In Carol Dweck’s famous study on growth mindset, Dweck taught high school students about brain plasticity and about how the characteristics of intelligence are not fixed. The idea was to convince students that they had control over improving their academic ability. Years later, these students scored higher on standardized tests.
It’s tempting to think of the Dweck study as a near instant fix. You teach students, or yourself, the details of growth mindset. This takes about an hour. And then afterward your performance magically improves.
Although Dweck’s study has been supported by future studies, for example this one, I suspect there is a crucial missing element to the story. What behaviors did the students change after the lesson? Knowing this is the key to understanding how you can improve your own life.
My story is about my mom, now a retired 3rd grade teacher. She took that same concept of teaching growth mindset and reworked it for 3rd graders. The reworked lesson plan came down to three YouTube videos. I’ll share those below and then share what happened in the class room after the lesson was over. In my observations of my mom’s classroom, all of the magic was in the behaviors that the students built afterward. In other words, it’s not knowledge that transformed the students, it was new habits.
#1. Success Is Not an Accident
First, my mom inspired her class with someone who embodies self-improvement. Steph Curry came into the NBA too short, too small, and too slow to be a star. Now he’s an MVP and World Champion. And it was all because of his practice habits.
I don’t think you need to be a third grader to be inspired by this.
#2. Your Brain Changes!
Then she threw a two minute video on neuroplasticity at the class.
This is a classic self-improvement tactic — practically all self-improvement books are written to start with an inspirational story and then to immediately pivot into an explanation of why anyone could achieve the same thing.
So my mom was hitting her kids with Curry for inspiration and then brain science for plausibility.
Here’s where I’m hoping you are finding your own future growth plausible: your brain can change. That’s what brain plasticity is. So no matter how bad you are at something right now, you can change that so that future you becomes very good at it. That’s basically what the concept of Growth Mindset is about.
#3. The Power of Yet
After the first two videos, my mom’s class was sold on growth mindset, but they didn’t know how to put it into practice.
Thankfully, Jannelle Monet was a guest on Sesame Street and gave the simplest behavioral pattern for practicing growth mindset: use the word Yet.
The Growth Mindset Habit
The three videos above are not enough to change a child’s life. They have to be followed up by a change in behavior.
That’s the entire misunderstanding with Carol Dweck’s study. The focus is on the initial lecture, not the follow on behavior.
One of my mom’s strengths as a teacher was that she brought a consistency to classroom management. And one of the changes she made to her classroom was that she started insisting that the class adopt the word yet.
Every time a kid says yet, they are representing that they are open to learning something new.
The lesson that my mom put together was the launchpad for a new habit. And that new habit was then reinforced hundreds of times over the school year.
You can’t A/B test my mother because she is retired. But I can share that her kids had one of the highest test score improvements of any class in her district.
Regardless of the merits of standardized testing, something about her teaching that year worked especially well. And anecdotally, that something revolved around the word Yet.
And for that reason, the word Yet has become a big part of my own self-talk. I hope you adopt it too.
From young adults to people in their 60s, everyday functioning in today’s world can place high demands on our attention and memory skills.
Memory lapses such as forgetting an appointment, losing our keys, forgetting a distant relative’s name or not remembering why you opened the fridge can leave us believing our thinking skills are impaired.
But you might be too hard on yourself. Tiredness, stress and worry, and feeling down or depressed are all common reasons adults experience attention and memory difficulties.
Attention and memory skills are closely connected. Whether we can learn and remember something partly depends on our ability to concentrate on the information at the time.
It also depends on our ability to focus our attention on retrieving that information when it’s being recalled at a later time.
This attention system, which is so important for successful memory function, has a limited capacity – we can only make sense of, and learn, a limited amount of information in any given moment.
Being able to learn, and later successfully remember something, also depends on our memory system, which stores the information.
Changes in attention and memory skills
In people who are ageing normally, both attention and memory systems gradually decline. This decline starts in our early 20s and continues slowly until our 60s, when it tends to speed up.
During normal ageing, the number of connections between brain cells slowly reduce and some areas of the brain progressively work less efficiently. These changes particularly occur in the areas of the brain that are important for memory and attention systems.
This normal ageing decline is different from dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, which cause progressive changes in thinking skills, emotions and behaviour that are not typical of the normal ageing process. Dementia comes from a group of diseases that affect brain tissue and cause abnormal changes in the way the brain works.
