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Exploring The Growth Mindset Through Applied Improvisation

The “growth” mindset builds on the idea that we can choose our attitude toward change and about what it means to fail or succeed. And that if we believe we can learn something new or develop a skill set that is needed to realize a goal, we will be more likely to stick with the process until we have mastered it. 
In Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, Stanford University researcher Carol Dweck writes that mind sets are powerful driver of perceptions about self and others as well as one’s capabilities and place in the world. “Mindsets frame the running account that’s taking place in peoples’ heads,” she states. “They guide the whole interpretation process.” Dr. Dweck’s work identifies 2 distinctly different mindsets that have the greatest implications to successful learning and change over the lifespan, the “Growth mindset” and the “Fixed mindset.”

by Jude Treder-Wolff LCSW, CGP, MT, CPAI
The Fixed mindset holds that our intelligence, talent and ability to change are fixed, and there is nothing we can do to expand them. Because of this perspective that our potentials are predetermined, failure and mistakes are viewed as very discouraging signs that we are inadequate, unlucky or just not cut out for success.

The Growth mindset holds that our intelligence, raw talent and potential are just a starting point, and and we can continue to develop them through learning and experiences. This perspective views failures and mistakes as proof that we are moving beyond what is safe and known, trying out new information and developing skills that require practice and diligence. We can achieve emotional, psychological and cognitive growth that results in enhanced stress resilience, greater overall well-being but even more remarkably, heightened intelligence.

In this workshop we are looking at 3 intersecting elements of the "growth" mindset: 
Brain Plasticity

BELIEFS are the underlying principles that shape our thinking and behavior. 
They are often unconscious or operate just below the level of awareness, and only emerge into the conscious mind when they are challenged in some way. Some underlying beliefs associated with the "fixed" mindset - and that impact the ability to learn and change include 
"If I am not good at something I should not do it at all" 

"Good things happen to good people, so if a bad thing happens to me I must have done something to deserve it;"  

"People in my family are natural winners (so if this is hard for me I cannot admit it);
"I'm not creative (or smart/ athletic/interesting etc;'
"Mistakes are a sign that I should not be doing this at all;"
"Failure means I should just stop;'
"The intelligence I was born with is as good as it gets."
"Talent is something you either have or do not have."

These and similar "fixed" mindset beliefs make it very difficult to manage failures, setbacks and struggles. 

The "growth" mindset operates from a different set of beliefs that can be learned. 
"I don't have to be naturally good at something to take the time to learn skills for getting better at it;" 
"Effort is more important than outcome - if I put the effort in I will learn this material/get better at this new thing;" 
"Good and bad things happen to all people, its what we do in response to it that really matters."
"Natural ability is just a starting point for success - what matters is effort to develop it."
"Mistakes are important for figuring out what works and what doesn't." 
"Failures are part of any learning curve and important ways to figure out what to do differently in future attempts."
“Creative thinking is a skill that I can develop”
"When I challenge myself my brain grows and my abilities grow with it."

BELONGING refers to a sense of our place in the world, the ability to make and sustain social relationships and handle ourselves in the environments we must navigate. Research discussed in the NY Times explored these issues among students at the University of Austin in Texas who were high achievers but came from challenging social environments and were dropping out at an alarming rate. Students who fell into the vulnerable groups were found to have negative thoughts about their place in the world of successful peers and about their own ability to improve. "The negative thoughts took different forms in each individual, of course, but they mostly gathered around two ideas," writes Paul Tough. "One set of thoughts was about belonging. Students in transition often experienced profound doubts about whether they really belonged — or could ever belong — in their new institution. The other was connected to ability. Many students believed in what Carol Dweck had named an entity theory of intelligence — that intelligence was a fixed quality that was impossible to improve through practice or study. And so when they experienced cues that might suggest that they weren’t smart or academically able — a bad grade on a test, for instance — they would often interpret those as a sign that they could never succeed. Doubts about belonging and doubts about ability often fed on each other, and together they created a sense of helplessness. That helplessness dissuaded students from taking any steps to change things."
Researchers David Yeager and George Walton at Stanford University — worked with University of Texas researchers to develop interventions for these at-risk students. They write that “seemingly ‘small’ social-psychological interventions-that is, brief exercises that target students’ thoughts, feelings and beliefs in and about school-can lead to large gains in student achievement and sharply reduce achievement gaps even months and years later. The interventions do not teach students academic content but instead target students’ psychology, such as their beliefs that they have the potential to improve their intelligence or that they belong and are valued in school.” 

These kinds of interventions are appropriate for clients across the lifespan because they promote the "growth" mindset which empowers individuals to persist and expand into the challenges of change. Improvisation provides uniquely effective creative experiences that meet the objectives of engaging the potential of brain plasticity, learning to think in new ways and embrace more adaptive beliefs, and increasing the sense of belonging and skills to sustain it.

BRAIN PLASTICITY: When we understand the way the brain works, we no longer connect our self-worth to whether things are easy or hard, or the discomfort of learning something new; We can give our brain a work-out by stretching our abilities and pushing ourselves to reach for goals that take us beyond our comfort zone, and develop the capacity to take on adversity and challenges as learning opportunities.
“Rather than think of the brain as a static organ, or one that just degenerates with age, it’s better understood as an organ that is constantly reshaping itself, is being continuously influenced, wittingly or not, by the forces around us. We can take responsibility for our own brains," writes Richard Dawson, author of The Emotional Life of Your Brain: How Its Unique Patterns Affect The Way You Think, Feel and Live- and how you can change them. "They are not pawns to external influences; we can be more pro-active in shaping the positive influences on the brain.” Creative, social-emotional experiences are linked to enhanced cognitive functioning. Improvisation is uniquely powerful for developing interpersonal skills that strengthen a person's ability to connect to others and find belonging in new groups and social environments. This combination makes the games and exercises used in Applied Improvisation essential tools for anyone working with people to help shift their mindset and embrace their potential.

