At a recent faculty meeting, my colleagues and I watched Carol Dweck's TED talk about growth mindset. I find Dweck's work and book "Mindset" fascinating, as they challenge much of my educational experience as a child. She maintains that we all have the potential to master just about anything, given enough exposure, time, and practice. What's key is that we have what she calls a growth mindset, the belief that we can grow and learn, rather than a fixed mindset, which would lead us to believe that we are inherently "good" at some things and not others.
Many things came easily to me in school. I got good grades, learned to read and play music quickly, was voted student council president, and won cheerleading awards - all with little to no real effort. That was my only experience, and it baffled me that some of my peers struggled. "How hard could it be?" I wondered.
Then I entered a rigorously academic private high school, and I learned just how hard it could be. I vividly recall sitting in an algebra class my freshman year and feeling like I was suddenly listening to a foreign language. It was as though my previous learning had been a wide-open freeway, with information speeding like so many cars from the teacher straight to my brain, and now there was an accident blocking all lanes of traffic. Nothing was coming through.
My initial response was panic. The climate was competitive, with GPAs tallied daily and an unspoken social caste system directly connected to one's workload difficulty. After some time, however, I simply accepted that I was the kind of girl who wasn't “good” at math and science. I excelled in my AP English and History classes and eventually found a kind of peace in this new identity. I was artsy and creative, not analytical or calculating. I didn't want to do well in these areas. That's not who I was.
But by senior year, the panic was back. I'd be able to dodge the classes that I knew would be challenging up until that point, but the credits had to be completed to graduate; which, of course, needed to happen for me to get into my dream college. And a new, troubling turn of events: Even the easy stuff was getting hard. A 'C' on an English term paper that took me three months to write led to uncontrollable sobbing in a bathroom stall.
One of my most dreaded classes was chemistry. I was the only senior in a class of exceptionally bright underclassmen, had a father who was a professional chemist, and hated every minute of it. My teacher, Mrs. McClory, was the perfect, enviable combination of warmth and no-nonsense attitude. Not to mention, she was the only faculty member with a Ph.D., which, as reluctant as I was to admit it, kind of impressed me. She saw right through me from the get-go; the surly 17-year-old with shaky grades who disengaged as much as possible in class. She pulled me aside after an abysmal performance on an early test and asked what had happened. I’m sure I grumbled something about not being a "science person" while doodling in my notebook and avoiding eye contact at all costs. Then, with an edge of anger that implied she believed I was better than that, she said something that has stayed with me ever since:
"So? So this isn't easy for you. So what? That doesn't mean you can't be good at it."
Maybe it was her. Maybe it was that college acceptance letter that I so desperately wanted. Maybe it was my seeking a connection to my dad. Whatever it was, in that moment, I decided that I would learn chemistry. I wouldn’t just let my brain stay turned off and passive. I would finally “get it.” By dedicating a lot of time and hard work, I did. I got an ‘A’ in chemistry that semester. And that’s not all. I also earned the highest GPA in my class for Math Analysis (of all things), partly because I just made up my mind that I could.
That being said, it’s easy to let it all fall away in my particular station as an adult who has a lot of freedom in my choices. It’s easy for me to avoid things that are hard, and I do. Why ever look weak or vulnerable if I don’t have to? It’s not a good feeling. It’s not one I tend to actively pursue.
Which brings us to my first-ever race, which I will be running next week. I used to run quite a bit in the years after college, but things have changed since those days. I’m carrying a good 25 pounds more than I was then, and finding time to run is no longer as easy as throwing on a pair of sneakers and heading out whenever the mood strikes. Nevertheless, I’ve been saying I wanted to run a 5k for approximately the past 10 years, so when you get an invitation to run on a relay team in the marathon, you take it.
It is chemistry all over again, and keeping the faith that I can do hard things is so much…well, harder than I remember. Forget the actual physical exertion. That’s relatively easy to overcome. It’s the crippling self-consciousness, the constant sensation of being an imposter, the fear of embarrassment. It’s the raw, naked vulnerability of not being very good at what you’re doing and doing it anyway. It takes courage. That’s growth mindset, and it’s really, really hard.
Yet, I ask my preschool-age students to cultivate growth mindset all the time. I ask them to practice, to stretch beyond their comfort zone, to try again. Our challenges look different, but I’m sure that the way they feel – those big, real, scary feelings – are the same. And so I couldn’t help but smile as I channeled Dr. McClory just a few days ago, when a child wanted me to carry a heavy bag for them:
“You can do it. You can do a lot more than you think you can.”
See you at the finish line!