If you’re concerned your memory difficulties may be a symptom of dementia, talk to your GP, who can refer you to a specialist, if needed, to determine whether these changes are due to normal ageing, dementia or some other cause.
If you experience persistent changes in your thinking skills, which are clearly greater than your friends and acquaintances who are of a similar age and in similar life circumstances, see your GP.
Normal attention and memory difficulties
Broadly, there are two main reasons healthy adults experience difficulties with their memory and/or attention: highly demanding lives and normal age-related changes.
A person can be consistently using their attention and memory skills at high levels without sufficient mental relaxation time and/or sleep to keep their brain working at its best.
Young adults who are working, studying and then consistently using attention-demanding devices as “relaxation” techniques, such as computer games and social media interaction, fall into this group.
Adults juggling the demands of work or study, family and social requirements also fall into this group.
Most adults need around seven to nine hours of sleep per night for their brain to work at its best, with older adults needing seven to eight hours.
The second common reason is a combination of ageing-related brain changes and highly demanding work requirements.
For people in jobs that place a high load on thinking skills, the thinking changes that occur with normal ageing can become noticeable at some point around 55 to 70 years of age. It’s around this time age-related changes in the ability to carry out complex thinking tasks become large enough to be noticeable. People who are retired or don’t have the same mentally demanding jobs generally experience the same changes, but may not notice them as much.
This is also the age many people become more aware of the potential risk of dementia. Consequently, these normal changes can result in high levels of stress and concern, which can result in a person experiencing even greater difficulties day to day.
Emotional distress can take its toll
Feeling down and sad can affect memory and concentration. When a person is feeling worried and/or down regularly, they may become consumed by their thoughts.
It’s important to recognise how you’re feeling, to make changes or seek help if needed. But thinking a lot about how you’re feeling can also take a person’s attention away from the task at hand and make it difficult for them to concentrate on what is happening, or remember it clearly in the future.
So feeling worried or down can make it seem there is something wrong with their memory and concentration.
Boosting your attention and memory skills
There are a number of things that can be done to help your day-to-day memory and attention skills.
First, it’s important to properly rest your mind on a regular basis. This involves routinely doing something you enjoy that doesn’t demand high levels of attention or memory, such as exercising, reading for pleasure, walking the dog, listening to music, relaxed socialising with friends, and so on.
Playing computer games, or having a lengthy and focused session on social media, requires high levels of attention and other thinking skills, so these are not good mental relaxation techniques when you are already mentally tired.
It’s also important to get enough sleep, so you are not consistently tired – undertaking exercise on a regular basis often helps with getting good quality sleep, as does keeping alcohol consumption within recommended limits.
Looking after your mental health is also important. Noticing how you are feeling and getting support (social and/or professional) during longer periods of high stress or lowered mood will help ensure these things are not affecting your memory or concentration.
Finally, be fair to yourself if you notice difficulties with your thinking. Are the changes you notice any different to those of other people your own age and in similar circumstances, or are you comparing yourself to someone younger or with less demands in their life?
If you have ongoing concerns about your attention and memory, speak with your GP, who can refer you to a specialist, such as a clinical neuropsychologist, if needed.
They’re right. I’m not broken. It’s not that I can’t be fixed. It’s not that I can’t overcome my anxiety. It’s not that there is no hope and I should just be thrown out like the pieces of my favorite porcelain mug that I accidentally dropped. I can be put back together and there’s a great possibility that I will one day return to my former, non-anxiety-filled self.
I’m not broken, but I’m definitely glitching.
I can’t wake up, get myself ready for the day and get things done, without some sort of malfunction. Anxiety has been a constant disruption in my daily life, for years now.
Some days it’s the inability to stop working long enough for a little self-care. Other days, my anxiety level is so high, I have to lay down or cry, or a combination of the two. Then, there are the days when I have errands to run, but have to continuously tell myself that I won’t have a panic attack while we’re on our way to the store, inside of the store, or on the way home from the store.
I’m not broken, but I’m definitely not ok.
My mind’s first reaction to just about any invitation, experience or opportunity is fear. Pure fear. Fear that I’ll have a panic attack in front of people. Fear that they will talk about me. Fear that they will stare. Fear that my kids will witness it. Fear of how far our car will be from wherever we are and whether or not I can get back to it quickly, if I need to. Fear of waiting on a line that might be one minute too long and I’ll have to walk out of the store, because the anticipation of the anxiety attack has already overcome me and I know I can’t come back from that.
