dirtSimple.orgwhat stands in the way, becomes the way

Stumbling On Success

For the last year or two, I’ve been trying hard to understand the real difference between naturally successful people and naturally struggling people.  That is, why do some people seem to have so few problems getting things done and going after their goals, while others (like me) tend to spend so much time going in circles and going nowhere?

At first, I noticed a lot of individual distinctions.  For example, naturally successful people aren’t fazed by setbacks – in fact, they can’t even think about failure for long, without automatically refocusing on success.

They set goals, not because they’re supposed to, but because they like it.  And they tend to view education costs as easily recouped: their attitude towards spending thousands of dollars to attend a seminar is that if they get just one actionable idea out of it, they’ll make a profit.

But just understanding differences like these doesn’t really help much.  It’s just a list of random characteristics, no different than you’d find in any profile of a successful person.

And that just wasn’t enough for me.

After all, I reasoned, nobody told those naturally successful people to think in the ways that they do.  They didn’t need a self-help book or a guilt-trip guru to tell them that goals were a good idea, or that a positive focus leads to success.  (Although they do read self-help books…  after all, one good idea means a profit to them!)

No, what I wanted to know was, what was it that made them naturally successful people in the first place.

I didn’t want to just know what they thought…

I wanted to know how they thought it.

Now, one of the first things I noticed was the gain brain vs. pain brain difference: naturally successful people spend more time moving towards pleasure, than moving away from pain.

And at first, I thought this was because they didn’t have any emotional baggage or negative beliefs, in relationship to their goals.

But later, after working with more naturally sucessful clients, I realized that this wasn’t really true.  Naturally successful people have blocks and negative beliefs, just like naturally struggling people.  Sure, they usually have a lot fewer blocks, but the ones they have…

Don’t seem to limit them as much!

Then, I made another connection, this time with Seligman’s Learned Optimism.  His studies showed that optimists fared better than pessimists in virtually every field, given similar levels of initial talent.  In particular, optimists routinely “overachieve” relative to their level of talent, while pessimists routinely underachieve.

Aha!  I thought.  This makes total sense.  If you’re an optimist, you spend more time moving towards pleasure and less time moving away from pain.  So natural success equals optimism!

Or does it?

Reading Seligman’s book, and the idea of the “3 P’s” – Persistent, Pervasive, and Personal – I got to understanding a good bit of the thinking process of optimism and pessimism.  But there were still some problems.

First off, Seligman’s proposed methods for “learning” optimism seemed wrong to me.  He was basically teaching people to dispute their pessimistic thoughts, rather than how to have optimistic ones.  And while having some examples of how to do this seemed good, it didn’t seem to me to be addressing the underlying problem.

After all, the mind-hacking techniques we use in the Guild were already adequate to remove the kinds of negative beliefs that generated pessimistic thoughts, and didn’t require repeated disputation of the same kind of thoughts.

The Plot Thickens

So, although Seligman’s work was greatly encouraging – strong experimental validation of a difference in thinking leading to dramatic differences in success! – it was ultimately a little disappointing.

So I continued my own efforts to find the answer, paying close attention to what changes in myself seemed to make me more (or less!) like a naturally successful person.

I found that time and physio-emotional states played big roles: if you can see and believe in a positive future for yourself, you’re more optimistic.  If you physically feel confident, it’s easy to be optimistic.

I also found that I could specifically train for setback recovery speed – to go from feeling bad about a setback, to being positively focused on what I wanted to get instead.

And I developed techniques to activate confidence, envision futures, and so forth…  all of which I’ve been teaching to Guild members in the last year or so.  But…

The Biggest Breakthrough Of All..

…was yet to come.

And it finally came, last Saturday, in the form of a book I encountered by chance.

The book was called Mindset, by Dr. Carol Dweck.  A psychologist – and a natural struggler herself – she stumbled on the same phenomenon I had: that some people seemed to not only be more successful than others, but actually welcomed challenge and adversity.

Intrigued, she set out to research the mindsets that created these personality differences…  and conducted an impressive array of experiments that showed not only what the difference was, but also how ridiculously easy it is to turn a kid into a naturally struggling person, versus what it takes to make someone naturally successful.

In fact, one of her experiments showed that giving a child a single IQ test and telling them their score meant they were “smart”, was enough to create a…

Lasting Negative Impact!

And I was utterly floored, because it brought back memories of something that happened around the second or third grade.  Some kid I didn’t know came up to me on the playground and told me how smart I was and that they admired me.

I tried to brush it off, because that wasn’t how I saw myself.  I felt like what I did was easy and anybody could do it and it was just a matter of applying yourself.  In fact, that’s what I told the kid.

But he wouldn’t accept it as an answer, and he kept trying to persuade me, “no, you’re really smart…”  So finally, I gave in to his assessment, if only to stop him pestering me.

And that was about the time that…

Things Started To Go Badly For Me!

