“I’m not pedaling fast enough.” “I’m not good enough at my job.” “I look silly in these Lycra leg warmers.” The chilly morning fog pierced through my many layers as I pedaled through Golden Gate Park. My 40-minute morning bike commute to downtown San Francisco features a morphing landscape: a lush urban forest that eventually sprawls into skyscrapers and organized chaos. As my mind and body began to warm with every pedal stroke, like a car engine on a frigid morning, a thought popped into my head: What if I were to count the number of negative thoughts that flowed into my mind during this commute?
This idea didn’t come out of the blue. For the past few weeks, I had slowly tapped into an awareness of my internal monologue, and to my dissatisfaction, my mind was a magnet to self-criticism. So in this 40 minute period, unencumbered by an iPhone to distract me, I decided to turn my attention inward. Unsurprisingly, I observed a flood of negative thoughts, from the fear that I was under-performing at my new job, to the idea that I needed to be pedaling faster. What shocked me was not the negativity of my thoughts, but rather how many of them I had. I gave up counting after my total eclipsed three-dozen in under one mile.
Naturally, I was discouraged at the sheer magnitude of my self-negativity. But that experience encouraged me to think about how I could become more self-compassionate. Through trial and error, I’ve concluded that the goal is not to suppress these negative thoughts, but rather to learn to understand where they come from.
What shocked me was not the negativity of my thoughts, but rather how many of them I had.
Dr. Carol Dweck is a professor of Psychology at Stanford and author of Mindsets, whose book had been recommended to me twice, once by a good friend and then by my manager. Learning about her groundbreaking research on the difference between what she calls a “fixed mindset” and a “growth mindset” has completely upended how I view challenges and failures.
Dweck defines a mindset as “beliefs about yourself and your most basic qualities.” She says that those with a fixed mindset believe they are born with a fixed amount of talent and intelligence that cannot be changed – you either have it or you don’t. On the other hand, those with a growth mindset believe their qualities can be developed with hard work and dedication. Essentially, those who have a fixed mindset tend to be more self-critical, see themselves as “not good enough,” and are less likely to embrace challenges for fear of failure and imperfection. The fixed mindset sounded quite familiar. I saw myself on every page of Dweck’s book and realized that the sooner I could open my mind to the idea of “life as challenge” instead of “life as a test,” the sooner I’d be more compassionate and understanding of my flaws.
…viewing failure as an action instead of letting it become a label shuts off the flood of self-criticism at its inception. It’s the difference between stopping a flood of water at its source and trying to hold it back downstream.
My challenge has been toeing the line between embracing my imperfection – being OK with myself as I am, while still striving to improve. This delicate balance isn’t always achievable, but as I learn more and more in my role as a recruiter, I’ve slowly embraced the fact that perfection simply isn’t achievable. Sooner or later, we all slip up and have to face the consequences: be it through the cringing embarrassment of a pitch to an unimpressed candidate, the shocking realization of a forgotten email that deserved a response, or the shame of a completed project disliked by your manager.
The goal is not to strive for the elusive and unattainable nirvana of perfection and then beat ourselves up when outcomes, which are not entirely within our power, don’t go our way. Rather, the goal should be to put the most sincerity and hard work possible into our endeavors, and to learn from our mistakes. Doing so switches the nature of how we perceive failure itself, changing it from an all-encompassing label into an action, from “I’m a failure” to “I failed at this task.” This little distinction is important: viewing failure as an action – and sometimes due to inherent dispositions or external factors out of our control – shuts off the flood of self-criticism at its inception. It’s the difference between stopping a flood of water at its source and trying to hold it back downstream.
“Life is not a test, it’s about learning.”
I’ve followed Dr. Dweck’s advice and created a laminated sheet containing a comparison chartbetween the growth and fixed mindsets, and I set a goal to spend a few minutes each morning internalizing how it will be applied to the coming day. In addition, I repeat a motto to myself: “Life is not a test, it’s about learning.”
So I’m back on my bike commuting to work a few weeks later, and halfway to the office, I noticed that my back seemed less sweaty than usual. Then it occurred to me: I had forgotten my satchel, containing all of my work necessities, at home. My thoughts quickly turned negative: “You suck. Now you’ll really be late.” But then a strange emotion took over: excitement. Why excitement? Because I realized that my failure to gather my belongings before leaving my apartment exposed a deficiency in how I gathered myself. To be more specific, applying the growth mindset to this situation would improve my ability to stay centered and present, providing benefits well beyond simply remembering my belongings in the morning. The opportunity to improve is what excited me.
I won’t even pretend that I have perfected the growth mindset – I still have days where I beat up on myself or where I’m flooded with negativity. However, I am aware that I have a conscious choice in how I interpret failure. I can either see it as a condemnation of my abilities or as a gift. I’m trying to choose the latter.
Alec Kassin is an associate in the Business Leadership Program for Global Sales at LinkedIn, dedicating himself to creating economic opportunity for every member of the global workforce. When he’s not in the office, he’s often on a mountain or road bike, watching a Cubs game, singing Frozen in French, or learning guitar.
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