Peeling Off Labels

Over the weekend, I finally read all of Carol Dweck’s remarkable book Mindset.  I’ve been talking and thinking about fixed and growth mindsets for quite a while, and I’d read a number of the articles on Dr. Dweck’s website. But somehow or other, I hadn’t ever actually bought or read the book.

Saturday and Sunday, the time was finally right.

On Friday evening, I watched The Girl in her starring role as Mrs. Jewls in the theatrical version of Sideways Stories From Wayside School.  It’s both funny and deeply moving, especially when it’s performed by a group of talented young people (many of whom I know fairly well) who have their own stories of the effects of factory-schooling.  One thing that struck me, though, as I saw it on stage for the first time, was the power of labels.  Mrs. Jewls makes real progress teaching her students because she focuses on them rather than on their labels of “good kid” or “bad kid,” “slow learner” or “smart one.”

When I woke up Saturday morning, feeling sick and exhausted and battling some sort of mid-summer bug, it was helpful and joyful to be able to order the e-book version of Mindset and start reading it right away.  I wasn’t surprised to read the results of Dr. Dweck’s research on labeling the person, on praising innate or unchangeable qualities rather than things in a person’s power to change.  I’ve read those results elsewhere and cited them many times.  But it still struck me – hard – to see the effects stated so simply.  Praising fixed qualities promotes a fixed mindset, and when you have a fixed mindset, you tend to avoid things that (you think) might make you feel bad or look bad, to others or to yourself.   If you’re “so smart,” you’ll avoid effort and studying, because “so smart” should mean that learning is effortless for you.  If you’re “really talented,”  you won’t practice, because “natural talent” shouldn’t require development.  If you believe the “perfect”  friend or romantic partner is out there somewhere, just waiting for you, you’ll abandon relationships at the first sign of effort.  Effort “obviously” means that the potentially perfect person wasn’t perfect at all.

When fixed-mindset thinking gets activated, these results are predictable.  And I know about them all from the inside; I fall into fixed-mindset thinking pretty easily too.  It’s psychologically easy, given our all-too-human tendency to the fundamental attribution error.  Factory-thinking, with its tendency to apply fixed labels to people and other production inputs, makes it even easier.

I’ve been peeling off a lot of fixed-mindset labels this summer, and it’s been a slow, painful process, like peeling off a bandage that stayed on too long.  Selfless, noble teacher – that’s a really difficult one.  As reports (some accurate, some distorted) about Our State’s budget and its potential effects on education trickled out over the last week or so, there seemed to be a rush to grab that label, to stick it on, to claim it as a shield against the pain of what “They” were doing to “Us.”  Blog posts, Facebook shares, Tweets – hundreds and thousands of sad, angry words from folks who really, really want to be selfless and noble, to be “revered” (that word just keeps showing up) as they believe teachers were in the Good Old Days.  One such post, in all seriousness, seemed to claim that every teacher in Our State was the first and only person who had ever really cared about any child in his or her classroom.  Every teacher, it seemed, was the one and only selfless and noble one, while all the other adults in every child’s life – parents, relatives, other teachers even – had somehow been deficient.  And many posts spoke of “heroic” struggles against dark, scary forces of neglect and poverty and too much TV, of video games and kids without set bedtimes and parents who don’t make their kids do homework.

That label of selfless and noble is attractive; I know I’ve clung to it and pasted it on myself many times.  But it strikes me, reading those posts in the context of Dr. Dweck’s book, that claiming selfless nobility is a quick way to put yourself into a fixed mindset.  The last thing a selfless, noble person would want to do is to act in any way that might appear selfish or ignoble!  But when you take action, any action, somebody will look askance.  Or, worse, you might look askance at yourself!  You might just discover that you’re not as selfless and noble as you thought you were … and if you have a fixed mindset, that’s a terrifying discovery.  It makes you feel like a phony, a fraud, a fake – and that’s a painful, ugly feeling, especially when you think you can’t change it.

And if you’re in a fixed mindset, you just know you can’t change it.

But you can.

One of the most fascinating pieces of Dr. Dweck’s research – and one that really spoke to me as I read it – was the effect of mindsets on depression.  Everybody, regardless of mindset, can get depressed, especially when there are ugly situational factors in play.  But if you have a fixed mindset, you tend to retreat into an increasingly isolated world of depression and pain.  With a growth mindset, you force yourself to keep moving and acting … and folks who can lean into depression with a growth mindset get better faster.

Joyful communities are fundamentally about growth, aren’t they?  You can’t stay fixed in a joyful community; the community itself is always changing, and if you participate fully, you’ll change too.  Sometimes growth is painful – as painful as peeling off that worn-out bandage or label that no longer fits.  But refusing to grow?  That’s even more painful.

What kinds of redemptive, growth-inducing, temporary pain do we all need to embrace?

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Published in: on August 5, 2013 at 2:11 pm  Leave a Comment  

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