This is the first of two blogs that grew out of the notes I made for a recent interview with ABC South West.
Supporting resilience and adaptability is at the heart of my coaching practice. I’m fascinated and inspired by what neuroscience tells us about the relationships between biology and behaviour.
It took science a longish time to bust the myth that we humans were stuck with the brains we’ve built by the age of three. Thanks to the work of pioneering neuroscientists like Dr. Michael Merzenich we now know that our amazing, adaptive brain changes constantly. This is called neuroplasticity – in simple terms it means that like it or not, we’re continually rewiring our brain in response to new experiences new ideas and new ways of doing things.
Neuroplasticity in action
In fact there is nothing fixed or god given about our grey matter’s capacity to learn and grow. Our brain is a highly dynamic power grid, with masses of connected pathways that light up every time we do something.
Some of these pathways are well travelled. These are our habits, our established ways of thinking, feeling, responding and doing. Every time we do something a certain way it strengthens that pathway.
So, whenever we start to do something differently –ditch an unhelpful habit, learn a new skill, perform a new task, or simply choose a different feeling response – we start to build a new pathway. If we stick with the ‘new’ our fledgling pathway strengthens and the old habitual one weakens. Eventually we may even stop using it
Fixed or flexible? Why mindset matters
So if our biology makes us hardwired to adapt, why is change so damn difficult for so many of us?
Let’s start with our mindset.
Our mindset determines much of our behaviour and most of our beliefs about success and failure. It profoundly shapes our capacity for happiness.
If you have a growth mindset, you thrive on challenge and on pursuing mastery and competence. You see failure as feedback on your performance not as a judgement on your personality. Failure is a chance to grow your resilience and to move closer to realising your potential.
Alternatively, if you have a fixed mindset it’s tough to change and grow. This is mainly because you believe that everyone is born with a finite quota of talent, intelligence, and creativity. No matter what you do or how hard you work, if you haven’t got the ‘right gifts’ you’ll never ‘succeed.’
This mindset makes it hard to challenge your self, to take risks and to experiment. It’s also difficult to learn the lessons offered by small or spectacular failures. Insecurity about your ability makes you vulnerable and anxious and sensitive to criticism. Setbacks are evidence of your personal and specific inadequacies – proof that ‘something is wrong with you’. Mistakes are so painful that you try to avoid them at all costs.
Moving from fixed to flexible
Life and work have taught me a lot about changing mindsets. First up, it’s not easy. It takes practice and patience to change your fixed ways of thinking and acting.
Nobody builds new neural pathways over night. Rewiring your brain takes time and you need to be kind to yourself ( a big ask for fixed minded folk) as you overhaul the habits and beliefs of a lifetime.
Facing our fears
Your fixed mindset swings into action when you avoid starting or stop doing something you know is good for you. It’s calling the shots when you refuse to listen or you quit trying to understand someone or something. It’s usually present when you feel tired or bored or anxious or uncomfortable. It’s almost always there when you’re scared because fear is a fixed mind’s default feeling.
Like all emotions, fear is not innately good or bad. How we deal with fear determines how it shapes our lives. Being afraid makes us human, being ruled by fear makes us so much less than who we are.
Fear of not being good enough
This is a big one if you’re stuck with a fixed mindset! You think you must do more, be more, learn more before you dare take a step closer to whatever it is you need or want in life.
Move gently towards a flexible mindset by dropping perfectionism on its head. Try faking it til you make it – pretend you don’t care about being less than 150% ready for whatever. Just begin and watch your surprisingly capable self survive or thrive. Start to realise that you are good enough and you already have whatever it takes – skills, experience, courage, front, to take the next small or substantial step!
Fear of rejection
OK no one likes rejection but what if you don’t look at it as rejection?
Perhaps what you’re offering is not what that person or business or organisation needs right now! Perhaps it’s about money or timing or something else entirely unconnected to you. Choose to be vulnerable and brave and ask for feedback. Sometimes it is about you but perhaps its perfect opportunity to learn something you can use to do things differently and better.
Observe your limits ……
….. so you can get out from under them! Some of the best-loved sessions in my programmes and workshops teach techniques for observing and understanding limiting behaviours linked to a fixed mindset.
My next blog looks at strategies for pinpointing and disrupting fixed and fearful thinking.