Because I adopted what Dr. Dweck refers to as a “fixed” mindset: the idea that your ability or talent in some area is a fixed quantity, and that it’s an aspect of you, rather than something that is variable and under your control.

And it’s the mindset that creates what I call “natural struggling”.

Here’s how: once I defined my identity as “smart”, I had to live up to it.  After all, if I made any mistakes, I wouldn’t be “smart” any more!

So now I had something to lose.

And I started to become jealous of the smartest kid in class (I was only the second smartest), and to feel bad whenever he did better than me…  which was most of the time.

Of course, this wasn’t the only area of life where I developed a fixed mindset: crafts, mechanical things, sports, exercise…  you name it, I majored in having a fixed mindset about it:

“Oh, I’m not good at that.”

You see, it doesn’t matter whether you think you’re “good” at something or “bad” at it – all that matters is whether you think your ability is fixed.  If so, then you will develop fears and neuroses, or compulsive compensating behaviors.

For example, I became a competitive perfectionist, always striving to be the best, or at least, not second best.  Virtually everything I did, had to demonstrate how “smart” I was…  even at the expense of whatever my actual goals were.

And I kept adding more “fixed” labels to myself: lazy, disorganized, undisciplined, weak-willed…  You name it, I added it to the list.

Now, I’m not saying that I blame that kid on the playground for all this.  Dweck’s work shows that although there’s some tendency for the “fixed” mindset to generalize, most of my other “fixed” labels originated from other places: parents, teachers, peers, and even some Hardassian self-help books.

But you might be wondering: why is a fixed mindset so bad?  Don’t we all have a certain level of talent or ability in a given area?

Well, maybe we do, and maybe we don’t…  but the fixed mindset is incredibly toxic, regardless.  If you think you’re not good at something, then you won’t try to improve, unless you have to.  And then, you’re going to be stressed because you don’t expect to actually succeed!

Which is something that naturally struggling people do a lot: hoping for the best, while…

Fully expecting the worst!

Conversely, if you think you’re good at something, you still won’t try to improve, but also – paradoxically – you’ll become obssessed by the possibility of failure.

You’ll self-handicap and self-sabotage to make sure your true ability can’t actually be measured.  You’ll feel bad about others doing better than you, without knowing why.  And you’ll be afraid that someone will find out that you’re not really as good as you’re trying to be…  while never feeling fulfilled by your successes.

After all, you’re supposed to have those succcesses.  You’re talented, aren’t you?

I didn’t have to read very much of Dweck’s book before I was completely and utterly hooked.  Example after example showed how all kinds of negative beliefs and blocks and compulsions could arise from just this one simple idea: that your level of ability in some area is a fixed quantity.

It was just the missing link I’d been searching for: something that could lead to a systematic way of teaching people to switch from natural struggle…

To Natural Success!

In contrast, the methods I’ve been using up until now have worked, but they worked by removing the individual blocks, beliefs, and compulsions generated by this mindset.

What I had not seen, until now, was that all those individual issues – like my compulsions to be best, be seen as smart, and so on – depended on a single, almost-trivial belief, in order to function.

Which means there’s a very real chance that, had I wiped out the underlying “fixed” mindset first, I wouldn’t have had to eliminate all those other issues… one by one by one.

So, Sunday night, I took the time to do some mind-hacking on myself to purge all the “fixed” mindsets I could find, and replace them with Dweck’s “growth” mindset: the belief that you can learn to do better, and change yourself through effort and practice.

And in the process, I discovered some interesting things.

For one, I found that I had a pair of beliefs that “The future is uncertain” and “Noone can see the future”, which had been a big factor in my fixed mindset.  These beliefs kept me from making definite plans, except in response to fixed outside circumstances.  I could put other people’s deadlines in my mental representation of time, but not my own.  After all, “things could change” and “the future is uncertain”!

Another thing that I realized, is that my entire approach to self-help – even my terminology like “naturally successful” and “naturally struggling” – is totally based…

On The “Fixed” Mindset!

After all, a naturally successful person would never think of themselves as “naturally” successful, because that’s the exact opposite of what they believe about success!

And in retrospect, I realize that everyone I’ve ever called by that term, hasn’t really seemed comfortable with it…  not unlike my discomfort at being called “smart” by that kid on the playground.

Naturally struggling people, on the other hand, take to this terminology like candy.  It fits perfectly into our “fixed” mindset: those people are good at stuff, therefore they must have talent, and we don’t!

And I realized that all this time, these last few years, I’ve actually been gradually improving myself, almost like a “naturally successful” person.  It’s just that I’ve been doing it backwards.

Instead of setting out to gradually improve, I’ve been trying to make quantum leaps.  Sometimes those leaps get me all the way to somewhere, and sometimes, I find that there’s another leap or two needed.

But it never occurred to me to think of that as gradual improvement: instead, I thought of it as simply “fixing” things in myself that were broken, and restoring my natural ability to its full potential.

So I entirely ignored the part where I was inadvertently practicing and developing skills… 

At Mind-hacking!

