Guest Post from Jana Van der Veer
Growing up, I believed I was naturally good at some things and not others, and that nothing I did would make much difference. I could work a little harder at the things I did well (writing!), but I believed that if you had to work hard at something it meant you weren’t very good at it and therefore weren’t meant to do it (math!). Needing too much effort was a failure.
This is classic fixed-mindset psychology, according to Carol Dweck. In her book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success , she talks about two mindsets that people can have: the fixed mindset and the growth mindset. The fixed mindset is focused on talent, on being smart, and being automatically good at something.
People with a fixed mindset feel that their skills, personalities, intelligence, and talents are fixed, and that they probably won’t change much over time. In fact, any new activity is potentially scary because it might challenge their self-identification as the “smart one,” for example. Or in the case of writers, actually finishing a book and submitting it to an agent is scary because rejection will mean “I’m not a good writer after all.” They tend to avoid risk, and think in black-and-white terms.
People with the growth mindset, on the other hand, feel that through application, practice, and effort, they can change, grow, and improve. A rejection – for a group show, a gallery, a fellowship – is just a setback, and they remain open to the possibility of doing things differently until they see the results they want. They practice until they get it right. They view creative activities as an iterative process, always evolving.
Although we are all on the continuum from fixed mindset to growth mindset, we tend to grow up with particular beliefs, reinforced by how authority figures (parents, guardians, teachers) raised us. How they viewed us, how much of a fixed vs. growth mindset they had, how they talked to us, their expectations and desires all played a part in how we view ourselves and our abilities. Most of us come out more strongly one than the other. Or perhaps, we have more of a fixed mindset in certain areas, while in others we are more open to the growth mindset.
If you were told you were a good writer, or good at art, or were smart, that might have led you to believe more in the fixed mindset in that area. If, on the other hand, people took the time to tell you “you drew the forest really well here, I can tell you observed the trees carefully,” or to say, “I can see you worked really hard on learning the different types of meter for this poem,” it probably helped you to embrace the growth mindset, where you realized that you can learn and improve and your success is due to your efforts rather than simply some gift or ability.
As creatives, though, we have to embrace the growth mindset. Those that don’t are easily visible. They are shocked and hurt by any critique of their work that doesn’t certify its brilliance. They get rejected a few times and give up, saying, “I guess I’m just not any good after all.”
Am I saying talent doesn’t matter? No, it does matter. But rare is the genius whose work springs forth perfectly, with no need for instruction, practice, or editing. Creative work is always evaluated subjectively. There may be many long years of apprenticeship needed: courses, teachers, mentors, coaches, and practice, practice, practice… You have to have the mindset that you can always learn and grow. There is no “done.”
Eventually, I learned the growth mindset as far as writing is concerned. I left my MFA program over ten years ago full of optimism, and the assurances of my mentors that publication and success were around the corner, because I was a “good writer.” A really good writer, in fact. When I started getting rejections, then when my first… and then second… novels weren’t published, I took the critiques and got to work on my weaknesses. I still have moments where I think “If I were meant to do it, it wouldn’t be so hard,” but I also know that I’ve learned so much from the journey (and I’ve learned a hell of a lot about teaching writing as well). I am still growing, still learning, and still loving the process.
What about you? You might want to ask yourself:
What is your mindset regarding your creativity?
Are you committed to the growth mindset?
Do you love the process of creating?
Besides your overall product goals, what are your learning goals this year? Skills? Craft? Business and marketing? Networking?
Do you have a plan for achieving those goals?
Are you letting fears hold you back? Name them, and commit to taking a tiny step toward overcoming it this week.
Whatever you do, with the growth mindset you are always learning, and no learning is ever wasted. Commit to consciously improving your work through a growth mindset: What can I do differently? What can I learn next? And you will never fail.
Jana Van der Veer is a book coach and editor at Set Your Muse on Fire! where she helps writers nail down their book idea and finally finish the fabulous book inside them. Grab your copy of my mini workbook 10 Questions to Get Unstuck at Any Stage of the Writing Process: