When learning feels too hard

By Michelle Dalley

As I stepped up to my lane to take my first bowl in over 10 years I noticed by thoughts:

  • “I need to look like I know what I’m doing”
  • “Nope – it’s too hard – I bet I’ll get a gutter ball”
  • “I’m going to look stupid”
  • “Everyone’s watching me….I’m on my own out here”

Hmmm, not the most supportive thoughts to help with my performance or with my self-esteem!  They were also an indicator that I was coming from, what Dr Carol Dweck refers to, as a Fixed Mindset; in other words, the reality I was creating in my mind was focussed on the risk of failure and limiting my ability to grow and learn in that moment. From this mindset we often avoid challenges; we can be resistant to and defensive about useful feedback; we can believe that putting in effort is an indicator to others that we don’t know what we’re doing – which is bad…; and we can give up easily and feel resentful or threatened by others who are successful in that area/skill.

Doesn’t sound like much fun… yet, every one of us can have this Fixed Mindset thinking in areas of our life, as well as Growth Mindset thinking in other areas.

Dweck’s research found that when we come from a Growth Mindset we’re more likely to embrace challenges and see them as opportunities for growth and development; we’re open to useful feedback and exploring what we can learn from it; we relate with putting in effort as a necessary path towards mastery; we expect to make mistakes as part of the learning process; and we’re inspired by the success of others – looking at what we can learn from them – even seeking them out as mentors.

Cultivating a Growth Mindset also has a direct correlation with our ability to handle challenges and learning with greater resilience and confidence.

So, it makes sense to help ourselves (and others) to cultivate a Growth Mindset. The good news is we can all learn new things. In fact, when we do something that is challenging or outside our comfort zone, we build new connections in the brain – we literally, get smarter – who said you can’t teach an old dog new tricks?!

How do we cultivate a growth mindset?

There are different ways you can help yourself to cultivate a Growth Mindset and we’ll be exploring these further during the month of February in the Ignite Facebook page – make sure you like the page to get more tips and resources. Here’s some examples of strategies to get you started:

  • The first step is to notice, from a place of curiosity and objectivity, when your thoughts and/or way of speaking are caught in a Fixed Mindset. You might notice thoughts or hearing yourself say things like: “this is too hard”, “I’m just no good at this”, “I’ve never been able to …..”, “I’m just too e.g. stubborn/stupid/shy/stuck in my ways/clumsy/scared etc to do ….”, “I’ll look stupid…”, “what will people think if I’m no good at this…”,”what if I make a mistake/fail?”.

“Whether you think you can or think you can’t… you’re right” Henry Ford

  • Be compassionate with yourself – this way of thinking is merely trying to protect you in misguided ways. It could be that when you were younger you learned that it was best to look like you always knew what you were doing; or perhaps you were rewarded for being “smart” or “talented” or the “good girl/boy”. Compassionately acknowledge those underlying needs/beliefs and notice that they don’t serve you now in your growth and development.
  • Challenge that old way of thinking – is it really true?; what’s possible if those thoughts don’t exist? Create more useful intentions and thoughts for yourself such as: “I love learning”, “I’m a lifelong learner”, “I just haven’t mastered this skill yet”, “the more I practice, the easier this will be”, “mistakes are a key part of learning”, “I can be good at this, perseverance pays off” etc
  • Keep persevering with the task/skill and notice how you’re building new connections in your brain; notice how it’s getting easier. As adults we can have false expectations of “immediate results” – we can think we should know how to do things quickly. Whereas, the reality is it takes time to learn new things – progress is better than perfection.
  • Actively seek feedback from trusted sources and take time to reflect and give objective feedback to yourself: How did I go? What worked? What could I do differently next time?
  • Regularly choose to put yourself in situations where you stretch yourself outside your comfort zone to help build familiarity and comfort with the discomfort of learning.

Curious about how I handled my tenpin bowling experience?

As I observed those unhelpful thoughts, I compassionately reminded myself that I was at a 6-year old’s Birthday party and the objective was to have FUN! Those thoughts were not having fun and they certainly wouldn’t help me with my bowling.

So, I brought my attention back to my body, breathed out, relaxed and took my turn. It looked good…but then, a gutter ball! We all had a good laugh and then one of my relatives gave me some tips. If I hadn’t changed my mindset I wouldn’t have been open to his suggestions. I wouldn’t have wanted to look like I “needed” advice because that would have reinforced failure. Luckily, I was open to the advice and it improved my performance considerably, but most importantly it meant that I enjoyed my experience and I had fun! I’m also looking forward to doing it again.

This is the power that cultivating a Growth Mindset can bring. In what areas of your life are you now noticing Fixed Mindset thinking? What would you like to do about it?

Next steps

  • Get in touch if you’d like some coaching to help you let go of fixed thinking that’s holding you back.
  • Like the Ignite Facebook page and check in to learn more tips on cultivating a Growth Mindset
  • Give me a call on 027 449 2030 or email me to find out about our Roadmap to Resilience trainings and short presentations

Want to know more? Book a chat with me today!