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What I’ve learned about growth mindset from binging British reality TV competitions

Lately, I’ve been working on unhooking from praise and criticism in how I evaluate myself and my work. I’ve been examining my own unhealthy relationship to praise and how I’ve chased “gold star stickers” as validation for most of my life.

This started in elementary school when I would get praise for doing well academically. There’s a meme that made the rounds a few years ago that was so spot on for me, it made me cringe in recognition. 

Oh yes, all of the above. 100%

The challenges that “gifted and talented” kids face later in life can be explained by Carol Dweck’s work on growth mindset vs fixed mindset. A growth mindset is where you believe intelligence is malleable and can develop and grow over time. A fixed mindset is one where you believe intelligence is fixed and static. It turns out that  when we praise kids for specific abilities or achievements (“That was a great essay!”, “You’re so smart!” or “You’re such a good athlete!”) as opposed to attributes or intrinsic qualities (“Wow! I’m impressed at how hard you worked on that!” or “That was tough but I’m proud of how you stuck with it.”) we inadvertently stunt their growth mindset and drive them towards a fixed mindset. 

Ability-based praise leads kids to believe that labels like “you’re so smart” are true for them and these attributes quickly become part of their self-identity. While this doesn’t seem bad at first glance, when we attach too strongly to something as part of our identity/ego, we then become terrified of it being stripped away. This causes us to default to a fixed mindset in order to preserve our precious identity and we learn to fear the inevitable failures that come as part and parcel of a healthy growth mindset. If trying something and failing becomes something that threatens who we think we are, then failure becomes a painful ego distortion rather than a normal part of learning and growing. The result is that the kids who were praised for abilities are much less likely to want to try challenging tasks than the kids who are praised for attributes, and are more often up for a new challenge. 

As one of the “gifted and talented kids” my parents praised me up, down and sideways for my academic achievements. They bragged about it to friends. They told me I had such a bright future ahead of me as a result. They pulled me out of one school and put me into another to better match my intellectual prowess. It quickly became part of my identity and a great source of my self-esteem. 

However, the problem with self-esteem is this — what happens when we can no longer do esteemable things? What happens when for some reason or another, we can’t perform at the level that we’ve come to expect? 

Let me tell you, it feels like crap

It feels like shame

It feels like existential failure

This became suddenly and abundantly clear to me when I lost a good deal of my cognitive function due to “chemo brain” almost overnight. My memory, information processing abilities, recall, vocabulary, and other markers of intelligence were all severely impacted by chemotherapy and I found myself unable to be the “smart kid” anymore. How could I be the smart kid when I couldn’t even process what someone was saying to me, let alone remember any information that would help me craft a response? 

Common words eluded me. Facts and figures and ideas that I’d known by heart were murky at best. And my auditory processing was shot — if someone said something to me verbally rather than writing it down, I had no memory of it. Which made me feel like an idiot when I couldn’t remember something they’d said to me mere hours before. “Don’t you remember? We JUST talked about this, Megan.” 

It was a huge slap in the face. And while I’ve recovered a good deal of my cognitive abilities, they’re still not what they used to be. But that sudden loss allowed me to look at my core identity as “the smart one” and how deeply it had been ingrained in my sense of self and ego. Only then could I look at whether that served me or not, and make some conscious decisions about what I wanted my self-concept to be. 

So, what’s the antidote to this relentless quest for the gold star fix? And what does it have to do with British reality TV? 

I realized after chemo brain hit me hard that I needed to shift my identity to be about attributes rather than abilities. For example, I have a thirst for knowledge and a love of learning rather than “I’m smart.” Or, I am compassionate, curious and open-minded about those in my life rather than “I’m a nice person.” Can I love reading and not be smart? Sure can! Can I be compassionate with someone’s suffering and still have good boundaries and say no? You betcha. 

