—tl;dr? — skip to Summary at the bottom
When I began this document, I intended it to be a quick definition of “mindset” and why that’s relevant to you. I realised it is a disservice, and indeed risks harmful interpretations, to give an incomplete story of only one or other aspect of the science and art of mindsets.
I’ve mentioned other mindsets before (e.g. The Scarcity Mindset), but the concept of mindset warrants its own detailed analysis. What follows is to be considered a working draft at this stage, until I get it to a satisfactorily thorough document.
There is no consensus for the definition of mindset. The one I use for myself is:
A mindset is the pattern of labile psychological processes, summoned ad-hoc, that leads to a real-world result.
I’m 99% sure that definition doesn’t help you, my dear readers. So I’ll break that down a bit into non-psyched terms.
Real World Results
How we act (or re-act) in a real world situation depends on a few things: our genes, the state of our health, the other people involved, the weather… Most of these things are beyond our control. But there’s also a set of factors, invisible to the outside world, that we can change, and in doing so determine the course of our actions (and, re-actions).
What we can control, to a great extent, is the stuff going on in our heads—thoughts, beliefs, emotions, levels of motivational energy. These are “labile” qualities of our psychology—they are changeable. In fact, they irrepressibly do change, prompted by a transpiring event, another person, or from our own determination. (You can see where this is going.)
An example is in order. Let’s select here beliefs, and set it in the scenario where I’m going to join a hockey team training session as a complete beginner.
I can go in with a mindset which includes the belief “I’m pretty good at learning new things; I’m moderately fit; I’m curious how I go trying new things”. Set up like this, I’ll likely pay attention to the instructions, put in decent physical effort to run after the ball, and enjoy the whole learning experience.
Alternatively, I could also go in primed with the belief “I hate sports; I’m no good at anything physical; and what’s the point of chasing a ball when I can watch Netflix instead?” Guess what—before I’ve even started it can be almost guaranteed that this will be the first and last hockey training I ever go to.
(Ok, I cheated a bit there—the third self-statement in each example wasn’t really a belief. But you can see how different “stuffs” in our head all paint a powerful picture together, which really change how we approach the world.)
Mindsets are ad hoc in that they’re responsive to the context in which they’re formed. Something happens— usually an external event, but it might also be a shift in one’s mood or thought-process—that prompts us to automatically adopt a suitable mindset to address it.
Mindsets are not prepared ways of thinking that are consciously put into play at pre-defined destinations or at scheduled times. Although, it is possible to use some clever classical conditioning on ourselves, to gear certain mindsets into action in specific foreseeable circumstances. This is discussed more below.
Mindsets do not include a certain other aspects of psychology that are more fixed, and embedded.
You cannot simply end schizophrenia with a mindset shift. Though, it is known that altering the mindset of the friends and family can greatly improve life for the schizophrenia suffer.
Or, to take an example from my personal childhood, if you’re stuck with a seemingly untreatable chronic gastro-intestinal disease, chances are that you’re unable to sustain physical exertion very long, regardless how optimistic your outlook is on your latent hockey skills.
Similarly, there are other stable aspects of psychology that aren’t just switched on and off depending on the mood and the circumstances of the moment. Personality is considered a stable feature of one’s psyche (though, it’s less fixed than most people assume). Cultural indoctrination is also something that tends to stick with us our entire lives, regardless of our mood or the situation we find ourselves in. And our Weltanschauung is also a complex basis for our comprehension of the world, which means it is necessarily robust and consistent, day-in, day-out. These parts of our psychology might be grouped under the rubric of “Identity“.
Lastly, mindsets do not operate in isolation up in your head. The world as it is perceived has every potential to affect and shift the mindset. Equally, having a particular mindset will inevitably affect how you perform and engage in the world.
Uses and Implications
At any given moment, we humans have operating with a specific mode, state, and range of cognitive ability. For example, we can have the activation of the sympathetic nervous system (the so-called “fight-or-flight” response), or the parasympathetic nervous system (“rest-and-digest”). As mentioned in another article, we cannot be maxing out all levels and abilities at all times—there’s an advantage to laziness! So, it’s quite impossible, and for that matter pointless, to be in both fight mode and chill-out mode simultaneously.
