Have you ever said, or heard someone say, “I’m just not a computer person?” It’s very common in the United States for people to attribute success to some innate talent – you either have it or you don’t. This kind of attitude is called the fixed mindset, suggesting that our abilities are fixed at birth. If you believe this, you will be afraid to try things that don’t come easily to you, because you doubt you will ever get better.
But guess what? None of the “computer people” you know started out with all that skill and knowledge. Maybe they started learning young enough to not care when they made a mistake, and were given opportunities that most people don’t get. But some “computer people” became so just by being geeks. They might have had a hard time understanding the basics at first, but they didn’t let their struggles bother them, and pushed through until they got it. Their curiosity isn’t held back by worries of looking dumb, because they know that with effort, they can get smarter. This attitude is called a growth mindset. People with a growth mindset believe that our intelligence, personality, and other traits can all be improved or changed through effective practice. We aren’t “just the way we are.” We’re just the way we are right now. Just as those who study talent, they know the truth that persistence is the most important factor in determining our success.
It’s not all black and white though. Most people tend to have a fixed mindset some of the time, with some activities, and a growth mindset at other times, with other activities. For example, you might believe you can always become a better cook/carpenter/guitarist with practice, but that you either “have a mind for technology” or you don’t.
This also isn’t to say that innate talent doesn’t exist – it does. It’s just not as important as being a geek: constantly practicing and experimenting, unimpeded by fear or anxiety, thanks to a growth mindset. Michael Jordan didn’t have a lot of innate talent. He was almost never drafted, only picked third. He became the legend he is today, because when he missed a shot, he’d stay after to practice it a hundred times, so that he wouldn’t miss next time. As he puts it, “I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life, and that is why I succeed.”
So how can you cultivate your growth mindset and become a better geek? Here are some practical tips to start:
- Pay attention to your inner dialog when you encounter difficulty or success in a task. Are you privately telling yourself that you’re brilliant or stupid, gifted or “just not” gifted? Stop yourself when you see that and replace those words with, “I really worked hard and it paid off,” or “This is more difficult than I expected. I’ll have to be patient with myself and put in some more time, if I want to figure it out.”
- Shift the foundation of your ego from “being great” to “always, slowly becoming better than you were.” At the end of the day, what do you ask yourself? Is it, “Am I a great (or the best) teacher/social worker/accountant/plumber?” If so, you’re setting yourself up for a fixed mindset that will keep you from becoming better. Instead, try asking, “Am I slowly becoming a better teacher/social worker/accountant/plumber? If not, what can I do to learn more and improve my performance?” The latter questions help you ensure that you’re always improving, without beating you down for not being perfect.
- Don’t buy into the myth of “finding your passion.” Remember that interest is not immutable, more innate talent does not mean greater potential, and passion is a practice. This is a big idea, so check out this short essay for more details.
If you still want more on mindsets and geekocity, check out these links, or leave a question or comment below.
- Fixed vs Growth Mindset Infographic
- Teaching Growth Mindsets Video
- Carol Dweck’s book, Mindset
- Power On’s Geek Manifesto (coming soon)
- Power On’s Tools of the Mind posts (coming soon)