New Year, New Mindset

For students, September is a time for goal setting and looking ahead at all the work that needs to be accomplished. But September is also a great time for students to assess how they feel about their progress, both in terms of academic as well as life goals. One way to evaluate this is by the concept of “mindset.” Some might dismiss the concept of mindset as just another psychological fad, but an increasing body of research and evidence points to how mindset can have a tangible and lasting impact on an individual’s inner growth and pathway to success.

According to Mindset Online the definition of mindset is quite simple. The idea of the power of positive self-talk and attitude has perhaps always been around in a vague form, but, during the 1980s, psychologist and researcher Carol Dweck of Stanford University began researching whether intelligence was the only marker of success, and whether one’s attitude toward success and failure had a bearing on learning. The concept of mindset grew out of her research.

Dweck categorized mindset into two types, fixed and growth. A fixed mindset views abilities as innate and unchangeable and is based on talent or IQ alone, whereas a growth mindset believes that basic abilities can be developed through hard work and by fostering a sense of resilience to push through difficulties. This research originally targeted elementary and junior high classrooms, and found that, unlike students who were resigned to their inadequacy?those who said “I’m not smart enough,” or “I just can’t do math,” (examples of a fixed mindset)?those who responded to the challenges with more effort-based strategies (such as spending more time on the subject with a positive attitude toward learning) had greater success with the course work. The research found this created a shift that spilled over into a healthier overall attitude toward life in general. The principles of mindset have been incorporated into parenting, sports psychology, addictions counselling, research into learning disabilities, and other areas.

The resulting shift in approach to the psychology of learning ties in with other new research investigating how the brain functions, especially in terms of neuroplasticity. Medical advances are showing that thoughts literally affect the neural pathways of the brain. Learning creates new connections within the brain and existing connections become stronger. Neuropsychology is also discovering that that the brain continues to grow new neurons over a lifetime and responds to the stimulation of learning no matter the person’s age.

I first learned about the concept of mindset last year when I read Carol Dweck’s book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. Since then, I’ve tried to adopt more of a growth mindset. Along the way, I’ve learned a few things that have helped me, especially when they are applied to the solitary journey of distance learning.

First, I’ve learned that inner voice is important. Just as the awareness of breath is essential to the practice of yoga, the practice of mindset is reliant on what you say to yourself, how you say it, and how you talk back to any negativity. The reaction to setbacks, such as not doing well on an essay or exam, becomes paramount as to whether you adopt a fixed or growth mindset. The attitude that you adopt toward criticism, such as a tutor’s comments on a paper, is also key to a growth mindset.

Second, mindset is all about choice. If you feel stuck, try to take a step back from a situation and look at what you need to do to move forward. Try to break down the steps into manageable chunks; even the smallest baby steps mean progress. But, just realizing that you have a choice in how to deal with things can give an amazing sense of empowerment to reframe a negative situation and regain some control.

Third, in terms of goal setting, asking some poignant questions of yourself can also give you a much different perspective and get you beyond the usual fixed-mindset response. Giving honest answers to questions such as: How can I change how I feel about where I am right now? What tools could help me do that? How can I take some risks that would help stretch me? How can I reduce feeling stressed and pressured? How could I change my response to what life throws at me?both positive and negative? Am I open to asking for help from others? These questions can lead to new breakthroughs for those times when you think a way out is impossible.

The concept of mindset is not an easy fix to every life situation. However, it is one psychological tool that just might be one aspect of your success this year. It’s definitely worth a try!

Carla Knipe is an AU English Major who lives and writes in Calgary, Alberta.

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