In the previous post on the topic of growth mindset, I introduced the reader to two types of mindsets that we have. The fixed and the growth. To recap the growth mindset believes that attitudes and beliefs can directly influence our ability to learn new skills and improve our lives. The fixed mindset on the other hand doesn’t look to evaluate and make changes to its attitudes and beliefs. It accepts that it’s at a certain set point and doesn’t go out of its way to challenge the status quo.
Perhaps the most obvious area where growth mindset and fixed mindsets come into conflict is in the area of things that don’t go as we intend. The two mindsets experience difficult circumstances differently. Circumstances are a part of this thing we call life. These are the situations that crop up and go against our plans and wishes. It’s a universal experience and I don’t need to belabor the point. Since we all face issues why are some people able to seemingly roll with the punches of life and others are beaten down by them? Why is it that some face situations like disease and maintain a positive outlook on life? Why do some people no matter their circumstances always seem to be distraught and at their wit’s end?
To Respond or React
The answer to that question, I believe, is how the person chooses to look at their circumstances. There’s a saying that you may have heard that says “Life is 10% what happens to us and 90% how we respond to it.” I know from personal experience that when I live through a situation with fear and worry I feel anxiety and stress. Anxiety makes my mind race thinking about all of the things that could go wrong. It ruins the quality of my sleep and lowers my energy and focus, reducing my willpower to keep the issue out of my mind and creates a vicious cycle. On the other hand, having the confidence that I can handle it, I don’t pay it much mind. I’m calm and ready to take it on. The situation is the same, but the experience is different, and the results are wildly different.
Why is that? Why does the attitude about the situation create a wildly different experience? In order to determine why that is, there’s one word in that saying that we need to look at. That word is ‘respond’. Why is ‘response’ used here and not ‘react’? There is a subtle difference in meaning of the words respond and react. Think of response as a deliberately chosen answer. It is, by nature, deliberate. A reaction, conversely involves no thought. It’s an unconscious action. Think of response as choosing from a multiple choice list. (Here is an example from the movie ‘Terminator’.) A reaction on the other hand looks like this chemical reaction. When baking soda and vinegar are put together the result is carbon dioxide. It’s going to automatically create this, there’s no other possible outcome.
By choosing how we interpret the circumstances we experience we allow ourselves the potential to have a life that’s full of all of the good things that bring what we want. If most of us were to react with our default programming, that wouldn’t be such a great experience. Most people in society do not have their default mode set to look for solutions. Most people are set to a default of complaint, dissatisfaction, and frustration. Choosing a different response will give different results.
In this life everyone experiences circumstances that don’t go the way they want them to. Whether it’s something universal like emotional pain, such as the loss of a loved one, or it’s something more personal, like being in a car accident, there are things we all deal with. The critical aspect to these circumstances is how we deal with it. The mindset behind dealing with life’s circumstances begins with how we look at the issue. The words we use to describe the circumstance will directly influence how we experience the circumstance. The ‘goodness’ or ‘badness’ of a circumstance is not in the circumstance, rather it is in how we choose to view it.
The Power of Words
Thus far I’ve been using the word ‘circumstance’ to describe the events of life. I’ve used it because it is a word that doesn’t have a connotation behind it. The definition of circumstance is a fact or condition connected with or relevant to an event or action. The meaning of the word is benign. It doesn’t connote anything positive or negative. It’s simply a factual statement. There are other words that people use to describe their circumstances that don’t have quite the same middle of the road appeal. One of those loaded words that I hear often that is used instead of circumstances is the word ‘problem’. The definition of problem: (n) – a matter or situation regarded as unwelcome or harmful and needing to be dealt with. Problems are unwelcome, they’re harmful, and they need our attention. This is a word loaded with connotation if I’ve ever heard one! Do you see how the use of language impacts how you experience things? Problems and circumstances bring up differing emotions in my mind. When I think of the word ‘problems’ I think of things that are not right. I think of things that are not in a state of alignment to my desires.
