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WHY IS EFFORT MORE IMPORTANT THAN OUTCOME? Because the improviser's mindset is the growth mindset

by Jude Treder-Wolff-LCSW, CGP, MT

Mindset, according to researcher Carol Dweck, is the mental frame that keeps "a running account" of how we are doing, especially when involved with an effort to learn something new or change a habit. Students in school are continuously judged and evaluated by outcome - i.e. test scores - and adults by productivity. We internalize this outcome-focused mindset simply by its pervasiveness in a culture that can make us feel inadequate by comparison to others' fabulous facebook posts or number of Instagram followers. The "growth" mindset, according to a robust body of research, has a lasting impact on both children and adults' ability to stick it out through the tough parts of a learning process and keep going far beyond one's comfort zone in order to reach a goal. 

    One of the core thinking skills in this mindset is focusing on the effort and commitment toward a specific goal, not on the performance itself. When we are learning unfamiliar material, developing a new role or trying to change a habit, existing neural pathways are still dominant and will find ways to pull us into the momentum of the past. There are always setbacks to creating momentum in a new direction; a growth mindset means we accept this as part of the creative process of change, and applaud ourselves for every effort. Like learning scales on the piano in the effort to gain muscle memory and master a difficult piece of music, the performance is a result of the quality of our efforts.  The effort is far more important as a measure of how we are doing, and this focus increases the likelihood of success when the time comes to showcase our abilities.

  From the growth mindset we think about strategies that workaround existing mental patterns. And we do not judge ourselves for having these mental patterns in the first place - they are the infrastructure of our brain's ability to learn and manage complex layers of meaning and experience.

    The rapidly accelerating pace of change in our time brings ground-breaking and truly exciting technology into our daily experience that would have been viewed as magical to human beings at any other time in history. But it also brings about an abiding sense of uncertainty and tension. We do not know exactly where things are headed, but at the same time we have goals for learning and change that are essential to keep up with this brave new world, and make the most of its opportunities while staying healthy, mentally and physically. From a growth mindset, we are always dynamically engaged with the effort to adapt and discover what is just around the corner in life. The outcome is an overall sense of well-being born of the skills we need to make the most out of what life offers.

Tensions and uncertainty are also core aspects of the creative process, and so the most direct pathway to shifting our mindset is a creative one.

Shifts happen through experiences that:
  • take us beyond our comfort zone;
  • stretch out existing skills and knowledge;
  • call upon a less-developed part of self;
  • require a commitment to the effort in the moment;
  • are dynamic and therefore unknowable in terms of outcome;
When we cannot know exactly how something will play out and engage with it moment to moment - as in any good game - we have to let go of control. After the experience, we can step back to examine how it felt, what worked, and why. This process trains us to a mindset that will help us power through stressful circumstances because the focus is on the effort, on how committed we are to the new skill in responding to the challenges of the moment. We evaluate the strategy, not our vulnerable self, nor the heightened emotions that are part of taking creative risks. With this mind and skill set, we have a way to navigate through high-pressure situations that maximizes the possibilities of any set of circumstances in which we find ourselves.

    A improviser's mindset is making the most out of what is offered, and accepting the uncertainty and tension of now knowing what will happen next. To live in the psychological space of the improviser is to say “yes” to what life offers up, which is not to say we approve of, agree with or even like it. “Offers” are everything that impacts us, including but not limited to other peoples’ behavior, policies imposed by an employer, traffic, forces of nature, the price of gas. Offers are what we are given. Our “yes” is an open attitude to the truth of it.
 This “yes” has nothing to do with making a positive judgment about things. It is not about giving approval, or expressing an emotion. It is not a “like” as on facebook. What this “yes” implies is a state of mind that takes in the truth of what is happening without judgment, an acceptance of the moment as it occurs. It requires listening. This “yes” is a connection with what is. To live in that mindset is to engage with what we are given, no matter how dark or devastating and through doing this raise the possibility, no matter how remote, of building on it in order to respond consciously and creatively. “Yes…and” simply means we comprehend and recognize what is happening, and are responding in way that shapes the outcome toward something we do approve or, agree with or life. It can become a mental habit that is foundation for a creative approach to life at a time of great change and possibility.

Jude Treder-Wolff, CSW, CGP, MT is a consultant/trainer and writer/performer. She will offer the working Changing Mindsets: Creative Strategies Through Applied Improvisation on Sat. Feb. 20, 1-5 pm. Read more or register. 


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