Whenever someone says that they “love challenges,” I’ve always thought they must be a bit of a masochist. And also kind of braggy. What do you mean you “love challenges”? No one even likes challenges. A challenge is a test, and if you fail a test, that means you suck.
Everyone remembers bringing home a grade that their parents wouldn’t like. Remember that horrible feeling in the pit of your stomach? Some of us went to great lengths to hide that bad grade. There’s the classic throw-it-away-before-they-see-it maneuver. “Oh, my report card? I think they’ll give that to us next week.” Or maybe if it had to be signed, we forged their signature. (…Not that I ever did that, Mom!)
And maybe that’s why a lot of us don’t like challenges. Because challenges put us at risk for failure.
Dr. Carol Dweck conducted a lot of studies around learning, and in her book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, she identifies two types of mindsets: a “fixed mindset” and a “growth mindset.”
Someone with a fixed mindset believes that the type of skills and amount of intelligence that a person is born with will never really change. Because of that, they measure themselves by a fixed standard and feel the need to prove they’re good at something. They don’t want to look stupid, so they avoid their deficiencies and stick to what they know. They don’t like challenges or to try new things because they don’t want to do poorly. Failure is a black mark on their character.
On the other hand, someone with a growth mindset sees their skills and intelligence as things that can be developed. If they don’t do something well, they see it as an opportunity to grow. Mistakes are not bad things. They’re temporary setbacks. A problem that can be solved. If they do something perfectly, that means they didn’t learn anything from that experience. Challenges are no longer a threat because they aren’t a judgment. They’re a way to learn. And, in fact, challenging themselves is how they become smarter.
The Mindset of Weight Loss
It’s really easy to fall into the trap of having a fixed mindset when you’re trying to lose weight because that’s how a lot of us got overweight in the first place. And it keeps us there, too. Have you ever said something like:
- I’m big-boned. I’ll never be small.
- I have a sweet tooth. I could never give up sweets.
- My whole family is overweight/obese. It’s in my genes.
- I have a slow metabolism.
- He’s naturally skinny.
- I’m naturally curvy.
- I’m not athletic.
- I suck at moderation.
I’m definitely guilty of saying several of these things to myself in the past — and having them been told to me, too. My parents used to tell me I was big-boned. For years I resigned myself to what I thought was a factual, scientific truth: I could never be skinny. And if I had gone on believing that, I’d never have gotten to where I am today.
Switching to a growth mindset means recognizing that we are capable of significant change. Your past self doesn’t define your future ability.
Dr. Dweck writes,
“Mindset change is not about picking up a few pointers here and there. It’s about seeing things in a new way. When people…change to a growth mindset, they change from a judge-and-be-judged framework to a learn-and-help-learn framework. Their commitment is to growth, and growth takes plenty of time, effort, and mutual support.”
Which Results Matter?
With all this talk of challenging ourselves, you may be wondering if that means we should only count effort, not results. And, well, no. The point is growth, and sheer effort won’t necessarily help us do that. Showing up is important, but if we show up and only do the same thing over and over, that isn’t learning anything. If your last effort didn’t work, try to identify the problem and a new strategy to try next time.
Maybe you weren’t athletic in the past. Try to identify why you thought that way. Could it be because you never found an activity you enjoyed? What if you tried something new? (And no, training to play StarCraft II so you can be in the Olympics doesn’t count.) Brainstorm some possibilities — Fencing? Bellydancing? Kickball? — and give them a go. Or maybe the problem is that you pushed yourself too hard when you were trying to be athletic. In that case, scale your efforts back when you’re first starting out.
Having a growth mindset also means being able to forgive yourself when you fall off the wagon. What you’re trying to do is really challenging, and you shouldn’t expect to get it right the first, fifth, or hundredth time. Recognize that you’ll have some growth pains, and that’s to be expected. The worst thing you can do is take it as a sign that you’re doomed to be overweight forever because it didn’t happen easily.
Our beliefs limit our potential. So stop limiting yourself!
What About You?
How do you feel when you fail at something?