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Every Time A MindSet Changes, An Angel Gets An Upgrade

   Its the holidays and time for repeated viewings of "Its A Wonderful Life" a movie about George Bailey, a generous man with dreams that are thwarted by world events and his own good nature who helps a novice angel get his wings. To do this George must experience what the world would be like if he had never been born, which reveals to him an entirely different way of seeing his very existence and the impact of his choices.  It is a story about mindset, how a creative experience - especially one that opens up a new way of seeing - can change it and how that shift in perception takes the same set of facts and redefines them. 
by Jude Treder-Wolff, LCSW, RMT, CGP
 This film still has currency but the world it depicts is gone forever because of technology. And as a person old enough to remember public phones and having to wait for the mail, I experience each new wave of technology the way George Bailey responds to that angel - with resistance and an irrational but very potent mocking skepticism. I usually start out keenly tuned to the pressures and blind to the potential of upgrades in technology. Each new pathway of communication feels like just another account to maintain, more messages to check and respond to which is stressful, at times to the extreme. But then there I am, standing in line at Bed, Bath and Beyond, responding to an important and time-sensitive email, the ease and agility of communication bringing me new business all the time and enormously helpful in maintaining relationships with existing clients. While I approach the demands of technology with a profound and somewhat paralyzing ambivalence there are those times I clearly see my reactionary resistance to for what it is: an ingrained mindset that has no intention of getting supplanted by an upgraded one so it rises up with a fierce indignant roar as the conditions that justified its sense of superiority fade into history.

    So my husband and I are in Chicago's Midway airport, about 6:30 pm on a recent Wednesday evening. We are finally seated at an actual restaurant, having waited a good hour after walking around to check out all of our choices and, honestly, kill time. Weather in many parts of the United States on this particular day is the kind of lousy that has flights to and from everywhere cancelled and delayed, which means the airport is teeming with a tense combination of tired people and uncertainty. Our flight to New York has been pushed back to 9 pm and it has already been a long day of travel from San Francisco. We are looking at a very late night and both have commitments early in the morning, so an actual dinner seems practical and a pleasant way to pass the time. 
    Now here's the things about mindset. I always put my Iphone in my pocketbook during meals unless I am alone. It is a value I hold, a personal belief about how to connect with

other human beings, especially my husband and other loved ones, a belief that impacts my behavior and priorities. Because it is a mindset, this behavior is not something I question. It is, in fact, behavior I tend to defend if anyone else questions it. But this day I did something different. I left my phone on the table, even though I insisted my husband put his away. And about a minute after we placed our order a text lit up the screen, a text telling us that our flight time had been moved up to 7 pm and had begun boarding. I had at some point in my relationship with Southwest Airlines - while no doubt 
filled with internal conflict about surrendering to an intrusive corporate overlord -  given them my cell number and checked the box requesting that the airline text me with important flight-related information. From my old mindset, my focus was on the threat of negative consequences - mainly telemarketers breaking through the last barrier to my illusion of privacy - more than the value of positive ones to that decision. In reality that automated text - which meant my husband and I were home by midnight and avoided all the attendant stresses of missing the last flight to New York that night - was just one of the positive outcomes of a choice that ran counter to my ingrained beliefs.
   A mindset is a way of looking at the world, an integration of beliefs, values and skills that is expressed in choices both small - like where we place our cell phone during meals, for example - and large, like the political party we feel an affinity to and support, or the big-money items in our budget. It is a combination of environment and social agreements and our own individual experiences, part nature, because we have innate preferences and talents, but a lot nurture because how well we "fit" with the world we are given determines how successful we can be within it.
Mindset is the soil in which new ideas and learning must take root. Carol Dweck's groundbreaking work on mindset identifies the differences between a "fixed" and "growth" mindset. With a "fixed" mindset "people believe that their basic qualities, like their intelligence or talent are simply fixed traits," like a frame that determines the shape of their life. With a "growth" mindset, people believe that even their most basic abilities can be developed and improved through hard work and effort. A "growth" mindset is a kind of psychological software that upgrades regularly and is okay with the idea that upgrades in thinking and even beliefs are a necessary and important element of a successful life. It is possible for a person to shift from a "fixed' to a "growth" mindset although it may not be easy. We can help and those in our sphere of influence make successful shifts in mindset by focusing on two interdependent dimensions:

Competence - we must believe we have the skills and knowledge to function and relate to the world, which is why we tend to cling to a view of it that matches our capability. Prior to a shift in mindset we may not see the point of what it is we have to learn. Like my "no phones during dinner no matter what" operating belief at a time when connection to technology turned out to be a game-changer - the new skills can make little sense and induce genuine discomfort. Environment is key to working with issues of competence. Creative experiences are almost always an opportunity to upgrade our competence because creativity is the power to engage with and shape the energy that produces change. Like learning scales on the piano or working small weights that build muscle for heavier lifting, we can develop cognitive and relationship skills that enhance the belief that we can hold our own when things change.  Gradual skill development and exposure to the worlds we want to enter pull us upward toward growth.

Belonging - The word "familiar" is rooted in the concept of "family" which is where we fit, the group that defines us. What is familiar feels "right" in many ways because it provides an intangible sense of belonging. Because change can be so threatening - and because our actual family did, in fact, supply us with both positive and negative ideas about our identity - a shift in mindset can feel for a time like traveling to a foreign country where we stand out and feel vulnerable. Upgrades may be net gains in the end but the process is emotional and destabilizing. A supportive emotional atmosphere in which to explore new competencies is key to staying the course through the threatening and lonely aspects of the process shifting out of what we know. We can develop a growth mindset the same way we learn how to use new technology, which is just as much about letting go of beliefs, priorities and sometimes the social environment that supported the old one. What feels familiar and where we "fit" can produce a paralyzing demand for a world that no longer exists, kind of like insisting we use a payphone with a big round dial on it in a 21st century city. 
  When we put in the effort to gain greater competence in some area of life - whether that be the intangible but very real good we realize through getting better at relationships, learning to listen and express thoughts and feelings with emotional intelligence, the thinking skills needed to navigate the networked world, or actual technical capability to keep pace with the evolution of technology - we experience the growth mindset in real time. Putting in the effort raises awareness of the possibilities that change can not only take root but make things better. Sometimes the results of working to overcome resistance show up in subtle shifts that have a sudden impact, like the night I placed my phone on the dinner table and therefore got the message my plane was boarding. 
  Creative experiences in group settings - groups that feature applied improvisation or action methods as a method for exploring our current mindset while engaging with new roles and ideas - combine the opportunity for gaining competence in a supportive atmosphere of belonging. Repeated exposure to creative environments strengthens the internal sense that we can not only manage uncertainty and stress but think effectively and problem-solve in the face of it. And like George Bailey at the emotional conclusion of "Its A Wonderful LIfe" seeing the same set of facts stack up to a different reality can be an upgrade in every experience of life.

    Jude Treder-Wolff, LCSW, RMT, CGP is a writer/performer, trainer and consultant. She is host and creator of (mostly) TRUE THINGS a storytelling slam with a twist.


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