“When I was a little girl, I did well at things – like sports and math and science and English – and I got little bits of praise, and everybody thought I was smart and great,” my friend explained. I could picture my close friend, an executive coach to million-dollar businesses, as a little girl with pigtails.
“When I got to college, I wanted more of that praise, and I started taking on easier and easier coursework to make sure that my results were great, and that the praise from teachers and parents flowed freely. And slowly, I realize in hindsight, I became a perfectionist – only taking on those projects in which I had a really good chance of success,” my friend sighed, as if sad at all those perfectionist years. She personally uses this technique below to overcome her long-ingrained perfectionism, and – of course – shows the technique to her clients.
In the 1980’s, Carol Dweck and her colleagues gave children difficult tasks and puzzles, and listened to what the children said out loud while playing with the puzzles. Some children said, “I don’t want to do this…. It’s too hard… This is no fun.” Others said, “Oh great! Something new… I haven’t done this one before… Hm, I’m going to get this.”
Dweck, a social psychologist at Stanford University, ran many thoughtful and thorough studies to understand what separated those kids who wanted to take on challenge with those kids that balked at the first sign of difficulty. She found that some children think of succeeding in the world as effort-based and changeable: the more effort they put in, the more chance they have of success (“growth mindset”). Other children think of success as fixed: they believe they have a fixed level intelligence, and that to succeed at puzzle solving, the puzzle needs to be easy enough for them to be able to surpass it (“fixed mindset”).
Most interestingly, not only did Dweck and her colleagues find that children typically think of the world in one of two ways, but they found that they could prompt children to switch to thinking of the world in the other way. By setting expectations for children – “if you do this activity, you’ll probably learn a lot. You may make some mistakes, even get a little confused, maybe feel a little dumb at times—but eventually you'll learn some useful things” – the researchers were able to have children behave as if effort is important. The amazing discovery by Dweck and her colleagues is that – just as easily as my friend unlearned it – growth mindset is learnable, and can be learned at any age.
The Specific Technique
In her book Mindset, Dweck discusses applications in business, sports, parenting and relationships. If you feel your perfectionistic tendencies coming out – and you know when they are right around the corner – think about switching into a growth mindset. Tell yourself that you may make mistakes and “maybe feel a little dumb at times,” and eventually will learn some useful things. The specific technique is the following. When you get overwhelmed by perfectionism: 1) pause, 2) focus on your effort, and 3) chisel away at your task through effort, not through anticipating the ideal outcome. Like Saul Bellow says, “Whoever wants to reach a distant goal must take small steps.”
I saw my friend, the executive coach, this weekend. She told me she had been procrastinating in accepting a speaking gig and in moving forward with a website launch. She did a bit of self-coaching and realized she would learn a lot in both cases, and then accepted the gig and set a date for launching the website beta – “beta” meaning that things may still change. Part of the growth mindset must be just welcoming change. My friend is one of the coaches on the positive psychology coaching page, and the latest research shows that when experts admit their imperfections and uncertainties, they become even more persuasive. Another benefit of the growth mindset and the ability to make and admit mistakes and uncertainties.
Senia Maymin’s column highlights exercises from the field of positive psychology to increase happiness, resilience, and productivity.