What do new years’ resolutions have to do with a growth mindset?

It’s that time again, the first few weeks of the year when everyone dusts off their best selves and resolves that this is the year, right now, when they will really make a change.

I’m no different; I’ve spent plenty of time in the last two weeks restructuring my work goals, my social goals, and my dance goals. And it’s not a hopeless exercise, either, although the benefit may or may not be limited to the winter months.

I’ve seen three articles recently that reminded me of this, though, and called the entire thing into question: the first two are similar: this post about making resolutions each month rather than each year, and this one with a strikingly similar (though less codified) philosophy for how to make new years’ resolutions work for you. The third is a bit different: a post on Quartz reminding us that the ‘growth mindset’ is perhaps most commonly misapplied.

Why worry so much about yearly resolutions versus monthly resolutions versus regular unscheduled accountability? And what does it have to do with a growth mindset?

Mostly, because I am bad at being realistic in my goals. Like, really bad. Like, so bad that I was the kid who wanted to win the Olympics, and then be the first person on Mars, and then win the Nobel Prize for curing cancer. These weren’t goals that I had one after the other: this was my idea of what a successful life would look like. The only thing that seemed too difficult about it was another girl I knew, five years older than me, who also wanted to be the first person on Mars.

Honestly, that very same tendency sent me into a depressive spiral when the goals I was given stopped being “do this homework assignment for next week” and started being “sometime in the next four years, write a thesis.” I couldn’t graduate tomorrow, and everything I was doing seemed paltry in comparison to the size of the task at hand, and it just went south from there.

But what I noticed, towards the end, was that a weekly checklist helped. I could look back on the week and say “well, I didn’t write my entire thesis this week, but I did make progress.” If I make a checklist, and limit my time to a shorter period, it brings be back down to earth. It gets me to make my goal something incremental (I can actually do it in 4 weeks) and measurable (I can tell you’ve done it in 4 weeks). Those kinds of goals are, generally, the ones that we succeed at. They’re the ones that can create powerful positive feedback loops, that can drive us to larger success. And part of that is because making specific, measurable, goals, and working in a dedicated fashion towards them, is how to actually build a ‘growth’ mindset.

Insert something terribly cheesy about mountains being worn down by dedicated tribes of people with teaspoons. Or something.

Insert something terribly cheesy about mountains being worn down by dedicated tribes of people with teaspoons. Or something.

The phenomenon of a “Growth Mindset” is supported by an ever-growing corpus of data, and in its basic form somehow manages to be both intuitive and counter-intuitive. There are two ways of thinking about intelligence: the first as an innate characteristic someone is born with, and the second as a learned trait that someone works hard to acquire and maintain. The second of these is a growth mindset. And it can be immensely freeing: you aren’t bad at something, or if you are it is only because you are at the beginning of your path towards excellence. (Note that most of the studies on this have been done with respect to intelligence, but that it can be equally applied to essentially any competency — strength, grace, creativity, etc). Cite famous stories of Einstein flunking math class, or Michael Jordan being cut from the high school basketball team, here.

So, the fad goes, don’t compliment a kid on being smart, compliment them on working hard.

Growth mindset done. Check that one off the list, right?

Well, not quite. Especially if you’re one of us not-really-kids-anymore types. Because just like your intelligence or your strength can be built and needs to be actively maintained, so does your mindset. Viewing your life as a process of continual learning is something that takes continual work.

For me, that’s where those little monthly goals come in. Setting and achieving a small goal over the course of a month does a few things. Obviously, it gets me one step closer to a larger goal over the course of a year. It reinforces the idea that I can in fact achieve goals, especially incremental ones. It gets me into the good habit of continually looking for opportunities for growth. And it gives me many opportunities to adjust course and pick newer, or smaller, goals — so if I don’t get to any specific goal, I’ve got another chance right around the corner. All of that is, basically, the building blocks of a growth mindset: confidence and the emphasis on development rather than result; a continual dedication to a process; and resilience in the face of setbacks.

So what are your January goals? Mine include five handstand training sessions, and four things written. I’m about halfway through both of them, so maybe I was over-ambitious this first time around in 2016. But there’s always Februrary, and another new start.

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Elizabeth Finn

Elizabeth Finn

Elizabeth is a geneticist working for a shady government agency and therefore obliged to inform you that all of the views presented in her posts are her own, and not official statements in any capacity. In her free time, she is an aerialist, a dancer, a clothing designer, and an author. You can find her on tumblr at madgeneticist.tumblr.com, on twitter at @lysine_rich, and also on facebook or google+.

1 Comment

  1. January 19, 2016 at 6:19 pm

    It sounds woo as all hell, but the idea of choosing a “word for the year” instead of a resolution is (so far, for me) a pretty good guidepost. It’s also super counter intuitive because one word to apply to your life for a year isn’t a stereotypical “good goal” with small actionable steps and concrete outcomes and so on. But it’s been keeping me on track so far, anyway.

    So that paired with HabitRPG (now known as “Habitica”) keeps me on track to where I’m going.

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