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Outgrowing "Growth Mindset"
Or, don’t be a schmuck!
Note: I struggled to title this essay. A shoutout to my friend Alex Brussell for giving me the answer (but see my endnote for an AI-spawned alt title 😀).
I have a good friend from my undergraduate days, a time that is now more than three decades in the past. He is very dear to me, and is a successful and kind person, but I will let you in on a secret: his worldview, his persona, and much else are all frozen in the past.
He stopped growing — in a certain sense — when we finished college; and what that means is that for him, *I* am like a fly in amber. Yet, in the intervening decades, I have become a different human being from what I was then.
This makes for stilted conversations when we speak from time to time, which led me to write here about what it means to have a certain kind of “growth mindset.”
We all change, of course. The physical changes are obvious and banal, and we acquire experiences that change us in various ways. I am speaking of something deeper than that.
I am speaking of changes in what one aspires to; changes in whom one wants to spend time with; changes in personality; even changes in fundamental moral values.
Having a growth mindset doesn’t necessarily mean working to become a better, faster, stronger paragon of the values you currently hold, which is the classical definition. It can also (and perhaps more meaningfully) mean being open to your values shifting and changing in unexpected ways.
This is a form of “growth mindset” that is very different from the growth mindset that is usually talked of — that growth mindset is a techno-utopian variation on Horatio Alger. Work hard, learn new things, and become “better.”
But we also need the humility to recognize that our idea of “better” can change. There are many kinds of growth, ones that old versions of yourself might not even have recognized.
For instance, and to make all of this less vague: Becoming kinder. More understanding of other viewpoints. More respectful of other cultures. More viscerally aware of the miseries of those less privileged. More aware that someone is not a numbskull for thinking differently from you.
Becoming, for lack of a better phrase, less of a schmuck.
Don’t be a schmuck
Being open to these kinds of changes, I would argue, is a more fundamental kind of growth mindset.
You can be hard-driving, ambitious, intense, periodically unforgiving, taking tough decisions — and yet be growing along all these new dimensions.
I have a former colleague whose professional abilities I respect, and whom I consider a good friend. In our time as co-workers, his style and persona were built around anger and victimhood — a very New York zero-sum-game set of attributes, built around paranoia and thinking everyone is out to hoodwink you. I have noted recently that this style is unchanged; in his late 40s, none of his edges have been sanded down.
Many of us can get “stuck” in the personality that we’ve created for ourselves. This may be most true of our workplace personas — perhaps a certain style brought us success and rewards, and then we stick with it for the next thirty years 😀.
As I’ve written before, many of the goals we have decided on as a society seem almost a recipe for leading extremely hollow lives. A person might “grow” into rigidity if it enables them to achieve some highly materialistic goal they’ve set. In doing so, they may forfeit a more expansive version of growth, and diminish the chances of becoming un-hollow.
Having said all of the above, and as a timely reminder, I am nowhere near Buddhahood. I have an especially hard time turning the other cheek when I am on the receiving end of bad behavior (which, in the venture business, is pretty darn frequent because of the bizarre personalities on both sides of the table, in every age range).
But when I have the chance to make the first move — I try bringing this different kind of growth mindset.
I have only recently realized that one can think of such openness as a superpower — a word I hate using, but it feels apposite here — and actually cultivate and nurture it. I wish I’d understood this better when I was younger. But I am trying now.
PS: I got a wonderfully clickbait-y title for this essay from ChatGPT: “Discover the 'Superpower' of Growing Your Mindset!” — it does capture the letter of what I have to say, but is the inverse of the spirit 😆. There might be a lesson in there about AI…
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