A word that I find more useful when describing my circumstances is the word “challenge”. Challenge, used as a noun is defined as a call to take part in a contest or competition, and as a verb it means to test the abilities of. As a person who has participated in sports my entire life I am quite accustomed to a challenge. In school they test abilities. We have been facing challenges our entire lives, and thus far, we’ve passed them all. How do I know? Because we’re here, we’re still alive. When I am challenged I view it as a test. One might say God or the universe is testing me. Framing circumstance as a test can bring you back to all of the tests you have passed up to this point in life. You can summon the self-confidence you have developed and go about looking for ‘answers’ to the test. I think that challenges can be used to bring out the best in us. They can bring out the will to compete and the will to show our mettle. Just like in school you need to know the answers to the test. In life, you can find the answers to your challenges too. I find the mindset that challenge brings to be much more empowering than the mindset that problems bring. Problems are unwelcome, unpleasant, and harmful. They’re things to be avoided. Challenges on the other hand are opportunities to find solutions and pass the test. Passing the test builds character and self-esteem. The more tests and challenges that you can overcome you can build up a reservoir of self-confidence and self-esteem that will serve to create a virtuous cycle to build upon.
You might be reading this and thinking “ok, challenge or problem or circumstance, I get it. But why does it matter? Why is the word that I use important? What difference does it make?” That’s a fair question. I get it. Before I understood the power that my words use to frame my thinking I didn’t pay attention to what I said or thought. Allow me to reveal why our words matter.
I want you to think a recent big ticket purchase you made. Maybe it was a car. Maybe you went on a vacation to somewhere exciting and new. If the big ticket purchase you’re thinking of is a car I will bet my house that once you bought that car, you started seeing your same car on the road everywhere you went! I’ll bet you started to notice that your model car was everywhere in your area. If you already went or have purchased a vacation I’ll bet you have begun to notice that destination showing up everywhere. You’re likely seeing photos of it in your Instagram feed, you’re meeting people and they’re telling you about their trip to that location, you’re even noticing it in the tv shows and movies you’re seeing lately. Why is that? Why do suddenly start seeing the thing we have invested so much time and energy in suddenly appearing? It’s not because the car manufacturer suddenly dropped a massive shipment in your area and it’s not because the vacation destination suddenly became the number one destination in the world.
The reason lies inside of your brain. It is what’s known as the reticular activating system and it lies in your brainstem. It serves to filter out the things we see and hear that are important to us. Our senses take in an extraordinary amount of data and the reticular activating system serves to filter out the non-important so that we can catch what’s important to us. For example, have you ever been in an airport terminal and hear the agent over the PA paging a passenger? How often can you actually understand what they are saying? Never, right? Now, have you ever heard your name or someone in your travelling party’s name paged? Suddenly the PA system becomes much clearer. You can thank your reticular activating system for that. It allows us to become aware of the things that we put our focus on. This part of our brain serves as proof that what we think about and put our focus on shows up in our lives.
The reticular activating system is proof that what you put your energy into is what you experience. And by using the word ‘problem’ to describe circumstances you, by the very laws of the universe, are going to focus your attention on the unwelcome and harmful. More problems are going to show up in your life. I guarantee that. Let me say that again: by using the word ‘problem’ to describe the circumstances you are facing you are going to have more problems show up in your life. On the other hand, viewing circumstances as challenges, can put us in the mental space for taking them on. The mindsets produce very different experiences.
How do we set ourselves up for success then? How do we use the words to produce the results we are after? First of all, we need to become aware of the words we are using. As mentioned in the ‘problems’ and ‘challenges’ example we need to evaluate the words we speak. Once we do that we can begin the next part of the exercise. That is to ask ourselves questions that will prime us to look for solutions rather than problems.
Two Minds: Conscious and Subconscious
At this point I need to introduce another topic. I need to introduce the topic of the subconscious mind. We have our conscious mind and we have our subconscious mind. The conscious mind is responsible for, among other things, directing our focus and its ability to imagine that which is not real. The conscious mind is what we go around using when we live our daily lives. Think of the conscious mind as a software developer. The conscious mind is the input that the developer puts in to the program. The subconscious mind then takes that program and runs it like it was the computer. Just like a computer runs the software and executes its commands, the subconscious mind takes the programs that the conscious mind puts into it and runs them. The subconscious mind doesn’t know whether those programs are good or bad. It simply runs them. The subconscious mind is the computer that runs the programs we put into it. It is the computer that runs our lives. My father used an expression when I was a kid when he wanted me to be mindful of the things I was watching and reading. He used to say “Garbage in, garbage out.” I was too headstrong to listen and definitely too ignorant to know the underlying meaning of his statement. What he was referring to was this exact process of the input (the books and shows I watched) being garbage and directly creating the output in my life. Now that I am older and wiser, I understand what he was saying all those years ago.