Mindsets are a learnt way of approaching a situation as efficiently as possible, using the best abilities and modes available to us at the time, so we can deal with the obstacle, hazard, or opportunity as best we can. Part of the pre-speech mindset used by a semi-experienced public speaker would be to active the parasympathetic nervous system, and calm himself as he gets on stage.
When I said mindsets are learnt, I do not mean you go sit in a classroom and study them. They’re almost always learnt intuitively, without our meaning to, without our even realising. Like most learning, this happens predominantly in early stages of life.
Humans are creatures of habits, and even though we have the ability to alter out mindsets, we tend to naturally stick to the same handful of mindsets.
We habitually fall back on the same repertoire of mindsets because they feel familiar to us and because they deliver reliable results. No alarms, no surprises, business as usual.
This has its advantage in offering us a safe, stable picture of the world around us. For anyone going through a traumatic experience or having their world turned upside-down somehow, the safety of old mindset patterns can help reassure them and ground their experience in terms that can be understood and integrated with their lifelong history of experience.
For the most of us, the overwhelming majority of our days are, in the greater sense, stable. Most days, there is no shock to the system that rattles you for weeks or years thereafter, no shift of paradigm, no twist in plot that makes you have to re-evaluate “everything you thought you knew about x, y, z…”
A universal exception to this is the immense shock to to our a senses when we’re born, moving from mother’s womb to the “real world”. Fortunately this comes at a point in our lives where we have no detailed Weltanschauung and little in way of holding preconceived ideas, and we can accept our world being turned upside down (in this case, literally so).
When Mindsets Fail or Hurt Us
Most of us live a stable lifestyle, where the cosy familiarity of our most beloved mindsets let us approach each day like the last one. Which is fine, unless…
…the mindset isn’t helping!
The mindset we keep using for a particular scenario might be sub-optimal, unhelpful, counter-productive, or downright maladaptive and deleterious.
A sub-optimal mindset still serves your purposes of dealing with what the world throws at you, but may be outclassed by another potential mindset which gets you your goal faster, easier, and more completely. The reason we get stuck using sub-optimal mindsets is often because we’ve transitioned into a new phase of life. So, for example, the work ethic that served you well-enough as a teenager in school may not work so well when you have to direct yourself through a 3-year-long PhD.
In every client I’ve seen, there’s been a contraproductive mindset in regular play, activated multiple times each and every day. These self-defeating and self-sabotaging mindsets are not to be underestimated. No aspect of life is immune from profound effects—relationships, self-esteem, career advancement. And they can consume huge amounts of resources, stirring up negative emotions over 100 times a day, sometimes demanding up to half the waking hours just keeping it under control.
Purging oneself of such mindsets is rarely accomplished alone. It takes a powerful event to kick it out of your mind, and many heart-warming Hollywood films include a story this effect. But rather than waiting for such a divine intervention, some people take initiative and work together with a counsellor or life-coach to effectively eliminate the self-defeating mindsets in a series of emotionally-involved sessions.
At the pathological end of the spectrum, a mindset may pose a danger or be socially maladaptive. As mentioned earlier, all mindsets were learnt as a way to best deal with a situation. So, how could that be harmful?
An example of a harmful mindset might be with the boxer who’s mastered a fight-night mindset: seeing the victory ahead, feeling impervious to pain, aggression ready and champing at the bit, confident in training. Now, this is a fantastic mindset to have stepping in to the ring! But something’s gone awry if this mindset takes over when he’s spoon-feeding his baby niece. In this case, the context with the baby needs to be intricately dissected to see how it got connected to the fight-night mindset. This is where working with a psychologist can be helpful.
Mindsets are changed in one of two ways: implicitly or explicitly; or another way of saying it: incidentally, or intentionally. The first is something we’ve all experienced, though not always with our conscious awareness. The second is an abstruse art form, that has only since recently received some trickle of input from science.
