On Expanding Our Potential

10-growth-mindset-thought-conversionsNaBloPoMo 2016, Letters to Patients, Day 20

To Patients Whose Identity is Fixed:

Why not adopt a Growth Mindset?

Have you already read Carol Dweck’s book Mindset?  I first learned about the premise of a growth mindset several years ago, in the context of parenting.  Basically we should praise kids’ efforts more than their attributes: “Way to keep at it!” instead of “Wow, you’re so smart!”  When I think of myself primarily as ‘smart,’ I am less likely to try new things or take risks, for fear of appearing ‘not smart’ and ruining my reputation, or worse, my self-image.  That is what Dweck calls a ‘fixed mindset.’  A growth mindset, in contrast, allows room for experimentation and, well, growth.  I could still think of myself as ‘smart,’ but it means something different—rather than all-knowing, I am smart because I am an avid and effective learner.

Now I see it in broader terms, and it applies to people of all ages, in all phases of life.

From now into January, I have committed to moderate a weekly board review webinar on infectious disease (‘ID’).  I review questions, prepare a slide deck with explanations of correct and incorrect answers, and go online Tuesday nights with a partner to teach fellow practicing internists.  I really enjoy the webinars, but the topics sometimes not so much.  My fixed mindset at the outset this time: “I hate ID.”  Last week’s slide prep session may have been the longest two hours in recent memory.  I answered 6 of 8 questions wrong.  “I hate ID!”

Then I thought of Dweck’s premise.  I started to think of my patients who see themselves decisively as non-exercisers.  Or who hate vegetables.  Or who say they are ‘all or nothing’ folks who simply cannot moderate their eating, alcohol intake, or anything else.  They say, “That’s just who/how I am/it is; nothing I can do.”  Until now I have accepted these self-assessments without question or challenge.


And now I wonder:  If I allow for a different assessment of my relationship with infectious disease, how much better could I learn the material?  If I open my mind to the possibility that I could actually remember all those (damned) drug names and mechanisms, the myriad tick-born diseases and their cardinal symptoms, and all the rest, could I actually have fun?  And then, how much better could I teach it?

If we all saw in ourselves just a little more possibility, or redefined our attributes to allow for unrestricted growth and evolution, what more could we achieve?  How liberated could we feel to explore diverse aspects of our personalities?  What novel ideas could we exchange with others, to create and innovate around interpersonal, communal, and political life?

From now on I will recite a new mantra for the ID webinars:  “There’s a lot to learn here.  I can get better at this.  Bring it.”  Yup, feels good.  Hmmm, I wonder where else I could grow my mindset?

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