Do you ever catch yourself complaining about something you want but can’t have? Perhaps it’s an activity you would love to try, your ideal body, a holiday you would like to go on, or a new car.
Why is it that you can’t do that activity?
Why is it that you can’t have that product or service?
Why is it that you can’t become the person you want to be?
List your reasons and hopefully by the end of this series you realise that you either don’t want the thing as much as you thought you did or you realise that you can actually have/do/be what you want.
Is the reason why you think you can’t achieve your goal because you literally think you are unable?
The phrase “If there is a will, there is a way” is very true, in that perhaps you don’t have the desire for it if you can’t think of how to achieve it, which is addressed in part one. However, the phrase also suggests that there is generally a way to do anything — someone just needs to figure out how. So, unless your goal goes against the laws of physics, then chances are it’s all in your head and you actually have the power to achieve what you truly desire.
There is a psychological behaviour called ‘learned helplessness’ which refers to the inaction an organism takes after it has learned that it cannot do anything to change its fate.
I highly recommend you check out this video by Derek from Veritasium which explains it in an easy-to-understand manner. Put simply, you might have learnt in the past that you have no control over certain things in your life and there is no point in even trying to change it.
You might be affected by learned helplessness if you are accepting shitty things happening to you, such as your boss paying you very little or telling you to work back without pay, or if you are not taking action to achieve what you want. In the (rather inhumane) studies performed, the dogs’ helplessness could be unlearned when they were shown at least twice that they had control over their shitty circumstances and could take action to change it. My hope is that by reading this post and potentially watching Veritasium’s video, you understand that you can take the actions required to get what you desire. Don’t let yourself believe you can’t.
Pessimism and Cynicism
A related barrier to action for some people is some combination of pessimism and cynicism. If this affects you then you have probably had negative experiences in some area of your life and that could be clouding your perception of what consequences your future actions in that area will have. For example, if both your first two serious relationships ended up turning sour or ended badly then you might have developed a negative attitude towards future relationships, especially if the first two had similar perceived problems.
You might be pessimistic and think “Why bother? Relationships don’t seem to work out for me. I’ll probably end up living alone with a bunch of cats”, or you might be cynical and think “All <insert gender>s are horrible people and only think about themselves! I’d rather live without them.” However, I encourage you to take a more rational approach to the thoughts you let roam in your head.
Take careful note of how many experiences of this type you have had, how many were good and how many were bad. Don’t fall into the pessimism trap and stop your calculations there with the ratio of good to bad (0% in this case); you need to compare your experience to everyone else’s. Think about how many people experience a good or bad relationship in their first two serious relationships. How many of them end up in a happy relationship from the beginning? Probably not many. How many people experience a serious relationship that doesn’t end well, but they end up finding someone more compatible or at a point in their life that enables a serious relationship to flourish? A lot more. Chances are, of the billions of people on this planet (or of the millions of people who are your “type”), you will find someone to have a better relationship with.
Don’t let negative thoughts hold you back from going after what you want. Try being a little more optimistic next time things start seeming unreasonably bleak. If you are worried that you might overcompensate with optimism and end up in denial or taking silly risks, then focus on rationality instead — a neutral point between optimism and pessimism.
Fixed and Growth Mindsets
Perhaps inaction for you isn’t a case of lacking motivation or a case of negative experiences clouding your perspective. You might just genuinely believe that there is a particular fact about yourself that won’t change and therefore you can’t achieve your goal. For example, have you ever thought “I’m not good at maths so I can’t become an accountant”, or “I’m not smart so I can’t be a doctor”, or “I’m an introvert so I’ll never be able to speak in public”? If so, you could currently be using a Fixed Mindset.
Having a Fixed Mindset means to believe that your basic abilities, skills, characteristics, and talents are fixed traits. However, this isn’t true. There are a few things we can’t change, such as our skin colour, height, or the circumstances we were born into. For every other characteristic or trait you may have, you have the ability to influence it.
I will note that evidence suggests that IQ is roughly 20% determined by genetics at infancy and up to 80% in later adulthood1. However, IQ is generally not what people refer to when they talk about intelligence or being “smart”. They usually mean someone who gets good grades or is particularly good at a particular subject or topic — not the general problem solving and reasoning abilities associated with IQ.
Getting good grades or knowing at lot about a particular subject is about being knowledgeable, which you become by practising and studying, which requires effort. Understand that your knowledge and comprehension of a topic is what is tested at school and university, not your IQ. Keep in mind that scores you get on your tests are also influenced by your study to-date in your school life, preparation, motivation, concentration, and lots of other variables.
The opposite of a Fixed Mindset is a Growth Mindset which means you understand that your basic abilities, skills, characteristics, and talents can be developed over time through practice, persistence, and effort.
This understanding comes from the work of Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck, synthesised in her book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. In the diagram below, I don’t like the way ‘intelligence’ is used. For the purposes of this diagram, please substitute ‘intelligence’ with ‘knowledge, abilities, skills, characteristics, and talents’.
It is important to realise two things:
- having a fixed mindset can hold you back from your full potential (see the above diagram); and
- you have the power to change your mindset.
Changing from a Fixed Mindset to a Growth Mindset starts with the words you use — those spoken aloud but also, often more importantly, those you use in your thoughts.
Changing the above examples of thoughts to Growth might give us “I’m not good at maths at the moment so I will have to practise more if I want to be an accountant”, “I will have to study very hard to get my grades up if I want to be a doctor”, and “I’m shy at the moment and will need to practise if I want to get more comfortable speaking in public”.
Note how the thought is phrased in such a way that you have power over the ability. It gives you control over your situation that a Fixed Mindset would not allow you to have. Take notice of every time you think or say a phrase that would be considered to have come from a Fixed Mindset, then correct it. Better yet, get someone living in the same house as you to call you on it if they hear you speak in a Fixed way. Over time you will notice the difference in your attitude and approach towards obstacles and goals.
If the reason why you say you can’t achieve your dream is because you have been using a Fixed Mindset, take the advice mentioned above.