Improv provides training for several evidence-based habits found to  enhance cognitive functions across the lifespan. 
In an interview about her research published in the journal Psychological Science, Dr Denise Park of the University of Texas at Dallas says, “It seems it is not enough just to get out and do something—it is important to get out and do something that is unfamiliar and mentally challenging, and that provides broad stimulation mentally and socially. When you are inside your comfort zone you may be outside of the enhancement zone." In his article "Eight Habits That Improve Cognitive Function" on Psychology Today blog, Christopher Bergland writes about studies that show evidence for the positive benefits of specific practices to make the most out of our brain's potential to grow and improve through experience. Among them are 4 key elements of improvisation:
  • Openness to experience
  • Curiosity and creativity
  • Social connections
  • Brain training games

Get participants to notice one another and say their names;
Set a tone of positive connection among the participants;

Participants stand in a circle. A player makes eye contact with someone in the circle and says "I'm ____ (name)." The recipient says "Hi, I'm _____," then makes eye contact with someone else, says "Hi, I'm _____" etc. The idea is to hear each person's name twice in quick succession. 
Round 2: A player makes eye contact with another participant, says their name followed by "Its so nice to see you today." That participant then passes this to another player and so on until everyone has been greeted and has extended the greeting.
Round 3: A player makes eye contact to another participant and says "don't be embarrassed if you forget my name is ______" and so on until everyone has extended this and received it.

Take focus in the group
Give focus to others in the group
Build up awareness of others in the group

In turn, each participant steps into the circle and shares a "fun fact" about him/herself. The group responds with an enthusiastic repeat of what the person shared and "wow, impressive." e.g. Player: "I have been to every state in the United States at least once." Group: "You've been to every state in the US at least once!! Wow. Impressive."

Round 2: In turn, players says "I don't want to brag, but I'm really good at ______ (baking gluten free treats, or coaching kids in soccer, or playing the piano).


Engage the group in a collaborative effort;
Engage the group in a social-emotional creative process;
Explore how to think about obstacles that come up in the course of trying to achieve a goal;
Explore how group support and belonging can shift a mindset about what it takes to achieve a goal;

A player leaves the room. The group determines 3 behaviors that will be required of the player as they attempt to cross the room from one end to another, which the group will communicate to the player in some way without naming them, e.g. "tap the top of your head, do a yoga pose, turn in a circle, look behind you." When the player returns, he/she begins at the starting point and when the group says "red light" must stop and stay in that place until he/she performs the behavior in response to cues from the group. Once the behavior is performed the group says "green light" and the player continues. 

Debrief: What was it like to just let the group guide you? What was it like to guide a player who is depending on you to move forward? How does this apply to how we might think about failures and setbacks which can sometimes be arbitrary and imposed by forces we cannot control.

2-person scene for character development:
Scene 1: 2 players sit facing each other. One person breaks some big news, and the partner can only listen. The only prompt for the first scene is that the sentence "you know how this family is" be spoken a few times in the context of this conversation.

Scene 2: Same set-up but in this scene the person breaking news must say "you know how people in this town are" several times in the context of the conversation. 

Scene 3: Same set-up but in this scene the person breaking news must says "you know how everyone in this sorority (or class or organization) is" in the context of the conversation.

Then switch it up. Return to each pair. In this round, the person who could only listen now can respond and the person who broke the news can only listen. Discuss the dynamic between the characters and their points of view. Talk about each character through the lens of mindset. Use the EMOTIONAL SQUARES exercise below to explore the character's beliefs, relationships, thoughts and feelings.


Emotional Squares is an exercise that explores an issue or problem by setting up quadrants, and assigning a specific emotion to each one. In this exercise, the quadrants are THOUGHTS, FEELINGS, BELIEFS, RELATIONSHIPS. A player stands in the THOUGHTS quadrant and improvises what his/her thoughts are having had this interaction in the scene. Another group member calls out "Change" and the players moves around the quadrant in a clockwise direction, to FEELINGS and speaks about the emotions of the situation, until a group member says "Change" when he/she moves to BELIEFS. The underlying beliefs revealed by this character's position in the dynamic of the relationship are then explored - the player can articulate them as the "fixed" mindset beliefs if the character evolved that ways, or as beliefs associated with the "growth" mindset. Upon the group's direction, the player can move to RELATIONSHIPS and think out loud about how relationships impact the change that is being discussed in the scene. Or the group can call out an emotion and the participant moves there. 

Go through this process with several characters that developed through the scenes, and explore their beliefs within the frame of the "fixed" and "growth" mindsets. Discuss what relationships mean to the character and how the change that was talked about in the scene would change them. 

Belonging is intimately linked with beliefs. A change in habits, behaviors and life circumstances can challenge beliefs that are part of deep bonds with family and friends. The link between belonging and beliefs can make change very challenging, if it threatens the foundations of interpersonal relationships and social networks. We can help clients and students sustain important change that impacts their sense of belonging, by teaching them the power they have to develop their brain through effort, push through discomfort, engage their creativity and connect to new, supportive networks. 

Jude Treder-Wolff, LCSW, CGP, MT, CPAI is a consultant/trainer, writer/performer, and President of Lifestage, Inc. She is host/creator of (mostly) TRUE THINGS, a game wrapped in a storytelling show performed on Long Island, in NYC and around the country. 


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