How to grow faster by focussing on behavior instead of on yourself.

The Mindset Series: 3 mindsets for a healthier and a more effective approach to self-improvement.

NB: This blog post is part of my Mindset Series. A mindset is the way you look at the world. The way you interpret the stimuli coming your way. This series of posts covers 3 mindsets that can help you look at your life, work and opportunities in a different, more effective and healthier way.

Click here to read mindset #1: "Why acceptance doesn't lead to stagnation but unleashes you"

Projects that matter are often complex. They haven’t been done before in this way. Or don’t have a clear set of rules to follow. There are lots of things you could do, but which option is the right one? Have I even considered the right one?

When playing games, sports or writing, we need to practice to get better. Trying out new techniques, tactics or tools. Spending time doing exercises that we don’t now for sure will result in an improvement of our skills.

In business, we need new innovations. To find and try out solutions to the problems we face.

In all cases, we need to try things out. Potentially fail or loose. That means going forward while not knowing what the best way is. Not knowing what the effects are going to be. Not knowing whether or not we’re able to do it. It’s like diving off a cliff not entirely sure whether the water below is deep enough.

This can be incredibly uncomfortable. Especially when something is on the line. Whether it is money, your reputation or your relationships. Doing it, requires us to be with that uncomfortableness of the unknown. Being with the anxiety of potentially failing. Being vulnerable.

In this blogpost, I want to show you a way of looking at the things you do differently. A way that releases some of this discomfort by viewing failing positively. A mindset that makes you feel less on the hook for succeeding.

This mindset is about focussing on your actions instead of on yourself. By doing so, succeeding or failing become a result of what you did. Not of who you are.

It’s about judging whether you did well by focussing on effort instead of on ability. You focus on whether you tried. Whether you showed up. Being able to do it or having chosen the right solution is less relevant.

It’s about a switch from believing in the self to believing in behavior. From talent to practice. From “I am the way I am” to “I can grow and improve myself”.

Fail to become successful

To have successes, you must learn and try out different things. Thus, you must do things you don’t know how yet. To succeed, you must fail. Everyone we think of when we think of successful people has failed numerous times. And failing is scary. But it is good to remind yourself that failing is not the same as becoming a failure (Seth Godin). Just having a success is not what makes you successful. It was failing (or the willingness to fail) that made or will make you successful.

Every success or creation goes through a process. First we think it’s going to be awesome. Then we start and it sucks. It keeps sucking. Until it is great. Thus, we failed numerous times. But don’t fool yourself that you suck because the creation sucks. Every blogpost I write goes through this process. And I hope it turns out great in the end. But all I can do is plow through and stay with it.

Also, we’re not the only ones acting in the arena. To succeed you have to navigate a very complex playing field. Others that have their own agenda and plans that need to be aligned. Other people that set the bar for your goals that you are going to be measured against. Not reaching that goal is also a reflection of all the variables you can’t control.

And, by the way, it works both ways. When you succeed at something, it doesn’t make you a success. Publishing a book doesn’t make you a genius. This is kind of a sobering thought. And it may sound as a downer. But the fact is, you were already successful when you found the courage to start and when you stuck with it. It wasn't the publishing that made you successful. It was the commitment to the practice of writing that created the book.

Your temporary circumstances don’t have to become you permanent identity

When we do things we either succeed or we fail. It works or it doesn’t. We interpreted these events into feelings. From these feelings, we create a story about ourselves. But it is good to see the event, the action or facts as something separate from the interpretation, the feeling or the story.

This allows us to not identify too much with the events. I like what Greg Hartle says about this: “Your temporary circumstances don’t have to become you permanent identity”. He gives the example of the baker who is let go from his job. What happens with him when he identifies very strongly with being a baker, but doesn’t get to bake bread for a living? Or having no money. Does that make you a poor person?

You are not what you do, own or produce. The fact that you’re fulfilling the duties of your profession doesn’t make you that. Will changing profession change who you are? What about losing your job? Sure it will change you due to the experience you go through. But you are much more than your profession. And at the same time you’re simply you. Your worth will be the same whether you do something successfully or not. The same, whether or not your circumstances are good or bad.

Now, you can choose to strive to be someone who does great things. Whether that is measured morally or in achievements. And by continuously choosing to do the hard thing, to learn, to fail, doing the right thing becomes easier. You will improve your skills. Become better at your work. Or become better at being a friend.

You are what you are. But what can change is what you’re able to do. Accepting this puts you in charge of your story. You become neither the hero or the victim. You become the author of your life.

Feel guilty instead of ashamed

Another reason for a mindset where we focus on behavior instead of self is that shame is toxic. Brené Brown researched this at length. Shame is what you get when you yourself are being judged. That when you do something bad, it makes you a bad person. Shame leads to addiction, depression, eating disorders etc. Not good!

Now compare that to guild. Guild is the interpretation that you did a bad thing. It holds up two pictures. One of what you ideally would’ve done and one what you’ve actually done. Feeling guilty means comparing the two and seeing that you could have done better. It holds actions against values. Now the result of guild is that it says, next time I’ll do better. Guild leads to better behavior. Good!

To recognize shame in action, try listening to your thoughts. Shame will make what you do personal. It generally knows two talks. It will look at what you did or what you’re about to do and say either “You’re not good/smart enough” or “Who do you think you are?”.

It’s also different for men and for women. Men are generally ashamed of being seen as weak. Women (generally) feel shame as a result of not being able to do everything effortlessly. Recognize this?