During the pandemic, I’ve been binge watching two British reality TV competitions: “The Great British Bake Off” and “The Great Pottery Throwdown.” These shows touch me in a way that I couldn’t quite name until one recent episode of “Pottery Throwdown.” One of the contestants, Roz, was asked to do a task that was way out of her wheelhouse. She finished the task but came in last in the judging. As she’s speaking to the judges about coming in last she says she’s embarrassed. Keith, one of the judges, looks at her with tears in his eyes and says, “Never feel embarrassed, Roz.” 

What he’s saying to Roz here is that she should be proud of herself, she should be proud of her attributes of persistence, resilience and grit rather than be embarrassed about her abilities (or lack thereof) at this specific task. You can see the interaction here: 

 

My love of these British reality competitions comes from the culture on these shows of being proud of trying your best, going out of your comfort zone, and being resilient and gritty. These are valued more on these shows than whether you came first or last. It’s not about the gold star or the winner’s ribbon, that’s just icing on the cake. (Yes, I made a baking pun, just for you my fellow GBBO fans.) The core values of these shows are about how extraordinary it is for people to show up with uncertainty, put in the effort, and try something new without knowing how it will turn out.  

No wonder I love these shows, they’re models of growth mindset that I desperately need. They feed the part of me that wants to see this in action, the part of me that wants to soak up all of these examples of how to value attributes rather than abilities like a sponge so I can turn around and do the same for myself and others. 

Here’s my challenge for you this week — try to think of a time when someone praised you for your attributes rather than your abilities. What did they say? How did it feel? 

If you can think of one, please comment on this post or email me at megan@megancaper.com and tell me about it. Like I said, I need more models and ideas for how I can do this more for myself. 

Xo Megan

P.S. For more on this subject:

Tara Mohr “Playing Big”

Carol Dweck “Mindset”

Alice Miller “Drama of the Gifted Child”

The secret to being a better person and improving your relationships

I’m going to let you in on a secret for how to be a better person. It’s easy, fast and has been scientifically proven to improve your relationship with yourself and others.

It’s called Mettā meditation.

I first came across Mettā, or Loving Kindness, meditation years ago when I was first studying Buddhist meditation. The first time I practiced it, I was blown away by the effect it had on me. My whole physiology changed. It’s a simple meditation where you send heart energy outwards, but sometimes the simplest things are the best. It has greatly changed how I view myself, my friends and family ones, and even strangers. Simply put, it has made me a happier, better person.

Mettā meditation is a simple, guided meditation that has profound effects when done on a regular basis. According to an ancient Buddhist texts, the Pali Canon, if you do Mettā meditation regularly, it has some pretty awesome side effects:

One sleeps easily, wakes easily, dreams no evil dreams. One is dear to human beings, dear to non-human beings. The devas protect one. Neither fire, poison, nor weapons can touch one. One’s mind gains concentration quickly. One’s complexion is bright. One dies unconfused and – if penetrating no higher – is headed for the Brahma worlds.

Now, I can’t really attest to the fact that “neither fire, poison, or weapons” can touch me after practicing this type of meditation, but I can tell you that my capacity for being open hearted and loving with myself and others has increased more than I could have imagined.

It’s really not hard to do. Here are instructions for a simple Mettā meditation practice. (I’ve recorded a more in depth version of this meditation that you can access for free ***here***, if you’d prefer to listen along as I guide you.)

  • Sit or lie down somewhere where you wont be disturbed for about 15 minutes.
  • Close your eyes and feel your heart filling with love and compassion.
  • Imagine this love and compassion as a light building in your heart. Give the light a color.
  • Imagine someone you love dearly standing in front of you. Send them the light from your heart while you send them the prayer:

May you find happiness and the causes of happiness

May you be free from suffering and the causes of suffering

  • Now imagine someone who is an acquaintance. You know there name and a little bit about them, but you don’t know much about the details of their life. Imagine them standing in front of you and send them the prayer:

May you find happiness and the causes of happiness

May you be free from suffering and the causes of suffering

  • Next, imagine a stranger. It could be someone in your town or halfway around the world. Bring a detailed image of them to your mind and say:

May you find happiness and the causes of happiness

May you be free from suffering and the causes of suffering

  • Finally, imagine someone who has hurt you or wronged you. That person also has had good days and bad, experienced love and loss, just like you. See if you can open your heart and tell them:

May you find happiness and the causes of happiness

May you be free from suffering and the causes of suffering

  • Now see your heart fill to capacity and beyond with love and the wish for all beings to be happy. Send this love from your heart to the world, see all the people on this planet striving to find happiness and avoid suffering. Send them your love.
  • Slowly open your eyes and notice how your heart is still filled with love and compassion.

