Turning a New Leaf

Recently, I've gained a clarifying insight into my own inner workings.

It started with my brother, Bryan, spontaneously gifting me one of my Amazon Kindle wishlist books. I must admit that when I first saw the title he had lovingly purchased for me, I couldn't remember putting that particular book on my list and worried that I had wasted his effort and money by having an out-of-date wishlist.

Fortunately I was wrong, vastly wrong.

The book is called Mindset, by Carol Dweck. The premise is simple and you can read about it in a little more detail on her book website: there are two general ways that people tend to think about their own abilities. She calls these the growth mindset and the fixed mindset. People with fixed mindsets tend to agree with statements of the form "I have a limited ability for ____ and although I may be able to improve with practice, any improvement will be ultimately limited by my fundamental capacity." On the other hand, people with growth mindsets tend to see their abilities as essentially limitless, and determined by the amount of effort and practice that they've spent developing them.

This may sound rather simple or even like plain old common sense: "Believe in yourself." "You can do anything you put your mind to." The Little Engine That Could. etc... But the real novelty that I found in this book was the extensive ramifications that propagate from these two mindsets, and the pervasive nature that the fixed mindset has on our society, almost lurking beneath the surface. Let me give you an example:

Imagine eight year old Jimmy comes home from school one day with boundless energy and a gigantic smile. "MOM, DAD!" he cries, "I made an A+ on my spelling test!" "Wowee! Look at that," his dad says proudly as he gives Jimmy a hug, "what do I always tell you? You're smart as a whip, just like your mother."

Stop. Did you see the mistake? Probably not, but that's okay. Let's fast forward a bit and see how this scenario plays out. After basking in the praise and attention he earned as a result of his test grade, Jimmy returns to school the next day. Here the teacher stands at the front of the room and gives an announcement:

"I have exciting news everyone. I have here the signup sheet for the school's annual spelling bee that will happen next month. All of your parents will be invited, and the best speller will win a $50 gift certificate."

Now switch back to Jimmy for a second, do you see the little gears in his head whirring? For some kids, the internal monologue goes a bit like this, "Whoa! I'd love to impress my parents, I'm going to try so hard and win this for them."

On the other hand, it often sounds a lot more like this, "... I've never been that good at spelling, and if I look bad in front of my parents, they won't think I'm smart anymore. I probably just got lucky on that test anyway, I don't think I'll sign up."

Now you can start to see what I meant by his Dad's 'mistake'. By praising Jimmy in being "smart", Jimmy has even more incentive to do things to retain his outwards appearance of smartness without extending his neck too far and exposing any chance of failure. After all, if he's already been labeled smart then why risk his status by taking such a risk? Equivalently, since he has a fixed ability (set in from birth) then why risk showing people the upper bound on his limits, or even worse: finding the limits out for himself?

Long story short (I could probably go on for a long time about this, as this idea has far reaching implications in business, education, and relationships) I have discovered that while in many respects I love challenging myself to grow and mature, I recognize the tell tale signs of the fixed mindset on many aspects of my life:

  • As a child and as an adult I love learning. About most anything. But when it comes time to put this knowledge to practice (which I usually have the desire to) I promptly switch gears and learn about something else. Thus a long line of unfulfilled projects has accumulated the TODO list of my past: writing music, making a 3D model in Blender, writing short stories, writing open source code projects (using any number of the languages/toolkits/libraries that I have studied and pored over) 
  • In applying for undergraduate and graduate colleges, I never even applied for the top tier schools. Yes, there were reasons at the time for applying where I did, but I think a strong unspoken element remained: In not applying, I can always say "I didn't even apply to those schools, but I probably would have gotten in" whereas in applying and getting rejected, then it would have been clear to me (and the rest of the world) where my limits are (and that they even exist).
  • Now in graduate school, I have many creative and exciting ideas for things to try in research, the knowledge to (start) implement(ing) them, and the freedom to do so from my wonderful advisers. But time and time again I find myself applying myself most fervently to the easier problems and putting off the truly challenging and interesting problems.
The last bullet point is the most frustrating and perplexing. I have all the resources at my fingertips, time, (enough) freedom, ability, potential collaborators. What the heck is my problem? At times I tried to blame this on circumstances or people around me: so-and-so wasn't supporting me, I work best in teams, I find the easy stuff the most interesting etc... But after reading Mindset, I realize the problem lies squarely on having a fixed mindset. With this mindset, if I try and fail, then I've found my ultimate limitations, and announced them to the world. Whereas if I make up excuses about everything around me, then it is no longer in my control in the first place. 

This may sound logical and obvious. But it has taken me this long to figure it out because I'm usually so good at the growth mindset. At different levels of the work/life hierarchy I am a master of trying hand until you succeed: Don't understand higher kinded types in Haskell? Don't understand how to develop distributed, fault tolerant systems with ZeroMQ using the PAXOS algorithm? Don't understand measure theoretic probability theory? Stochastic processes? etc...? Then go back and try again, find different resources, attack it from a different angle, talk to people about it. just keep going! 

So for some reason, when it comes to learning, I have a growth mindset to the extreme, but when it comes to doing, I have a fixed mindset. Why that came about I'm not sure, but now that I've recognized it, I'm going to take actions to fix it. 

My first real action is this blog post itself. In posting this I am a) automatically increasing my accountability when people subsequently ask me about my progress and equally importantly b) actually DOING something (anything!) without worrying about what people will think when they read it/find mistakes/disagree/think my points are overly simplistic or what have you. 

And more generally, I have made a list of how I spend my (non-family) free time and broken it into two categories:

  • Learning
    • Reading Books
    • Reading the Internet
  • Doing
    • Writing (blog posts mainly, but who knows for the future)
    • Building
      • Open source projects (on/using Julia)
      • Binky (I'll write a blog post on this someday soon)
    • Growing (stretch learning)
      • Math (eg: HoTT book and prerequisites) (but doing it Right meaning doing exercises, rather than just reading the chapters)
      • Piano (requires more practice than learning)
Currently I spend 99.9% of time in the Learning category, but I'm going to be blocking some websites, and making very specific plans for how to spend much more time in the Doing category. And of course I'll be targeting my graduate research head-on without worrying about failure. I'll also be making very detailed plans moving forward and using some of the motivational techniques I have learned over my years of (excessive considered in isolation) learning to stick to all of this. :)

So next time you're afraid of something: fail early and fail often [1]. I'm pumped!

[1] - This is wonderfully explained more in the Lean Startup doctrine that has recently gained such a large following in the entrepreneurial world.