When I was a young student on the West Coast of Ireland many moons ago, I remember one of our teachers telling us that IQ for them was the ultimate measure of our intelligence and our character. That same teacher told many students that they were stupid at Maths or English etc., and the sad irony is that I believe many of those students still believe today these untruths that were planted in their young brains. Such a tragedy for their lives.
The fact that the teacher was a priest - a role model at the time - just made the labelling more damaging. I also remember my Dad telling me that I was not bright enough to go to college, and to this day I still fight that notion inside my head. The issue is if you tell a child they are clumsy and awkward there’s a good chance they will regard themselves as clumsy and awkward for the rest of their lives. In fact, they are likely to go out of their way to prove it in a self-fulfilling prophecy.
When we learn to believe that we’re not good at something, or that we can’t speak with confidence in public, or that we’re not comfortable making new friends, then we are more likely to allow our brains to make this a reality. The view that we adopt about ourselves profoundly affects the way we lead our lives.
So many of us are shaped by childhood beliefs that still form a significant part of who we are today. They are the strongest factors that influence our personality. They inhibit us, control us, and shape so many of our reactions to the events and opportunities that surround us. However, this does not mean that we are stuck with them. The good news is that we can change our thinking, change our attitude, change our mindset, change our behaviours and inevitably, change our lives.
What many of us fail to understand is that our brain reflexively and repeatedly lies to us, based upon its own version of the truth. It is like replaying old videos and presenting them as new truths. It is digging around for old buried hurts, experiences, biases, myths and truths, repackaging them as either honest interpretations of the facts, or gross misrepresentations of the facts, and presenting them to us as ‘our reality’ or ‘our truth’.
The server that is our brain distorts, dilutes, concludes and relays in a way that can mislead us, misrepresent us and undermine us in our daily lives. We think we are in control of our thoughts, however, according to well documented research our brain can take information from different sources and change the message we are receiving.
Our brain is utterly alien to us, and yet our personalities, hopes, fears and aspirations all depend on the integrity of this biological tissue.
Once your thoughts and emotions become habitual, they form a neural network that keeps the mindset habitually in place. It keeps you, literally, on automatic.
When our brain changes, we change. Our personality, decision-making, and risk-aversion, the capacity to see colours or name animals – all these can change, in very specific way. For example, when the brain is altered by drugs, disease or trauma it can change our personalities in very specific ways.
If we take the vast, unconscious, automated processes that run in our brains under the hood of conscious awareness, we will discover that the large majority of the brain's activity takes place at a low level: the conscious part – the ‘me’ that flickers to life when we wake up in the morning and this is only a tiny part of the operations.
This insight has given us a better understanding of the complex multiplicity that makes us a person. We are not a single entity of a single mind, we are built of several parts, all of which compete to steer the ship of state.
I have spent three years researching for my great book on ‘New Mindsets for New Times’. I have spent time with great leaders; soldiers, miners, doctors, priests, academics, entrepreneurs, patients and superstars trying to understand what is that ‘core’ that defines some great people.
“We can take the person out of the Stone Age, evolutionary psychologists contend, but we can’t take the Stone Age out of the person”. (Nicholson, 1998)
There are up to ten billion cells in our brain and each cell can make new connections. Sometimes brain cells can make hundreds of connections. The average person thinks around 70,000 thoughts a day. That’s a lot, especially if they are unproductive, self-abusive, and just a general waste of energy.
You can let your thoughts run amok, but why would you? It is YOUR mind, YOUR thoughts:
Isn’t it time to take your power back?
Isn’t it time to take control?
Isn’t it our gift to have the brain we deserve?
Only we get to choose who is actively, consciously thinking our thoughts. One of my heroes is Viktor Emil Frankl the Austrian neurologist, psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor. His best-selling book ‘Man's Search for Meaning’ chronicles his experiences as a concentration camp inmate, which led him to discover the importance of finding meaning in all forms of existence, even the most brutal ones, and thus, a reason to continue living. Three of his quotes now live on in my brain:
“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way”
“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom”
“When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves”
YES we can become the master of our mind!
The choice is ours to either:
Skilfully drive it to perform at an optimal level, or;
Run it to the ground, or;
Slowly smother its brilliance by submitting to life on autopilot.
So how do we go about changing our brains? If you want to characterise how something is done, then one of the most powerful ways of characterising how the mind does anything is by looking at the errors that the mind produces and look at these errors while the mind is doing its thing.
“Correct performance tells you much less about the procedure than the errors do” so says Daniel Kahneman, Nobel Laureate and writer of that brilliant book ‘Thinking Fast and Slow’. Learning from our mistakes and understanding the sequence of events/thoughts that got us to this incorrect position is critical to understanding ourselves.
In this article there are two simple steps that I will leave you with that will hopeful take you on a journey to a more learning and engaging mindset:
1. Become a ‘Growing Mindset’
Let’s briefly look at what a mindset is:
In simple definitions it is a state of mind; a fixed mental attitude mood; a set of assumptions, intentions and methods; and a mental inclination, tendency, or habit. Firstly, I suggest we start changing mindsets by deliberately choosing to project a different “self-movie” on the motion picture screen in our brains. If we change our attitude we change our thinking.
Simply say ‘yes’. We can find legions of writers who have touted the value of positive mental attitude. There are scores of rah-rah speakers who evangelise on the doctrine of believing in ourselves. I am one, and I agree that is important to build that self-belief to develop that rosy outlook and to acquire better self-esteem. However, this is just not good enough on its own.
Mindset is a simple idea discovered by world-renowned Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck through decades of research on achievement and success - a simple idea that makes all the difference. Teaching a growth mindset creates motivation and productivity in the worlds of business, education, and sports.
