How Do We Grow? Part 4: Finishing What We Started

It’s not usually our resolutions that are the problem. If we spend the time, we can usually come up with meaningful personal goals for ourselves. It’s how resolute we are in following through on them that tends to predict success or stagnation. Here’s three truths that can help us have success in meeting our goals for the coming year and beyond.

Truth #1: We will change this year, no matter what. Around 15 years ago, a big shift happened in terms of how neuroscientists understood how our brains worked. It used to be the belief that after our brain development physically matured in our mid 20’s that we became relatively inflexible and unchanging for the remainder of our adult lives. We now understand that this is not true, but instead we maintain the capacity to reshape our brains both in terms of structure and function through what we learn and experience. In fact, it is our normal, default state to be continually growing new brain cells, and to make more connections between different parts of our brain as we get older. This is what scientists call neuroplasticity. Even if we are not intentional, just in the process of adapting to the inevitable changes in our lives (shifting roles, changes in our circumstance, moving, etc.), these new experiences can rewrite our dominant brain pathways to learn new “normal” thoughts and behaviors. Whether we are intentional about growth or not, we will change regardless. Even if we are becoming more set in our ways, this is actually an example of change, as our brains make more connections in the dominant pathways that reinforce our old behaviors. So you can’t say, change is too hard. Change is easy in the sense that it’s inevitable. On the other hand, if we are intentional about our personal growth, then we have a say as to what gets remodeled in our brains.

Truth #2: Believing you can change will make you more likely to grow. Carol Dweck is a psychologist who has researched the effects of fixed vs. growth mindsets. A fixed mindset is one that believes certain things are the way that they are and can’t be changed. A growth mindset believes in Truth #1 – we are always changing. This can be applied to our beliefs about intelligence, talent, attractiveness, or “luck” – all of which can in reality be improved. Not only is a growth mindset more truthful, it is also more beneficial. In studies with children, fixed mindsets were associated with less risk taking, lower self image, lower resiliency, and worsening academic performance when faced with challenges. Growth mindsets were associated with improvements in performance after being challenged, greater effort and grit, more positive self belief. We can see how the former reinforces stagnation, and the latter opens up more and more opportunities to learn and grow.

Truth #3: Openness, conscientiousness, and determination are the keys to growth and success. A shift in beliefs requires not only believable new knowledge (such as reading this blog) but also personal validating experiences. In order to maximize our learning from our constant exposure to new life experiences, we have to be paying attention and engaged. This is where a practice of gratitude and mindfulness can be applied. Also, we need more experiences, so we need to try new things, learn from those experiences, then try them again. A combination of openness and conscientiousness has been shown by researcher Arthur Poropat to predict academic success, with a predictive value four times greater than intelligence. In other words, what matters way more are the flexible traits of curiosity, attentiveness, and effort, compared to the “fixed” measure of smartness. Teacher turned psychology researcher Angela Lee Duckworth has become an expert on “grit” – a trait based on an individual’s passion for a particular long-term goal or end state, coupled with a powerful motivation to achieve their respective objective. Her research has found in multiple groups that it is this quality, more than anything else that determines success. This applies in highly competitive situations to predict who ultimately is the best (like in the National Spelling Bee) or in very challenging situations such as who is likely to graduate from a low income high school. Interestingly, do you know what other research Angela Lee Duckworth references as being a key to developing grit? Carol Dweck’s research on growth mindsets, which is based on the science of neuroplasticty. All three truths neatly integrated.

Previously in this series, I talked about the overall process of change, starting with meaningful insights, naturally leading to intentions, followed by repetitive iterations, and ending with integration of a new normal. At each stage, it is important to understand what is most important to keep us moving forward. With our insights, we want to make sure that they are authentic and truthful. This is so that what we ultimately integrate as our new normal will be based on what is real and good. With our intentions, we want to make sure that our goals are not confused with strategies, and that our goals are healthy, meaningful, and ambitious. This is so that we remain engaged and motivated as both the process and end point are gratifying. In this entry, we’ve talked about the importance of the belief that not only can we change, but that we will change. Also, factors that we can control and develop, such as our openness to new experiences, our conscientiousness during the experiences so that we can maximize our learning, and our willingness to try again when we have not yet succeeded, will make us successful.

Lastly, it is important to recognize that worthwhile endeavors often take time to develop. However, if we’ve chosen a good path, the process itself will also have its rewards. As always, when people come along side us during these journeys, we gain the benefit of support, encouragement, and connection.

“Mindset change is not about picking up a few pointers here and there. It’s about seeing things in a new way. When people change to a growth mindset, they change from a judge-and-be-judged framework to a learn-and-help-learn framework. Their commitment is to growth, and growth takes plenty of time, effort, and mutual support.” – Carol Dweck

“Grit is living life, like it’s a marathon, not a sprint.” – Angela Lee Duckworth

Let’s all have a meaningful year of growth – in our wellbeing, connectedness, and authenticity. A truly happy and healthy new year.

  4 comments for “How Do We Grow? Part 4: Finishing What We Started

  1. January 2, 2015 at 9:32 pm

    I LOVE this one! Thank you Dr. Lee.
    P.S. I’ve also noticed that you reference a lot of my fave TED speakers. Very cool to know I’m paying attention to some great people. I hope to someday see YOU get out there and give one of those talks 😉


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