Paradigm shift is the most obvious example of a mindset that is fundamentally shifted due to an unplanned incident. It is when we’re compelled to dramatically re-assess what we think of the world, or at least a specific of understanding of the world, after it is found that all our prior assumptions are flawed. It engages the four fundamental constituents of a mindset—thoughts, beliefs, emotions, levels of motivational energy.
Paradigm shifts happen every few generations in every field of science, for example when Ignaz Semmelweis demonstrated in the 1840s that infections were caused by invisible microbes, and not by toxins or evil spirits or “bad air”, and that perhaps doctors should wash their hands and sterilise their instruments. His work immediately led to a 90% reduction in hospital deaths; through his “germ theory”, trillions of lives to this day have been saved, and trillions more spared undue suffering.
Paradigm shifts are rare, and are met with immense resistance. For his work, Semmelweis was rejected by the academic community, publicly ridiculed, and committed to an asylum where he was beaten and tortured. He died a few weeks later from an infection, ironically easily preventable by precisely that which Semmelweis himself proposed—sterilisation.
(Yes, whilst not exactly a “mindset”, self-defeating ideology can also infest institutions. The academic establishment is by no means exempt.)
Unsolicited Mindset Changes
Now, back to psychology of the individual.
A much more everyday example of an incidental mindset shift can be seen in changes in the emotional component. Being sad or depressed has the added effect that doing the dishes becomes intolerably onerous. Whilst being excited makes it difficult to read Shakespeare.
There is no rational reason for there being a connection between a 15th century playwright, and it being 1 hour before meeting a girl for your first date. But, there is. The systems are connected, and influencing each other.
Perhaps the most common daily mindset is found first thing in the morning. Pre-breakfast, I can barely grunt together two sentences in response to a question, and any activity beyond lifting a spoon to mouth may as well be a mission impossible to Mars. But then about 10 minutes after finishing breakfast, and with a bit of luck, I’m willing and able to do any number of challenging tasks.
So, what changed? In this case, it was primarily my levels of motivational energy, which is tightly linked to my circadian rhythm. If there’s enough interest, I will detail more of the fascinating sequence of neurotransmitter and hormonal changes when we wake or/fall asleep in a later article.
Intentional Mindset Change
And then there’s the bit the hustlers have been waiting for—the planned and directed mindset changes. Yes, we need not wait for a haphazard act of God—there are ways to pro-actively shift mindsets in precise directions.
As I mentioned before, this is far from being an exact science. But there are a variables we can manipulate so as to produce specific results with a certain level of reliability. The details of that process are quite involved, and best left to its own dedicated article, and is something I offer professional guidance with in my private business.
The important thing to know about changing mindsets in a predictable fashion, is that it takes time. Sure, you can shunt your physiology quickly, for example spiking your blood-sugar levels by binging on jelly beans, and this will give very short-term boosts to any physically energetic sort of mindset. Or a more familiar example is forcing yourself awake with caffeine.
But the deepest and hence most powerful component of mindset is the beliefs segment. It is generally very resistant to change; when it does change due to intentional and deliberate means, it happens slowly and gradually. And this is good, because if it were so easy to change all levels of a mindset we’d be wide-open to manipulation and our lives would be very unstable.
A term I’ve seen thrown around more lately is mindset evolution, which seems like an apt label for the process, at least in adults, since we do not do away with the old mindset completely, but instead keep nudging the old mindset incrementally toward the one we want.
- A mindset is a combination of pre-conceived beliefs, emotional state, thought processes, and then what behaviour one performs as a result of this. All these components can be changed, to varying extents.
- Mindsets can, and do, completely transform our experience of events and our performance of tasks. This generally happens automatically and without us consciously noticing.
- Although mindsets affect essentially all aspects of our outward life, some aspects of our inner life, such as identity or mental health condition, are unreceptive to mindset.
- We each go about our lives with our particular repertoire of favoured mindsets, that we consistently default to.
- Most of our repertoire was learnt long ago, subconsciously, and without us planning it or even having had any say in it.
- Not all mindsets are helpful. Those that are holding you back warrant an attempt to change it.
- Most mindsets changes happen haphazardly.
- Intentional and deliberate changes to mindsets are possible, but there are no quick fixes that deliver lasting reliable results.