In her research Carol Dweck discovered that we can be anchored in different places even with that positive outlook. We must examine whether we have a fixed or growth mindset.
People who have a fixed mindset think their intelligence is, well, fixed, and they care the most about looking smart. They avoid challenges (because they might lead to failure), give up easily (because setbacks might hurt their self-image), and see hard work and effort as a waste because they think they’re either talented enough to do something or they’re not.
Those people that have a growth mindset see their intelligence as malleable – they see their mind as something that can be developed and they have an intense desire to learn. They embrace challenges, persist against setbacks, and see hard work as a chance to get better at something.
Sound thinking requires a mindset - or orientation - that’s both receptive to fresh (even contrary) ideas and accepting of the notion that most of us can be more creative than we’ve ever dreamed.
Image sourced from Edutopia.
Growth mindsets acknowledge and embrace imperfections, view challenges as opportunities, try different learning tactics, replace the word failing with learning, stop seeking approval, cultivate a sense of purpose, celebrate growth with others, reward actions not traits, cultivate grit, take ownership over attitude, place effort before talent, emphasise growth over speed, take risks, and reflect unlearn to learn.
2. Challenge your Cognitive Biases
The technical definition is that cognitive biases can be characterised as the tendency to make decisions and take action based upon limited acquisition and/or processing of information or on self-interest, over-confidence, or attachment to past experience. A more simple definition is that when people face an uncertain situation, they don’t carefully evaluate the information or look up relevant statistics. Instead, their decisions depend on a long list of mental shortcuts, which often lead them to make foolish decisions.
These shortcuts aren’t a faster way of doing the math; they’re a way of skipping the math altogether. In Kahneman’s book on cognitive biases that affect our decision-making, ‘Thinking Fast and Slow’, he identifies two cognitive systems, which he labels 'System 1', given over to snap, intuitive judgments, and 'System 2', which we use consciously to solve problems in a more rational way. Kahneman’s theory really makes you consider the way your cognitive biases affect the way you operate as a person. In brief, we are susceptible to biases in our thinking such as: seeking out information to support pre-existing beliefs (so-called confirmation bias), over-valuing information presented to us early on in an evaluation (anchoring with under-adjustment and the halo effect), and feeling the pain of a loss more acutely than the pleasure of a similar gain (loss aversion).
Here the word ‘bias’ refers to a systematic deviation from a purely balanced judgment. We systematically over-value an initial piece of information over subsequent information.
We systematically interpret information in such a way as to support our pre-existing beliefs, and we systematically are more motivated to avoid a loss than to acquire a gain of an equal amount. Susceptibility to these cognitive biases is not an indication of low intelligence or lack of education; rather these are fairly universal thinking tendencies, pervasive in many areas of life with implications beyond educational policy and practice.
Cognitive biases revolve around social, memory, decision-making and probability/belief biases. The impact of which is the Back-Front effect, hand over easy thinking, irrational escalation, the expectancy effect, reactance, and loss aversion.
Image sourced from: Royal Society of Account Planning
I think Daniel Kahneman is a pessimist, a brilliant pessimist and a greater brain than I am. However I am an optimist.
Daniel Kahneman changed my life. He persuaded me that happiness is a real experience which can be measured and our mindset is one we can manage to a better place. I had always believed that the best society is one where there is the most happiness. I always believed that the best leaders were those who were emotionally positive.
I do think he's right that human nature saddles us with some unfortunate limitations, but I also think that we have the means to overcome some of our limitations, through education, learning, through institutions, through enlightenment and through challenging our mindset. We will always be flawed, yet I believe that human nature will always look to challenge our limitations and flaws.
To me, a mindset is a lens or way of viewing the world.
You do this to simplify and categorise the vast amount of information you receive every day and the infinite possible interpretations of what this information means.
This is a natural part of being human yet we can and must challenge our mindset to ensure we are in control, we are aware of what we are thinking, saying and doing and we are creating the life and environment that we seek.
I hope you enjoyed this short version of some of the work I do. Please do connect with me on @ceoblackswan or at www.globalblackswan.com
Duffy, M. (2014) New Mindsets for New Times. North Tyneside: UK Book Publishing.
Dweck, C., (2012) Mindset: How You Can Fulfil Your Potential. London: Robinson.
Frankl, V.E. (2004) Man's Search for Meaning. London: Rider Books.
Kahneman, D. (2012) Thinking: Fast and Slow. London: Penguin Books.
Nicholson, N. (1998) 'How Hardwired Is Human Behaviour?' Harvard Business Review, 76(4), pp.134-47.
MAURICE DUFFY - Maurice is the founder and CEO of Blackswan, a business transformation and coaching consultancy that operates globally in over 30 countries. He is a pioneer of executive coaching and is cited as one of the top global coaches.
Prior to Blackswan, Maurice was SVP, EVP and Head of Function for many organisations such as Nortel and Manpower. He is respected for his work and thought leadership on ‘Strategy’, ‘Mindset’ and ‘Change’ in which he practises and consults around the world.
Maurice personally coaches and mentors many CEO’s and board level Directors of FTSE 100 and Fortune 500 companies, whilst sitting as Chair and Non-Executive on a number of advisory boards.
He is an author and poet, and is passionate about the positive role that changes can bring to people’s lives. His last critically acclaimed book ‘New Mindsets for New Times’ sets the scene for much of his work. He is Irish, married to Karen with a home base in North East England and he has four children.
He is a keen half-marathon runner and Liverpool fan, and is regularly involved in a number of charitable events and challenges, including being co-founder and CEO of the renowned ‘Green Carnival at the Coast’, a major fun-filled community weekend at the spectacular headland location of Tynemouth Priory and Castle.