When we’re born, our brains are malleable and can be easily shaped by our experiences and environment. But, as we age, scientists have long believed our neural paths begin to harden like drying cement.
You know that saying “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks?” That saying has perpetuated a myth that the old dogs’ brain has hardened in ways that make him unable to learn anything new. For many decades the scientific community thought this to be true — of animals and people alike. But, as science has progressed, we’ve found that simply isn’t reality.
Modern neuroscience has proven that our brains are more malleable than we could have ever imagined—well into later stages of life.
Our brain’s plasticity comes as a result of groups or individual neurons forming new connections. These new connections come about when an individual has new experiences or learns something new. As you learn more, these new connections get stronger. Myelin, a fatty substance in the brain, wraps itself around new connections to insulate them. The more we practice and learn, the thicker the myelin gets and the stronger our new neuronal connections become.
We can teach an old dog new tricks. We just have to make sure that we teach him for long enough for his myelin to wrap around his new networks. This is great news for people who have a ten-year-old dog who still isn’t potty-trained!
Still, many of us get down when we face the difficulties of learning new skills or mastering old ones. We blame the rapidly evolving technology environment, or job competition, or lagging energy levels for our failings. But we don’t need to.
All we need to do is adopt a growth mindset and we can learn and grow as we please.
The Growth Mindset
The idea of a growth mindset came from the famous Stanford researcher, Carol Dweck. Dweck and her team stumbled upon the phenomenon when observing students and their various responses to failure. Why was it, they wondered, that some students could bounce back from a setback like nothing happened, while others sulked and fumed when obstacles fell in their way?
It wasn’t the magnitude of the setback, nor the consequences of the setbacks that determined the student’s responding behaviors—rather, it was their mindsets. Some students had a fixed mindset while others had a growth mindset. The ones with a fixed mindset believed that capabilities are innate and were sure that no matter how hard they tried, they wouldn’t be able to do anything about their failures. The growth mindset kids believed that they could eventually learn to do anything if they put in effort and practice.
We can learn a lot about ourselves through the experiences of Dweck’s students. The most important thing we learned is that we should get our own growth mindsets!
How to Get Your Own Growth Mindset
If you don’t already have a growth mindset, there is good news– developing one isn’t too hard! The real struggle comes down to alleviating the shame and embarrassment we feel around failure and set-backs.
A member of our team has a fantastic antidote for battling shame and embarrassment. His father, Randy, made the practice of embracing failure into a tradition of sorts, a practice his children carry on in their own lives.
When Randy’s children were small, he would share his most embarrassing setbacks with them at the dinner table and encourage his kids to share their own stories. Even today, with the kids grown and spread around the country, Randy gets them all on the same call to tell them about his latest embarrassing stories. They lovingly refer to them as “Humble Stories”.
Some recent Humble Stories include:
- The time he simply forgot where he parked his rental car and had to spend a whole day scouring the city before he gave up and called the rental company to tell them the bad news.
- The time he found a dead, pregnant black widow and opened her up on the kitchen counter only to find that her thousands of babies were still very alive and scurrying to all corners of the house.
Randy’s stories aren’t just a bonding experience for the family, they are an opportunity to share an incredibly powerful message: We all screw up, we all make mistakes—be vulnerable, laugh it off and keep going! By demonstrating to his children that it is okay to fail and be embarrassed, they’ve all gone on to develop a very strong growth mindset, and are empowered to achieve whatever they set their minds to.
To develop a growth mindset, we should all try to be a little like Randy.
1. First, we should acknowledge our set-backs or unfavorable circumstances. We don’t want to call them failures, though. We want to call them learning opportunities. Marvel at the processes more than the results. Jackie Joyner-Kersee, a track and field athlete and Olympic gold medalist once said, ‘I derive just as much happiness from the process as from the results. I don’t mind losing as long as I see improvement…If I lose, I just go back to the track and work some more’. Learn to think more like Joyner-Kersee and enjoy the process instead of simply focusing on the outcomes.
2. Now we want to acknowledge any shame that might accompany those learning opportunities. This is a key step because it alleviates lingering embarrassment.
3. Next, laugh it off! You can either laugh it off by yourself or with others. We recommend finding others who are non-judgmental and supportive who you can laugh with. This helps normalize laughing at your setbacks and helps give you perspective.
4. View your setback as an opportunity. At least, it’s a great story to tell! At most, it’s an opportunity to learn where you can improve.
5. Reflect. If your setback took place in a business setting, make sure to take note of it so you can avoid it in the future!
Lastly, and most importantly, stay curious. If you are reading this—you’re doing a great job of that already!
Like Dweck, we can look to children to show us the way. Children’s brains are more inclined to be curious. Because they don’t have a cache of experiences to help inform them about their surroundings (and any potential dangers in said surroundings), their brain is a sponge, ready to absorb everything. Adult brains, in contrast, already draw from a well of experience. So, when met with a new one, will simply categorize it as whatever it most closely resembles. Life is more efficient that way, but it puts us at an incredible disadvantage.
It’s how we lose our sense of wonder for the world. We stop wanting to know more, and shut ourselves off to new things.
George Loewenstein, a behaviorist, developed the Gap Theory of Curiosity. In it, he claims that curiosity arises when there is a gap ‘between what we know and what we want to know’. In order to adopt our growth mindset, we need to be more focused on opening that gap. While sticking to old familiar paths might seem safe and easy, those with a growth mindset know that the magic of life happens in the gap. So, embrace your gap by developing a curiosity mindset!
SmartCompany created a great assessment to see what your unique curiosity mindset looks like. The following quiz will help you to determine where you stand.
On a scale of zero to ten, zero being “not at all” and ten being “definitely!” rate yourself on the following questions.
REBEL: How prepared are you to go out on a limb and risk a better way of doing things?
ZEN-MASTER: How likely are you to be fully present for the task at hand?
NOVICE: How comfortable are you when you don’t have all the answers?
SLEUTH: How likely are you to notice things beyond the obvious?
INTERROGATOR: How prepared are you to ask the hard questions?
PLAY-MAKER: How likely are you to use a playful approach when learning?
Once you rate yourself, mark your answers on the corresponding line. Once all answers are marked, connect the marks. This hexagonal shape will show you what your unique curiosity footprint looks like. Assess which curiosity mindsets you are lacking in. Any category in which you rate yourself a five or less should necessitate some reflection– improving that score will be helpful in continuing your adoption of the growth mindset!
We all go through periods of stagnation, but we must all remember that our brains can change and will change if we put effort into it. Checkout our 66 Day Calendar to track your adoption curve of a new skill!