And this then led to problems when I began teaching a new group of students in the Mind Hackers’ Guild this January.

Because by then, I’d effectively forgotten just how much study and practice had gone into my skills, and those of the other members, over the preceding year.

And I also began to realize that my teaching ability wasn’t as good as I thought it was, either!

The Guild members who were good weren’t good because I was an amazing teacher, but rather, because they’d learned as I had learned, finding out about each new technique shortly after I did, and learning individual refinements over time through practice and sharing.

And that’s part of why, several weeks ago, I put the writing of Thinking Things Done on hold: besides realizing that my teaching skills sucked, I also realized that the chapters were in the wrong order, and were spending way too much time showing off what I knew, and not enough time on teaching the actual skills.

Thus, if the second half of the book was anything like the half I’d written so far, I was going to end up with a 400+ page book that didn’t teach a fraction of what I’d intended it to!

So, I got myself a bunch of books on instructional development, so I could learn how to define the tasks to be taught and organize a course.

But at that point…

I was still in the fixed mindset.

So, even though I was reading up on how to develop courses, I wasn’t actually practicing anything I learned!

See, although most of my mindset has been “fixed” (i.e. struggling) for most of my life, I did have one slight loophole: when I was a kid, I remember deciding that, “I can do anything if I know how.”

Thus, I’ve always been motivated to read up on “how to” do various things, and try them out.  (At least once, anyway!)

And what that means is, in fields where “reading about it” and “knowing how to do it” are relatively close (e.g. computer programming), I’ve managed to do pretty well for myself.  Whereas, in fields that require more practice (like instructional development), I haven’t done as well!

So it’s really astonishing to see so much of my life laid bare by such a simple theory as this.  And it was a little bittersweet at first, because I was thinking,

“If only I had known this sooner…”

But that was before my Sunday-night mind hacking.

Because now, my subconscious representation of time includes a vivid future…  one in which I’m getting better at everything I do, by applying myself.  And I no longer dwell on the past, the way I used to.  (Something that makes more sense in the “fixed” mindset, where your past equals your future!)

And I’ve begun actually practicing some of the things from the instructional development books, to put together a new outline for Thinking Things Done.

And so, by the end of the week, it should be detailed enough that I can simply sit down and write the chapters, without needing to backtrack and throw out tons of mis-directed material, the way I did on the “first draft” of the first seven chapters.  (Writing them, I actually threw away far more material than I kept!)

But if I still do need to backtrack, or if any of this takes me longer than I expect or intend it to, I’m no longer worried or afraid.

After all, if my identity is not defined by my results, then there is no way that a negative result can hurt me.

Because my results cannot show me to “be a failure”; they can only show me where I have failed…

And where I can improve!

Which reminds me: back in the first grade, before that kid told me I was smart, there was something that one of my teachers once wrote on my report card:

“Loves to be challenged.”

And you know what?

I think it might…  just might…

Be true once more.

(Footnote: I do highly recommend you read Mindset, but please note that just knowing about the difference in mindsets is not going to change you overnight; in particular, the book offers very little practical advice about how to change mindsets.  So, if you aren’t in the Guild and aren’t sure how to get rid of beliefs on your own, you may want to check out my Simple Techniques For Rapid Change workshop, to make the process more reliable and systematic.)

Join the discussion
  • It was really interesting to see how your thought patterns were affected by the different ideas. I was left with a little confusion over what exactly Dweck’s theory was and found this great post that helped http://michaelgr.com/2007/04/15/fixed-mindset-vs-growth-mindset-which-one-are-you/

    I wasn’t in a position to join the Guild when you opened it up and am still looking forward to reading Thinking Things Through when you’re done.

  • I’m a natural straggler myself. I just want to offer you a different side of a story of a fixed mindset, maybe it will help you with your lectures..

    Idea that I am smart was up until recently the only positive thing I knew about myself. I was told that in school often, and I was one of the smartest kids in my class. But that was about it – I wasn’t beautiful, or popular, or sporty.. and so I never built any self esteem or confidence.

    But you see, the fact I knew my IQ was quite big since I was 7 didn’t create a feeling that I had something to lose.. Rather, it just made me lazy – I never had to study much, or put much effort in school, or in college.
    My problem was, I didn’t realize (up till recently) that I have to invest much more effort in “life” in order to be successful – in social, emotional, economical aspect of my life. And I didn’t know how. As you said, it was not written in any of the books I read.

    I have a faint idea now… and it is your blog that helps me in learning how, too:) Thnx:)

  • this is the blog post I have read of yours so forgive me if my comment is obvious.
    I think you will really like Geoff Colvin's book "Talent is Overrated"
    It give more credence to the Mindset theory.



Stay In Touch

Follow our feeds or subscribe to get new articles by email on these topics:

  • RSS
  • RSS
  • RSS


Get Unstuck, FAST

Cover photo of "A Minute To Unlimit You" by PJ Eby
Skip to toolbar