I know I’m not broken, but sometimes I don’t believe it.
Every morning, I tell myself that this is not permanent. Nothing in life is. Tomorrow will be better. I will overcome something big today and celebrate my victories, no matter how small. With each victory, every obstacle ahead will seem easier and easier. I don’t have to settle for what anxiety has brought into my days.
I’m not broken. I’m just glitching and glitches can be fixed.
When a computer glitches, we restart or reset it. I just need to restart myself, clear my memory of the thoughts and feelings that seem to be the root of the problem. If I can get rid of whatever combination of factors that created the glitch in the first place, I can restore myself to the time when I didn’t have a care in the world.
But what are they? How do I find them and more importantly, how do I drag them to the trash?
My faith is bigger than my anxiety.
I have faith that one day, those obstacles won’t be an issue anymore.
Fear won’t be an issue anymore.
Anxiety won’t be an issue anymore.
I refuse to believe that anxiety will cause a total system failure. I have too much life left to live. Too much to see. Too many places I want to travel to. Too much to say to too many others like me who are reading this and know exactly what I’m feeling.
No one wants to hang out with me. I’m a failure at school. All my other friends seem happy. What’s wrong with me?
These kinds of negative thoughts are becoming more common in our homes and schools. Teens are experiencing increased anxiety, and studies indicate that college students in Canada, the United Kingdom, and the United States are becoming more perfectionistic over time, measuring themselves against unrealistic standards.
Why is this happening? We can’t say for sure—but we do know there are steps teens can take to improve their mental health.
A 2018 study of early adolescents suggests that self-concept (your perception of self) plays a central role in emotional well-being. According to the study, a supportive classroom environment and positive social relationships also affect teen well-being—but the impact is indirect. Positive self-concept seems to be the key variable in the well-being equation. If a student feels good about herself, then she may be more likely to connect with others and benefit from the supports provided at school.
So, how can we influence how students think about themselves? This may feel like a very tall order; yet there is a lot of research out there that provides some clues for supporting the teens in your life. Here are five ways to help tweens and teens move toward a more positive self-concept.
1. Get physical
Although you may have heard this before, kids really can benefit from regular exercise (especially when their tendency is to sit in front of a screen). A recent review of 38 international studies indicates that physical activity alone can improve self-esteem and self-concept in children and adolescents.
Apparently, the exercise setting also matters. Students who participated in supervised activities in schools or gymnasiums reported more significant growth in self-esteem than those who exercised at home and in other settings.
Adolescents’ self-concept is most strongly linked to their sense of physical attractiveness and body image, an area where many people struggle. So, encourage more regular exercise programs during and after school, and support team sports, strength training, running, yoga, and swimming—not just for their effects on the body but on the mind, as well. Getting out and engaging in some form of exercise can make us feel stronger, healthier, and more empowered.
2. Focus on self-compassion (not self-esteem)
Because self-esteem is a global evaluation of your overall worth, it has its dangers. What am I achieving? Am I good enough? How do I compare with my peers?
What would happen if we could stop judging ourselves? Researcher Kristen Neff claims that self-compassion—treating yourself with kindness, openness, and acceptance—is a healthy alternative to the incessant striving and performance orientation often tied up with self-esteem.
In her study of adolescents and young adults, she found that participants with higher self-compassion demonstrated greater well-being. Why? They were okay with their flaws, acknowledged that they struggled just like those around them (“Everybody makes mistakes; you are not alone”), and treated themselves with the same kindness they would extend to a friend (“It’s okay; you did your best”).
Participants with higher self-compassion demonstrated greater well-being. Why? They were okay with their flaws, acknowledged that they struggled just like those around them (“Everybody makes mistakes; you are not alone”), and treated themselves with the same kindness they would extend to a friend
If you are interested in specific techniques and strategies for enhancing self-compassion in teens, take a look at the work of psychologist Karen Bluth. She recently developed a program called Making Friends with Yourself. Youth participating in this eight-week program reported greater resilience, less depression, and less stress at the end of it. However, if there isn’t a program near you, consider sharing this self-compassion workbook with the teens in your life.
3. Avoid social comparison
When we focus on self-esteem, we tend to get caught up in comparing ourselves to others. Teens, in particular, often sense an “imaginary audience” (i.e., “Everyone is looking at me!”) and can become highly sensitized to who they are relative to everyone around them.
