding how to hover between naively optimistic, on the one hand, and ravingly cynical, on the other. The answers lie somewhere in between. And, of course, you can enlist all sorts of help. There's planning gurus aplenty. And, ideally, a mentor waiting to wise you to winning.

Practically speaking? 

  • Forecast the future as much as possible, in practical terms, knowing that such a thing is pretty much impossible. The real trick? Find out how and what others have done in the past, to get to where you want to be. Let's face it, your dream may be unique but it's not wholly original. Steal, beg, borrow, copy and model from someone who has already learned the harder lessons. Get them to help you. Accept there will be awesome times and average ones and scheme for them.
  • Get practically super specific on what things will be required (courses, reflection, coaching, training, effort, dollars, guides and time), and where you will get the assistance from to begin the implementation.

The catch-cry of phase two is fail to plan? You're planning to fail. Olivia's idea of leaning on her partner, big salary and current role for too long hadn't worked out. She needed a dream, as well a new scheme.

3. Believing (get real clear on what you think and feel about change).

No, I don't mean with perfect white teeth and an arrogant cinematic gusto, streaks ahead of reality (but this may well assist you). I mean a good sense of self and what you just might be capable of. I mean, if you don't believe it, can you really be capable of it? Ask yourself: What do I really believe about myself and this dream of mine?

The complimentary Lululemon bag I received on purchase of my short new running shorts says: Your outlook on life is a direct reflection of how much you like yourself. Hmm, provocative? Yes. True? No. Better? Your outlook on life is a direct reflection on how you're feeling in that moment.

Believing? It's not a complete lack of anxiety. Perhaps quite the opposite.

More often than not, it's simply: F*** it, I really have no idea, but here goes.

In fact, it would be more usual for many of my rather successful business, creative, sporting and parenting clients (especially the honest life-experienced ones) to say I really am not sure I have the skills n talent for this, nor the belief in myself, but let's go anyway.  And great things occur. Eventually.

Forget about relying on your PE teacher to shower you with praise for your Olympic level coordination. Only you can woman up for this one, Olivia.

Tough start in life? Cue Fitting Analogy: 

The final scene of David Fincher's modern classic, Seven, has Morgan Freeman's character, Detective Somerset, state sombrely: Ernest Hemingway once wrote - The world is a fine place, and worth fighting for - I agree with the second part.

Believing is about the second part, the fight. And sometimes it is about acknowledging that the events leading to your believing, have not been fine. But that doesn't mean something isn't worth fighting for. How much fight have you got in you?

Practically speaking? 

  • Take a serious look at the emotional, mental and physical or material costs of not doing something. What are you going to miss out on? Perhaps it isn't much? Perhaps changing isn't really worth it? But what if you believed it was?
  • Look carefully at what we might call your 'belief history'. We all get knocked back. Life's filled with disappointment. Scar tissue gets tough, it loses its sensitivity, loses its ability to grow and stretch. Find a new role model, a skin transplant specialist, to help you with believing better things. What would you like to believe? And, at a gut level, what would you like to feel excited or enthused about, if you really let yourself? Perhaps most importantly, who else are you recruiting to believe in you, too?  

If we are the average of the five people we spend the most time with (Jim Rohn), are you happy with your average? Cull out your non-believers. 

Still confused? Read The Crossroads of Should and Must.  Belief is not about confidence, but rather about knowing what you simply must do.

 4. Achieving (start doing stuff, and start now).

Just do it. You can do all the Dreaming, Scheming and Believing in the world, but at some point you will have to get off the couch. Although Dreaming and Scheming about riding a bike, and Believing you can ride a bike, might assist in the end, the only way you're going to learn is by doing it (and probably not doing it very well, in the beginning).

If in doubt, or a hurry, leap to this fourth stage. You're more likely to be drawn forward in your career (or any part of your life, frankly) by the doing stuff phase. The small-print exception? Repeating the same thing and hoping for new results (generally we don't consider this Achieving).

Call that possible future boss. Resign from your painful one. Write that short story. Get that bank loan and spanking office. Start that degree. Pick up that camera. Call that therapist. Do your MBA. Do 10 press-ups. Re-write your resume (again). Cold-call that start-up (again). Head to South America with your 1950s desert racer. Go on.

The one thing I see in this phase that tends to disappoint? Biting off too bigger chunk, and then getting disappointed when the grind hits. If you've got a big dream, it's going to take ages. Why not start small, with just a little step today? Create and build a lifelong craft. Not one big thing. And leave the anxiety of not creating your lifelong legacy by the weekend, on the side of the road, as you Tortoise past it.

Practically speaking? 

  • Break down your Dream and Scheme into the most micro of tasks, and begin those tasks this afternoon, slowly building momentum to systematically smash tens and tens out of the park.
  • Find someone to be accountable to. Ideally this person will be different to your personality. Yes, they'll push you around and make you prickle, but comfort is the enemy of learning and the best teams (even our internal voices team) are made of diverse personalities. 

Extra for Experts?

My final tip.

In my experience, and going on personality research too, some of you are going to love the first two phases (Dreaming and Scheming), and some of you will tend toward the second two (Believing and Achieving).  Some of us dream and scheme, and don't take enough action. Some of us dive in, without checking the water first. Balance it out pal. Yes, use your strengths, but lean into your weaknesses - you'll learn more from them.

Olivia did, and Olivia and her partner are a whole lot better for it.