This is a great meditation to do in the morning as it starts you out with such a good vibe for the day. There’s nothing better than going through your day shining your light on everyone you encounter and giving them the gift of love and compassion.

Xoxo

Megan

Three ways to turn off your inner critic

My inner critic likes to try to bring me down.

“What if you really suck at that? You should just give up now.”

“Do they really want to hang out with me? Maybe they’re just being nice.”

“I can’t even compete. Look at how amazing everyone else is. I’ll never succeed.”

Etcetera, Etcetera, Etcetera.

Sigh. Why does she talk to me like that?

We all have inner critics saying variations of the same things. So, what can we do? Here are three ways I’ve found to shut that voice down and feel better about myself.

1. Realize that EVERYONE has an inner critic.

Oprah? Has an inner critic. Tim Ferris? I’ve seen him talk about his inner critic! Jennifer Lawrence? Inner critic, I guarantee you. That person you feel you can’t compete with because they are so awesome? Super crazy inner critic.

Just like everybody poops, everybody has an inner critic. So, when you feel intimidated by someone or like you can’t compete, try to remember that they are struggling with the same thing you are. You are completely, wonderfully, perfectly normal for feeling like this. It’s part of the whole human experience shtick. You are an amazing, deserving, loving person just like everyone else, despite what your critic says.

2. That’s the hurt part of you talking. Ask why he or she is saying those things.

Sometimes I get into a loving dialogue with my inner critic. I know that that voice comes from a place that feels hurt, sad or less than. When I’ve asked my inner critic why she says these things, I’ve heard some interesting answers.

“I’m just trying to keep you from making a mistake and feeling disappointed.”

“If you truly believe that he loves you, you’ll have to give up the self concept that you’re unlovable.”

“If you don’t rock the boat, you’ll be less likely to alienate people.”

3. Understand that what the inner critic is saying is likely from an old tape loop that’s playing over and over, but isn’t relevant to who you are now.

You’ll notice that there are themes to what our inner critic says and the particular times he or she pops up to whisper nasties in our ears. If you look at that what and when you hear your inner critic, you’ll see some patterns.

Is it around work? When? Is it talking to bosses? Or when you want to share an idea? Is it around friends? Or in your romantic relationships? Look to see if you can spot the patterns.

Then ask yourself, “Is that true about me? Was it ever true about me?” Sometimes you’ll find that your inner critic has latched on to an old narrative. For example maybe you didn’t have many friends in high school. But now you do, so why is the critic still making you feel insecure around your friends? Or maybe you had a terrible relationship with your father and felt like you disappointed him, and now you feel that way about any boss or person in charge.

If you do find these patterns, here’s an exercise to help let them go.

Sit quietly and close your eyes. Imagine your inner critic sitting across from you. They may look like you or they may look entirely different. Ask them for a peace treaty. Tell them you want to come to an agreement about your highest good. Tell them that you want to find happiness and the causes of happiness and they are running a script of an old unhappiness that isn’t true anymore. (Note: at this point, they may rant and rave about how you don’t deserve happiness. That’s fine, that’s just what they do. If this happens, send them pure love and ask them once again to listen.) Show them what you know in your heart – that you are a kind, amazing, passionate person who is looking for success, happiness and human connection. Ask for their help in achieving this. Tell them it’s only sapping the energy you could be putting toward finding these things when you have to rehash old patterns or old hurts through their criticisms. Ask them if you can leave the past in the past, and live in the now. See them nod in agreement. It’s time to move on. Take a deep breath again, and open your eyes.