I had been going to a new gym for a couple of weeks. The gym emphasizes scaling to the appropriate weight for the individual (classroom teachers, think differentiated instruction). As a new gym-goer I exercised this scaling option generously. I would use the lightest weight possible so that I knew I would make it through the whole workout. That is until the head trainer dropped two twenty-five pound weights in front of me saying, “In this gym, we aren’t afraid to fail.”
I’ve repeated this phrase to myself daily–in the gym, in my classroom, on the running trail. It has completely changed my mindset. Twenty years ago my fixed mindset convinced the rest of me that I just wasn’t one of those “athlete kids” who could perform well in gym class. I would never be able to climb a rope or do a push-up, so I stopped trying. Two weeks ago I did 8 rope-climbs in a row, 3 pull-ups, 10 push-ups. This gym and the trainers, the other members have empowered me to believe in myself. For the last four months, I’ve looked failure in the face and forged ahead anyway.
At no point on this gym journey did I ever look in the mirror and say, “Damn, check out those biceps” or “How’s the 6-pack coming?” Joining this gym was never about how I looked. It was about proving to myself that I am far more capable than my mind lets me believe (in fact, we all are). So here’s my issue. When people find out that I’ve been working out, they don’t comment on the hard work, the lessons learned, they comment on the superficial, the results–“You’re so skinny.” “You look awesome.” “I wish I had your arms.” I’ve started to focus more on the results. Instead of overcoming obstacles, I think about toned tummies. I feel shame when I don’t get to the gym.
Is this what happens to my students when they are praised for being smart instead of for the effort, the challenges, the mistakes and failures they endured along the way? They sink into despair that they won’t measure up to the external standards placed upon them? I want to believe people are just ignorant. They make fixed mindset comments like “You’re so smart” and “I wish I had your arms” because they don’t know any better. You’re at a cocktail party making small talk; it’s harmless. But it isn’t. These comments create a larger value system. We value toned tummies, right answers, defined arms over learning and empowerment. We develop fixed beliefs about ourselves-I’ll never be as smart, as strong, as toned.
What if instead of commenting on what we see right in front of us, we commented on the deeper stuff? What if we asked people how they got so strong or so smart? Or what they learned or had to overcome to get to where they are today?
My sister is the best representation of a growth mindset. She has never been afraid to fail. She worked incredibly hard to get a D1 soccer scholarship. She walked onto a mountain in the middle of the Cascades in Washington and taught herself how to big mountain ski. She’s got a gnarly collarbone from a separated shoulder, eyeglasses from a couple of concussions. For her these are road bumps on the path to greater learning. Since I started going to this gym, she has never made a comment about how I looked. She asks the question that only someone who values empowerment could, “Isn’t it so fun to be so strong?”