But what is weakness anyway? Trying something that might not work definitely isn’t weak. Falling flat on you face requires some serious strength! And why would you need to be able to do everything? Is there anyone who can? Isn’t more fun to share projects and responsibility anyway?

Shame thrives in secrecy, silence and judgment. In other words, keeping it for yourself and letting yourself be the only judge or interpretation increases shame (since we’re always the most judgmental of ourself). But there is good news. Shame has an archenemy: Empathy. Empathy kills shame! We instantly feel better when we know, see or feel that someone else understands what we’re going through. The most powerful words in the English language? "Me too". Poof, there goes the shame.

Talent is overrated

The shift from the self to behavior also applies to who you are and what you can do. In this space, it’s shifting your mindset from talent and ability to practice and effort.

We view talent as the thing that is innately in you that makes you able to become good at something. And everyone has a different set of talents. They’re just there. You’re born the way you are.

Now the question is, how big is the role of talent in your ability to become good at something? Nature or nurture? I lean more towards the nurture camp. Sure there are differences between people in talent. But I think the influence of external factors is almost impossible to overstate. The circumstances you grow up in. Think of the opportunities you had. And the value system you’re broad up in. The initial experiences with topics or skills. The way you practice (consciously or unconsciously).

It’s very limiting to simply accept the differences in talent as is and have that be the end of it. It reduces your ability to grow from your starting position to luck. The luck you had in getting to that starting position. It then is not about what we do, but about where we started. That what we are is where we started.

This can be quite toxic. The toxicity comes in when we believe we’re fixed. A result of our starting point. And when we use the differences in starting position to compare or rank each other.

“I’m more talented than him so I should be better”. “I am a doctor so I don’t need a nurse or checklist telling me what to do”. Or the other way around. "I am a school dropout so what you I know?" It’s entitlement. You are a certain way and thus can/deserve/need certain things.

Now it turns out, that talent is overrated as a predictor of success. It doesn’t determine the possibility of success. It merely sets up that, everything being equal, the one with more talent should have an easier time in getting good at it.

However, when they started researching whether people with talent actually succeeded, they found nothing. There is no proof that the very best are better because they have more talent than the mediocre. Whether this is at playing the violin. Or professional athletes. Or business leaders. There is, however, a found correlation between the amount of deliberate practice they've had and their success.

That means that we don’t become the best by having the most talent. We become the best because we practiced. It means that we ourselves are in charge - and thus responsible - for becoming good at things. That we should not judge what our ability is at something, but the amount of effort and practice we put in. Oooff. Better get going then.

And this is exactly why believing in talent is such a tempting thought. It lets you off the hook to try things and having to get to work. Believing in talent is certainly much easier. It would mean that you simply don’t have what it takes to become good at it. That at every skill there are plenty of people who were just born with more talent and will always be better than you. So why try then? And it gives hope! Because you can always become successful at something, if only you find that thing you are super talented at.

But both of these lead to nothing more than wasted time. The time wasted by waiting could have been spent learning. Exploring the subject. Trying things out. Failing at it.

Research by Carol Dweck (known for the Growth Mindset) found that praising kids on their effort instead on their ability actually increased how fast they learned! When kids were praised on effort it didn’t matter whether they succeeded or not. It was about the learning they had along the way. The effort-praised kids kept on taking harder problems because there was more learning to be gained in these ones.

Praising kids on ability, however, lead to kids feeling good when they were able to solve the problem. However, this led to kids taking on easier problems so that they wouldn’t lose the ability to solve their problem. Because not being able to solve it would expose flaws and would result in losing praise. It even lead to toxic behavior. More of them started lying about test scores because they were ashamed.

I know I recognize lots of this in the fact that I really dislike losing. In games, sport or projects in general. And I know it’s not true. But somehow I believe that losing means that I’m not good at something (while actually it is I did something with less success than someone else). And that not being good at something will mean I’ll lose praise. It's a difficult mindset shift to really engrain in yourself.

So next time you notice you did something wrong, celebrate that you have seen that there is a better way! You’ve just learned something! And help others to view it this way too by praising effort.

Shift your thinking to value your effort. Showing up for practice is what makes you better.

To sum up

So I’ve used different words for this shift in mindset. From the shift of taking it personal to focusing on action. From self to behavior. From ability to effort. From talent to practice.

All of these revolve around the idea that we start from a position of worthiness. We are worthy no matter what we do. It’s not about accomplishing successes. Not about upgrading yourself to prevent shame. Or about the talent you’ve started with. When we accept that who we are isn’t depended on what we do, what we do becomes less loaded. It frees us. Doing becomes more like a playground to grow and learn. And by learning, we become better at doing the right or hard things.

6 lessons:

  • Failing is necessary for learning. It’s trying things that might not work.
  • Success or failing is determined by actions. It is not a reflection of who you are. So don’t take it personally.
  • Your temporary circumstances don’t have to become your permanent identity.
  • Feel guilty of your behavior. Not ashamed of yourself. When you do end up feeling ashamed, share with someone you trust.
  • Talent is overrated. You can become good at almost everything with deliberate practice.
  • Judge your effort, not your ability.

So what do you think? I hope this helps you. To get going, try observing your thoughts. Try recognizing which mindset they feed. And when it’s the personal one, try looking at the situation to focus on your actions. If it’s on self, try to focus on behavior. If it’s on ability, try to focus on effort. Good luck. Let me know how it goes!

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