During my senior year of high school I stopped speaking to my best friend.
She was playing the role of California in our U.S. Government class and I was the Democratic Candidate for President. She ended up casting all of California’s electoral votes for the Republican candidate. This put my entire fake presidential candidacy at risk.
I was enraged.
She tried to calm me down telling me it was, “Just a game.”
That meant nothing to me. This was literally all I had going on in my life.
I only had my academics and even those were not especially great. I only felt truly confident in American Government and English. All of my self-worth rested squarely on these two things alone.
If I can’t be the best at something, I don’t want to do it. As you can probably imagine this often leaves me incredibly disappointed. I want to achieve effortless perfection. The kind I imagine in the people I look up to. I tell myself if I was truly good at something, I wouldn’t have to try so hard all the time.
These thoughts diminish us, they represent a mindset that warps our reality into a confusing and difficult landscape to overcome. But you can, if you stop thinking so much about success and start focusing on effort and skill.
The individuals that society looks up to are so often described as flawless or perfect. We all know that neither of these qualities are truly attainable. All it does is make for a compelling media narrative—one that forsakes the challenges, the effort and the failures— for unblemished records and fairy tales.
“As a society we value natural, effortless accomplishment over achievement through effort. We endow our heroes with superhuman abilities that led them inevitably toward their greatness.” —Carol Dweck
The inevitably factor.
People want to feel as if their success is inevitable. This is what my generation was reared on. The majority of us believe we are above average. This kind of thinking can hinder how much effort you are willing to put into something.
Here’s what my Intro to Law teacher wrote on a paper of mine:
“Andrea, you know how I feel about the disconnect between your ability to write and your ability to speak.”
I was devastated. I felt myself shatter into a thousand small, inconsequential pieces. That’s what happens when you feel like everything in your life is leading up to one inevitably. Now I had this teacher telling me I was a shit writer, but I could speak well? What if my writing wasn’t special? What if I was just kind of okay?
But what was he really saying?
I always felt like I was a poor public speaker, because of this I prepared relentlessly for it. It was the extra effort that made me better at speaking, not some innate talent that I had overlooked.
How much effort we are willing to put into something has a lot to do with our mindset. Which is something that Dr. Carol Dweck of Stanford University discusses at length in her book: Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. She believes that people can generally be divided into two different kinds of mindsets:
Fixed: You believe that your attributes are set in stone and that your abilities must be proven over and over again.
Growth: You believe that you can grow and improve through learning.
The people we look up to generally fall into the growth mindset category. That’s because these individuals don’t lose interest in their passion when things get tough. They use those challenges to propel and motivate them through their failures.
Think for a second about Michael Jordan, you remember his prowess, his winning attitude, and his remarkable ability. What you probably don’t remember are his failures, but he does:
“I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”
He remembers all of them but not because they are failures. For him, they were reminders of the need to constantly work at his craft. He didn’t stop learning or honing his skill because he had achieved some modicum of success. He knew that effort mattered.
A fixed mindset views failure as part of our identity. It envelopes us and we fold it into our life story in a way that can begin to dictate who we are and how we approach the future.
According to Dweck and others, you can learn to alter your mindset. Here are some suggestions Dweck recommends in her book:
Observe: What do you need to do in order to achieve your goal and what have others done before you? Watch what others have done and pay attention to what you have done in the past.
Learn: Be honest with yourself about your goals and your willingness to achieve them. Identify the skills you believe are necessary. Understand that it is up to you to acquire the skills. Then, you must study in order to approach the challenges with as much effort as possible.
Improve: Give up on being superior. Try not to think about things in terms of binaries (good or bad, success or failure) understand that it is a spectrum from which you can always learn and adapt from.
Failure is something that happens, it does not define who you are unless you let it. A failure isn’t a devastating character flaw, it is a challenge to learn more.
We are a people obsessed with success, I mean who among us doesn’t want to feel the thrill of it? You could read every article of the secret of successful people but you should know two things first:
Success is fleeting, it can come once and be gone forever. Success can give us an incredible boost of confidence and this is without a doubt a critical motivator. But what is it that compels us to strive for that which is beyond the self? It’s the mastery of a skill, that desire to become better through knowledge and practice.
“Masters are not experts because they take a subject to its conceptual end. They are masters because they realize that there isn’t one. ”—Sarah Lewis
Individuals who are concerned with the mastery of a skill or subject (or whatever interests you) are not derailed by failure.
“Instead of turning away in denial when you make a mistake, you should become a connoisseur of your own mistakes, turning them over in your mind as if they were works of art, which in a way they are.”—Daniel Dennett
How do we get to this point?
How do we become masters?
Well, you have to be open and free to tolerating a considerable amount of discomfort. I probably can’t put it any better than (a personal hero of mine) John Cleese does here:
“It is easier to do trivial things that are urgent than it is to do important things that are not urgent.”
To open yourself up to being creative and learning, John Cleese says you need the following:
Our willingness to be creative, gives us the freedom to fail. Those failures help us to become masters of our passion.
What excites you?
What gets you up in the morning?
I’m going to guess it’s not the idea of fleeting success. Your passions and desires go much deeper than that. If there is anything our heroes know that perhaps we do not, it is that we are always capable of growing, learning, and thinking.
That our work, is never truly done.