The importance of mindset cannot be overstated; it determines our approach to challenges, influences our decision-making, and ultimately impacts the level of success and resilience we achieve. Dr Alia Crum, principal investigator of the Stanford Mind and Body Lab, defines mindset as “… a mental frame or lens that selectively organises or codes information.” It can also be described as a person’s way of thinking and their attitudes or inclination. A mindset can be the result of a collection of beliefs or the very representation of a single belief, and why this is important will become clear when we look at how we can change our mindset.
Dr Carol Dweck first brought mainstream attention to mindsets with her research into growth and fixed mindsets. “A growth mindset is the belief that human capacities are not fixed but can be developed over time…”. Advances in neuroscience have proven that the brain can continue to develop throughout its lifetime and physically change its structure through the process of neuroplasticity. Someone with a fixed mindset may believe that their intelligence or a certain capability is due to their genetic makeup and that there is little point putting in any effort to develop. It is clearly linked to a state of learned helplessness.
Although ‘growth’ and ‘fixed’ may be the most commonly discussed mindsets, there are other descriptors used for the various ways of thinking; all of which will lead to tell-tale behaviours. Open and closed mindsets explain how receptive we are to ideas and suggestions from others. Having an open mindset is the most effective for learning, understanding, developing relationships as well as leading. Constantly looking for improvements, being interested in others and curious enough to investigate context are all valuable mental frames to hold on to or establish.
The aforementioned, Dr Alia Crum provided some very interesting research data regarding stress mindsets, in essence, how do you perceive the impact of stress on your performance. Whether you have a ‘stress is enhancing’ mindset or a ‘stress is debilitating’ mindset. One of her studies on the effects of stress mindset was conducted on Navy SEAL selection, showing a positive correlation between those with a ‘stress is enhancing’ mindset and their successful completion of training; perhaps somewhat unsurprising. Surely, those entering Navy SEAL selection recognised that they would be put under pressure and that this pressure would drive them to perform? Well, apparently not, and it has become even more apparent that many of us also view stress as negative.
The understanding that stress is enhancing is not new, psychologists Robert Yerkes and John Dillingham Dodson introduced their concept, in 1908, in the form of a bell curve where performance increases with arousal (stress or pressure to perform) until a certain level of arousal becomes too much and then performance diminishes. The aviation industry has been using the Yerkes-Dodson curve to raise awareness amongst aircrew of the dangers to performance of both being under stimulated, leading to a lack of concentration, and over stimulated, unable to cope with the pressure. It is well recognised that some pressure is vital for learning and good performance. The work of Mihaly Csikszentihayli, and that of the Flow Research Collective, also shows the requirement to be challenged in order to develop, improve and access flow state.
“By educating people on the effects of stress and in particular the positive effects it has on the body, those people are able to change their mindset to stress and are able to perform better when put under pressure.”
Back to Dr Alia’s research and the interesting follow up linking it to development opportunity. Her team at Stanford have found out that by educating people on the effects of stress and in particular the positive effects it has on the body, those people are able to change their mindset to stress and are able to perform better when put under pressure. They have started to believe that stress can be a good thing.
As with everything, context is key. What your definition of stress is and how much there is of it matters. In my view, we must be very aware about the language we use and the potential effect it can have on people. Constantly talking about “stress this” and “stress that” appears to be part of the problem with creating stressful environments. We are not taking the time to explain the difference between just enough stress and too much stress. Apart from when I am discussing the physiological effects of acute stress and chronic stress, I prefer to discuss pressure. How we perform under pressure, how we get the best out of ourselves when we need it most. Pressure can be self-induced or created by external factors, although even external factors will come back to our internal control. Pressure shows up when something matters, when it means something, and the body reacts perfectly to deal with it. Problems arise when the pressure doesn’t stop or when we perceive the pressure to be continuous. This is when I do use the term stress; when we don’t allow ourselves time to recover from performing under pressure.
Recognising the power that beliefs and mindsets have over our behaviours is not new. There has been a lot of work done on overcoming limiting beliefs and it forms the core of much of the effective change work in a number of approaches. Beliefs are formed through our experiences and, perhaps more powerfully, from what we hear and see from influential figures, particularly during childhood. We may not even be aware of some of the beliefs we have formed and of some of the mindsets we are operating from. Raising our awareness of these mindsets and whether or not they are helping or hindering us is a positive step towards our development. It is possible that we have differing mindsets for different situations, which we can also use to our advantage as evidence for choice. As an example, we may demonstrate an open mindset with our own team but be closed to the opinions of personnel from another department.
I have already mentioned how having an open mindset is most effective for learning. Having such a mindset, in itself, opens the possibility for developing the right approach for any given situation. Many politicians and party supporters alike are demonstrating a closed mindset when it comes to political discussion. They are behaving in a binary display that infers that everything said by a member of an opposition party is wrong and conversely everything said by themselves is right. Such a closed mindset, fuelled by equally closed thinking, celebrity attention grabbing, social media videos, only serve to undermine or eliminate productive debate.
As a final thought, seeing evidence of how education, in whatever form, can change our approach to something as important as stress (or pressure), shows what is possible. We are truly in the realm of meta beliefs; whether you believe that you can change your beliefs will have a direct effect on Henry Ford’s timeless advice.