Instagram and other social media platforms don’t necessarily help. Some research suggests an association between social media and depression, anxiety, loneliness, and FoMO (fear of missing out) among teens. Their posts may not rack up the number of “likes” that their friends’ posts do, or they may feel excluded when they see pictures of classmates happily spending time together without them.
A new app for teen girls called Maverick may be a healthier option than Snapchat or Instagram. On this social media platform, teens can connect with role models (called “Catalysts”) and explore their creativity (such as designing their own superhero or choosing a personal mantra). Of course, there is always the option of taking a break from social media, as well.
Regardless of what teens choose to do online, many of our schools are also structured for social comparison. Grading, labeling, and tracking practices (grouping students based on their academic performance) don’t necessarily honor the stops, starts, and inevitable mistakes that are a natural part of the learning process.
Provide opportunities to revise and redo assignments.
Avoid ability grouping as much as possible.
Focus on individual growth and improvement.
Acknowledge students’ small successes.
4. Capitalize on specific skills
If you keep your eye out for teens’ talents and interests, you can support them in cultivating their strengths. Your son may think he is a terrible athlete, but he lights up when he works on school science projects. Then there’s that quiet, disheveled ninth-grade girl who sits in the back of your class. She may feel socially awkward, but she wows you with her poetry.
Researcher Susan Harter has studied adolescent self-esteem and self-concept for years. She claims that self-concept is domain-specific. Our overall self-esteem or sense of worth tends to be rooted in eight distinct areas: athletic competence, scholastic competence, behavioral conduct, social acceptance, close friendship, romantic appeal, job satisfaction, and physical attractiveness.
Talk to the teens in your life. What are their personal values and priorities? Share surveys with them like the VIA (which identifies character strengths like bravery, honesty, and leadership) or have them take a multiple intelligences quiz. Celebrate their talents and tailor activities and instruction around their abilities as much as possible.
It may not be easy to shift teens’ global sense of self-worth, but we can certainly highlight and encourage areas of interest and particular skill sets so that they feel more confident, capable, and inspired.
5. Help others (especially strangers)
Finally, when teens reach out to others, they are more likely to feel better about themselves. A 2017 study of 681 U.S. adolescents (ages 11-14) examined their kind and helpful behavior over a four-year period. Researchers found that adolescents who were kind and helpful in general had higher self-esteem, but those who directed their generosity toward strangers (not friends and family) tended to grow in self-esteem.
Last Friday, I joined my daughter and her peers during the “action” phase of their “Change the World” project. Their social studies teacher, Tim Owens, tasked the eighth graders with choosing a sustainability issue, researching the problem and possible solutions, planning action, and implementing the action.
These middle schoolers spent a full day canvasing their neighborhoods to advocate for policies that protected people they don’t know, like local refugees and homeless youth—as well as animals used for product testing. I’ve never seen my daughter and her friends more energized, confident, and engaged with their community.
As adults, we can actively support service learning projects in our schools and our teens’ interests in advocacy and civil engagement. Adolescents around the world can also work remotely with non-profit organizations like DoSomething, “a digital platform promoting offline action” in 131 countries. On this site, young people can choose a cause, the amount of time they want to commit to it, and the type of help they would like to provide (e.g., face-to-face, improving a space, making something, sharing something, etc.)
When teens regularly contribute to a larger cause, they learn to think beyond themselves, which may ultimately help them to be more positive, empowered, and purposeful.
As many teens struggle with anxiety and perfectionism, our urge may be to jump in and fix their problems, whatever we perceive them to be. But a better approach, one that will hopefully help reverse these worrying trends, is to cheer them on as they develop the mental habits and strengths that will support them throughout their lives.
Editors’ Note: Following the huge popularity of this post, article source Amy Morin has authored a guest post on exercises to increase mental strength here and Cheryl Conner has interviewed Amy in a Forbes video chat about this article here.
For all the time executives spend concerned about physical strength and health, when it comes down to it, mental strength can mean even more. Particularly for entrepreneurs, numerous articles talk about critical characteristics of mental strength—tenacity, “grit,” optimism, and an unfailing ability as Forbes contributor David Williams says, to “fail up.”
