People don’t change.
I’ve written that and said that and part of me believes that. Most days, I’m convinced that we all have pre-established modes of being and cemented behaviors that have gradations, perhaps, but states that are largely unalterable.
The term ‘fixed mindset,’ as identified by Psychology and motivation researcher Carol Dweck, betrays an effortless set-point of the kind I’m (mostly) convinced we’re all slaves to, a staid default where the mind’s ability to manage its approach to the world’s many challenges settles into an immoveable monolith reinforced by those cross-sections of ego-rebar.
By contrast possessing a ‘growth mindset’ where we instead maintain a flexible mental position, where we work toward our life goals, where we assess and address issues, problems, situations as they reveal themselves to us in the present, requires that we maintain and sustain a vulnerable, open, and flexible belief in ourselves. Just because we don’t innately exhibit certain skills, doesn’t mean we can’t learn those skills through diligent practice.
According to Dweck’s website, maintaining a ‘growth mindset’ translates into focusing on the effort we put into an endeavor rather than the label we assign to ourselves.
Being vulnerable and open requires that we unmoor ourselves from the words and behaviors that typically defines us as the people we believe ourselves to be. Uncertainty is uncomfortable, sometimes despairingly so, where everything feels transient, slippery, illusory. The Buddhists would say that this is acknowledging Reality. The Reality that the supposed solidity of our existence is nothing but constant flux. But if we can’t rely on the labels and the beliefs we—as well as the people around us—have of us, how are we supposed to recognize ourselves?
About sixth months ago, I made the difficult decision to leave a company for which I’d worked for twelve years. It wasn’t that I didn't want to leave; I ached for change. The respect and appreciation for how I fulfilled my role within the business had evaporated, the relationship with my managers had stagnated for reasons that still feel nebulous and haphazard, and in practical terms they weren’t taking care of me financially, which was having disastrous effects on my family’s finances. I had to act.
Even so, the decision to openly embrace uncertainty, to actively unattach myself from everything I knew or conceived of myself was difficult and frightening.
We often don’t appreciate how important our day-jobs are. These roles provide us with stability, a sense of purpose, maybe even meaning. They also often provide us with drama, interpersonal connection and the subsequent conflict. Our occupations are as integral to our comfort as they are to imprisoning us into believing that life is full of 8-5, Monday through Friday constancy.
We can so easily believe that we are our jobs.
In my former work situation, we were all as hemmed in by labels and expectations as by Reality. Although I put considerable effort into learning new skills, into taking on more than I’d ever done before, my managers were so used to seeing me a certain way, so used to me fitting into the confining role I’d had for years, they didn’t recognize or acknowledge what I’d done. They couldn’t. I, however, knew I was capable of more; I’d proven it to myself, and this gave me the confidence to look for work elsewhere. I had to quit in order to redefine myself, and I was and am fortunate that an opportunity presented itself when it did.
The most startling aspect of it all was how easy it was to let twelve years of ego-investment and self-definition fall away. Once I stopped putting my energy into the same old labels and roles and circular thinking that I was used to (and, let’s face it, addicted to) those labels and roles could no longer contain me.
I suppose, then, that my experience betrays what I actually believe about our potential to learn new skills or to behave differently.