Learning Doesn’t Everyone Want To?

It constantly amazes me how seemingly unconnected events become connected. Earlier this week, a lunch conversation wandered into a sharing of childhood experiences. Within the many memories and stories discussed, I was asked one question, which I could not answer:

What made you strive to reach for more, when your surroundings contained many people reaching for less?

A few days later, I read the cover story for the March/April 2007 Stanford Alumni magazine. And wham! Dots connected. The cover story, (STANFORD Magazine: March/April 2007 Features Mind-set Research) is a review of the work of Stanford professor Carol Dweck. In reading the review, I discovered that I have a growth mindset.

As I think of stories from my past, I have consistently had this mindset, and it explains so much of my being. At its core, the growth mindset epitomizes the capacity to look at ability as something that can improve with development as opposed to viewing ability as an inherent trait that needs to be demonstrated, a fixed mindset.

Professor Dweck has developed the firm belief that people can move between the growth and fixed mind-sets. Wow! Therefore, I can now answer the lunchtime question: I had a quest for learning that drove me to seek more. However, this answer yields and even more interesting question.

From where in my childhood environment did the growth mindset originate?

Was it streams of positive reinforcement? Did my brother have the same mindset? Thinking and reflecting with my mother leads me to believe that the growth mind-set was established and reinforced through what I can now call our household principles. Up into this moment, I never thought to sit down and document the principles that we lived by, most of the were communicated in the form of sayings

  1. Never say can’t
  2. Learn something new everyday
  3. In school, the objective is to do your best everyday regardless of the grade achieved.

Never say Can’t

My brother and I were prohibited from saying, “can’t”. We approached any aspect of performance in the form that we had not tried yet, we choose not to develop the skill, or we have not practiced. The message was always clear; we can do anything once we put our mind to doing it. However, there was no guarantee that you would be skilled when compared to others, but that did not stop us from believing that we could achieve with effort, practice, and development some level of accomplishment.

Learn something new everyday

Learning was directly related to being observant and keeping an open mind. Life for us was filled with many opportunities to learn, we just had to take advantage of them. As a result, we approached each day with the opportunity to learn something, which we had to be ready to discuss when one of my parents inevitably asked, what did you learn today? Nothing was just an unacceptable response.

Do your best regardless of the grade

Hidden within the phrase “regardless of the grade” was a notion of maintaining self-esteem, when we ultimately would faced with an inevitable comparison or meeting with someone with superior talent. My parents while both college graduates were still products of the segregated south, and this no doubt shaped their mindset when it came to managing self-esteem in a hostile environment. They had learned to maintain their self-esteem regardless of the confirmation from the external environment. Appreciation or opportunity was never awarded with merit in my parents’ childhood.

For me this translated into parents who demanded I did my best, and refused to accept grades and class rankings or test scores as indications of me doing my best. For my parents, the result provided insufficient information as to the effort I expended. We had to have the conversation about what was learned, and what the implications were for the future. Therefore, test results became in our household, a statement about a point in time, for immediately after receiving the feedback, and reviewing what was missed, you were better off than what the test showed.

I’m sure there are many others principles that I have locked away in memory. It is indeed interesting that learning, is not readily embraced by everyone. It certainly explains a lot to me. For example, it must be fixed mind-set people who defined win-win as a goal of interaction, for there is not much learning winning all the time. No wonder I wanted to think about this more.

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