How do we apply this “garbage in, garbage out” idea? It starts with the things we allow in our environment. It’s the books we read, shows we watch, conversations we have, and things we listen to. All of these things go into our brain and they form what we think about. We think about them and we start to focus on them.
Ask a better question
Another area where it affects us is the internal dialogue we carry on in our brains and the questions we ask ourselves. Remember how what we think about and focus on is what shows up thanks to our reticular activating system. The questions we ask ourselves direct that focus. Below we have examples of questions and answers that someone might ask themselves based on their circumstances. The first set of questions are examples of what someone who views their circumstance as a problem to be avoided might ask. The second set are questions that someone who looks at circumstances as a challenge to be overcome would ask. Take a look at the answers that are produced by asking these questions.
Circumstance 1: You are overweight.
Question: Why can’t I lose weight?
Answer Because I’m out of control. Because I’m lazy. Because my environment. Because I was born this way. Because I’m not supposed to be fit. Because I’m not important. Because I don’t deserve to look like an underwear model.
Question: How can I lose weight?
Answer: I can change my eating and exercise habits. I can log what I eat so that I become aware and can change it. I can begin an exercise program.
The first question focuses on ‘can’t lose weight’ and the answers come from the thought process that I can’t lose weight. The answers are all going to be driven to my inability to lose weight. They are going to look for reasons why I am unable to do it. Depending on the frame of mind that the person has they may bring up emotions around fear and lack of self-worth. Fear and self-worth are two things that everyone faces. The second question focuses on ways to lose weight. It looks for solutions to find ways to lose weight and then the mind creates them.
Circumstance 2: You are experiencing too much month at the end of your money
Question: Why am I always broke?
Answer: You’re broke because you don’t make enough money. You’re broke because you made a bad decision last year and owe money. You’re broke because you’re not good enough to be wealthy.
Question How can I earn more money to cover my expenses?
Answer: I can cut back on expenses that don’t bring me joy. I can find a part time job. I can find a side hustle. I can invest in myself so I can learn a new skill. I can manage the money I do have better.
Again, question one focuses on looking for reasons why you’re in your current state. Question two focuses on how to change your current state.
Circumstance 3: You find yourself falling into the same destructive behavior again?
Question: Why does this always happen to me?
Answer: This happens because you don’t have self-discipline. This happens because you have no control over your life. This happens because you’re stupid. This happens because of someone else’s fault.
Question: What can I do to get out of this situation?
Answer: I can go talk to the person I am in conflict with. I can change my behavior. I can seek professional advice on how to do things differently.
The question of “why am I” or “why can’t I” is going to put the subconscious mind into the mode of looking for reasons to justify why you are where you are. The question of “how can I” directs the subconscious mind to look for solutions. Again, the subconscious mind is a computer running the program that the conscious mind programs into it, it doesn’t know whether your current situation is desirable or undesirable. It simply does whatever the conscious mind tells it to do.
If you desire to change your circumstances, which type of question is going to lead to actually changing it? Will a ‘why can’t I’ question make it better? Or will a ‘how can I’ question make it better? Will the program of focusing on the situation change it? Or will focusing on creating a solution change it? Which way of looking at circumstances will give you the right kind of question so that you can change your circumstances?
Clearly, reacting to situations and describing them as problems will lead you to view them as problems. It will cause the mind to ask questions that focus on the situation. Those questions will, in turn, continue to have you focus on the situation thus giving you more of what you have, not what you want.
When viewing circumstances as a challenge to be overcome and directing your thoughts and internal questions to solving those challenges, then the answers to the challenges will surface. With the answers you can then change your circumstances. You can solve them and live the life that you desire.
Let this example show you why it is critical to view circumstances as challenges to overcome, as opportunities to learn from and obstacles that will make you grow. Having a mindset that takes on challenges will unequivocally give you better results and move you forward. The importance of our response to circumstances cannot be overstated. This is why life is only 10% what happens and 90% how we respond to it.
The choice is now yours. Will you choose your response or will you accept default mode? I leave that to you.