However, we can also define mental strength by identifying the things mentally strong individuals don’t do. Over the weekend, I was impressed by this list compiled by Amy Morin, a psychotherapist and licensed clinical social worker, that she shared in LifeHack. It impressed me enough I’d also like to share her list here along with my thoughts on how each of these items is particularly applicable to entrepreneurs.
1. Waste Time Feeling Sorry for Themselves. You don’t see mentally strong people feeling sorry for their circumstances or dwelling on the way they’ve been mistreated. They have learned to take responsibility for their actions and outcomes, and they have an inherent understanding of the fact that frequently life is not fair. They are able to emerge from trying circumstances with self-awareness and gratitude for the lessons learned. When a situation turns out badly, they respond with phrases such as “Oh, well.” Or perhaps simply, “Next!”
2. Give Away Their Power. Mentally strong people avoid giving others the power to make them feel inferior or bad. They understand they are in control of their actions and emotions. They know their strength is in their ability to manage the way they respond.
3. Shy Away from Change. Mentally strong people embrace change and they welcome challenge. Their biggest “fear,” if they have one, is not of the unknown, but of becoming complacent and stagnant. An environment of change and even uncertainty can energize a mentally strong person and bring out their best.
4. Waste Energy on Things They Can’t Control. Mentally strong people don’t complain (much) about bad traffic, lost luggage, or especially about other people, as they recognize that all of these factors are generally beyond their control. In a bad situation, they recognize that the one thing they can always control is their own response and attitude, and they use these attributes well.
5. Worry About Pleasing Others. Know any people pleasers? Or, conversely, people who go out of their way to dis-please others as a way of reinforcing an image of strength? Neither position is a good one. A mentally strong person strives to be kind and fair and to please others where appropriate, but is unafraid to speak up. They are able to withstand the possibility that someone will get upset and will navigate the situation, wherever possible, with grace.
6. Fear Taking Calculated Risks. A mentally strong person is willing to take calculated risks. This is a different thing entirely than jumping headlong into foolish risks. But with mental strength, an individual can weigh the risks and benefits thoroughly, and will fully assess the potential downsides and even the worst-case scenarios before they take action.
7. Dwell on the Past. There is strength in acknowledging the past and especially in acknowledging the things learned from past experiences—but a mentally strong person is able to avoid miring their mental energy in past disappointments or in fantasies of the “glory days” gone by. They invest the majority of their energy in creating an optimal present and future.
8. Make the Same Mistakes Over and Over. We all know the definition of insanity, right? It’s when we take the same actions again and again while hoping for a different and better outcome than we’ve gotten before. A mentally strong person accepts full responsibility for past behavior and is willing to learn from mistakes. Research shows that the ability to be self-reflective in an accurate and productive way is one of the greatest strengths of spectacularly successful executives and entrepreneurs.
9. Resent Other People’s Success. It takes strength of character to feel genuine joy and excitement for other people’s success. Mentally strong people have this ability. They don’t become jealous or resentful when others succeed (although they may take close notes on what the individual did well). They are willing to work hard for their own chances at success, without relying on shortcuts.
10. Give Up After Failure. Every failure is a chance to improve. Even the greatest entrepreneurs are willing to admit that their early efforts invariably brought many failures. Mentally strong people are willing to fail again and again, if necessary, as long as the learning experience from every “failure” can bring them closer to their ultimate goals.
11. Fear Alone Time. Mentally strong people enjoy and even treasure the time they spend alone. They use their downtime to reflect, to plan, and to be productive. Most importantly, they don’t depend on others to shore up their happiness and moods. They can be happy with others, and they can also be happy alone.
12. Feel the World Owes Them Anything. Particularly in the current economy, executives and employees at every level are gaining the realization that the world does not owe them a salary, a benefits package and a comfortable life, regardless of their preparation and schooling. Mentally strong people enter the world prepared to work and succeed on their merits, at every stage of the game.
13. Expect Immediate Results. Whether it’s a workout plan, a nutritional regimen, or starting a business, mentally strong people are “in it for the long haul”. They know better than to expect immediate results. They apply their energy and time in measured doses and they celebrate each milestone and increment of success on the way. They have “staying power.” And they understand that genuine changes take time. Do you have mental strength? Are there elements on this list you need more of? With thanks to Amy Morin, I would like to reinforce my own abilities further in each of these areas today. How about you?
Cheryl Snapp Conner is a frequent speaker and author on reputation and thought leadership. You can subscribe to her team’s bi-weekly newsletter, The Snappington Post, here.
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