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You Too Can Learn and Get Better at Stuff

This blog post is the first in a series on growth mindset. You can read the second one here.

I had a “C” in organic chemistry in high school. I was proud.

I didn’t like the teacher so I decided I wouldn’t study or put any effort. I didn’t like chemistry so I thought there was no point in learning it. But why was I proud? Because I was told I was “smart” and so getting a “C” in a difficult subject without putting much effort validated my identity as someone who’s ‘smart’. In other words, getting a “C” reinforced my ‘smartness’ and being smart was an identity I cherished.

I had a fixed mindset with regards to organic chemistry (and a lot of other subjects). In retrospect, I realize it held me back from learning more in high school.

At some point, you were a baby. You couldn’t walk. Until you could. How did that happen? It probably entailed months of trying and a lot of failed attempts. Perhaps your parents gave you positive reinforcement every time you tried and made a little bit of progress. And you probably didn’t tell yourself “crap, this is really hard. I am fed up with falling on my face. It looks bad. From now I am going to just stay in my crib and pout.”

You had a growth mindset with regards to walking (and a whole bunch of other things).

Walking, chemistry, playing the violin – these are all things we can learn. Anyone can learn them. That doesn’t mean we all start from the same place, or have the same proclivity.

Learning is, above all, a process; it’s not a Ferrari – you can’t go from 0 to 100 in six seconds. You can go from crawling to walking in a couple of months. You can go from not knowing a language to being proficient in that language in a few weeks. You can go from wherever you are now in whatever skill you have to being a little better in a matter of hours.

Learning is a function of belief, motivation, time, effort, approach, and a little bit of help from others:

  • Belief: do you believe that you can learn that skill / knowledge / thing?
  • Motivation: why do you want to learn that skill / knowledge / thing?
  • Time: how much time will you invest to learn that skill / knowledge / thing?
  • Effort: how much effort will you put toward learning that skill / knowledge / thing?
  • Approach: how will you go about learning that skill? Do you have a set goal? A way to measure progress? A way to get feedback? How will you refine your approach when you get stuck?
  • Community: who could you enlist to support you, cheer you on, hold you accountable, coach you? 

I’d like to focus first on belief, or in other words on the concept of growth mindset. Having a growth mindset simply means you believe you can learn something. (And having a fixed mindset means you don’t believe you can learn something.) You can read more Carol Dweck and her work on mindset here.

Now, you may exhibit a growth mindset today about swimming and tomorrow you may exhibit a fixed mindset about facilitating meetings at work. We experience and exhibit both, all the time!

The important thing here is to figure out how to stay in growth mindset longer. In this blog post series I am going to share ideas and resources on how to develop and stay in a growth mindset so that you can learn and get better at stuff.

I don’t know how you felt about organic chemistry, but I am willing to bet that at some point in your life between being a baby and the present (yesterday? last week?), you told yourself any of the following:

I am not good with [fill in the blank].

This is too hard. I won’t do it anymore.

There’s no point. I will never be able to [fill in the blank].

I am so glad this went well. I don’t want to try it again lest I mess it up. This would be so embarrassing.

But why did you tell yourself that?? You probably did because:

  1. You were afraid (of failure, embarrassment, disappointment, success, you name it)
  2. You didn’t know any better.
  3. You were given labels that you bought into.
  4. You saw people around you do the exact same thing.
  5. It felt like the safer thing to do.
  6. It felt like the easier thing to do.
  7. For another 800 hundred reasons I don’t have space to list…

Everybody does that sometimes. It’s normal – we are conditioned that way. You felt fear. You told yourself a story about how things are supposed to be. The thing is you don’t have to give in to that fear or believe any of these stories.

Would you like to know how? Check back for the next blog post in this series where I’ll share some thoughts on fear.

Meanwhile, what do you want to get better at right now? Share below!

To learn more about growth mindset, check out this infographic and watch this video for a wonderful introduction. Then read my next blog post on fear.

Zarko Palankov seeks ways to connect ideas, people and organizations, to create platforms for learning, collaboration and growth, and to fundamentally change the leadership paradigm: how we work together toward a common vision. He is building a social venture, LeadIN, that grows the individual and collective leadership of people and organizations. LeadIN brings people together to learn, share, and grow their leadership.

Feel free to contact Zarko at or follow LeadIN on Twitter @leadincommunity.

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