Just Who Do We Think We Are?

I read books—mostly fiction—like most of us eat popcorn: frequently, in large quantities, and without much chewing. But there’s one I’ve been slowly nibbling on that has affected me more than any other secular book I’ve read in 2018: Mindset by Carol Dweck. It’s changed the way I think, especially about my spiritual life.

Dr. Dweck, a psychologist from Stanford University, asserts that way people view their talents, personalities, and skills affects the way they approach almost every aspect of life. According to her theory, people adopt either a “fixed” mindset or a “growth” mindset. Those who take a fixed mindset approach—say, about learning to play the piano—believe that ability is static, that talent largely explains success. But those with a growth mindset believe that they can change—that effort will result in improvement. Dweck illustrates her theory with extensive research and neat anecdotes from the worlds of sport, art, education, business, and relationships.

To be honest, I almost stopped reading at the introduction because her idea was so simple. Most of us would say that a good attitude and hard work can get us places. But do we truly believe that? Dr. Dweck shows how insidious and damaging the fixed mindset can be.

Did you ever peg yourself as smart or dumb in school? It turns out that telling a student either can negatively affect learning. The handicap of a “dumb” label is obvious, but why is it so bad to believe you’re smart? It turns out that if a student believes she is innately intelligent, she will be less likely to attempt challenges. Her identity is wrapped up in that label, and she’s paralyzed by the need to maintain the illusion that she’ll always be good at… whatever it is: math, dance, or drawing.

Dr. Dweck writes, “Remember, in the fixed mindset, effort is not a cause for pride. It is something that casts doubt on your talent.” Success is supposed to look natural, effortless. Have you ever not done something because you didn’t want to fail? Have you ever ignored a failing because your ego wouldn’t let you see it? I sure have.

So while Dweck’s idea seems simple, I think we’re all guilty of the profound bias she describes. But if we believe her, we can open our eyes and make the change. Through the lens of a growth mindset, failures are learning opportunities; critique is no longer a crushing blow to our egos but rather a nudge toward new heights.

And speaking of failing, the ability some of us worry most about is our parenting ability. If you moms out there read the current parenting articles, you’ll know that “grit” and “perseverance” are the cool virtues to encourage in your kids these days. How? Most literature is vague. But I’ve really appreciated Mindset as a tool for coaching my kids.

The other day, my daughter wanted to write a book for a friend, but she was embarrassed about her spelling. “I’ll NEVER write a book. She’ll think I’m DUMD. I HATE writing!” If I hadn’t read Mindset, I might have told her that of course she was good at writing (which she wouldn’t believe and wasn’t strictly true) or let her throw the book in the trash can she was heading for. Instead, we had a nice conversation about effort and outcome. Boom. Look at me acquiring new parenting skills.

Although Dweck doesn’t, to my knowledge, apply her theory to spirituality, her ideas have enriched my approach to spiritual life. If I were to chart the way I feel about my soul, it’d be a zig-zag graph going between “good,” “evil,” and “ok.” But consider this quote from the Heavenly Doctrines:

At this day man believes all things to be in himself and from himself, when nevertheless they inflow, … that all good is from heaven, and all evil from hell. But if he would believe as the thing is, he would not appropriate evil to himself, but cast it back from himself into hell, neither would he make good his own, and thus would not claim any merit from it. How happy the state of man would then be, as he would view both good and evil from within, from the Lord. (New Jerusalem and its Heavenly Doctrines 277)

This, I think, illustrates the fixed versus growth mindset applied to our spirits. The hells want me to think that a) I’m so intrinsically great so that I need to reform or b) I’m so awful that I’m headed to hell no matter what I do. They want me to forget that the Lord keeps me free to choose and, most importantly, that He’s in charge.

There’s something profoundly freeing about the idea that I can change and that I don’t have to permanently identify with my current state, whether it be my drawing skills (decent), my ability to keep my temper at 4pm (not so hot), or my woodworking skills (nonexistent). If I want, I can put in the effort and change. Add to that the truths from the Word: that the Lord can change me if I seek the truth and practice His commandments. I appreciated this quote from Arcana Coelestia:

People who are being spiritually regenerated are gradually led away from an outward, morally correct life to a deeper, more spiritual one—one that comes closer to matters of doctrine that are divine. When they enter this state they are then led by the Lord into a still deeper state, that is to say, into a state in which they think that deeper things must lie within the Word of God which they do not as yet know. And when they read the Word in this state, they discover that every one of the Lord’s precepts contains within it things more heavenly still. (3690:4)

We can have a spiritual growth mindset: confidence that if we put in the effort to follow the Lord, He can lead us into deeper truth and change our hearts.

About Taryn Frazier

Taryn and her young family live in Pittsburgh, where her husband serves as pastor and principal in the New Church society. Taryn enjoys being a wife and a mother to three small kids. She enjoys building community, reading, being outdoors, and thinking about education--hers and the kids'.

5 thoughts on “Just Who Do We Think We Are?

  1. Such a helpful way to look at mindset. I could definitely work on being less fixed in many areas of my life. Thank you!

  2. That jumped out at me about it being possibly just as limiting to think “I’m smart or gifted” because of the hesitation to blow our image. I guess all people who create well have been willing to look stupid again and again, to take risks. Love it! And yes, I agree, it is so freeing to think how we can change.

  3. I can relate! I immediately thought of my dear 12-year-old son, when you spoke of labels like ‘dumb’ and ‘smart’ — he’s definitely not a risk-taker, bless his heart; and then I realised, or admitted, that he comes by it honestly, i.e. I have the same tendencies. Ahh, humanity! I really like how you connected it with spirituality, though, to help us recognise that we can *choose* good or evil actions, that we have that freedom and aren’t bound by any labels. Thanks for this insightful article, Taryn!

    1. So helpful in dealing with fixed mindsets in children as well as applying it to my own spirituality. I have 3 children with very strong wills and often I hear I can’t, or I’m too dumb etc. I really need to read the book.

      Thank you for an insightful article.

  4. Great article.

    Unless I am in error, there may be a typo in part of this sentence: The hells want me to think that a) I’m so intrinsically great so that I need to reform

    to should be no or that I need to reform could be changed to that I have no need to reform

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