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The Power of Belief in Learning

When I was a kid, I really wanted to be a professional musician.

I started playing  drums in the school band when I was in 5th grade, and by the time I was 16, I was serious. I had started my own band. I took lessons weekly with a professional drummer. I used to love mastering the highly technical aspect of drum technique: flams, paradiddles, flam paradiddles – flamadiddles, those of us in the know would call them.

I practiced daily, often for hours at a time.  It drove our next door neighbor crazy – she still mentions is almost every time I bump into her.

I even talked my grandparents into buying me a piano because I thought that I would go to music school, and no matter what instrument you play, most music schools require you to study some piano as well.

When it came time to look at colleges. I did, in fact, look at music schools. I even traveled out of state to visit a couple. I thought I was on the path to a career as a musician.

And then, I wasn’t.

At the time, I really didn’t know what changed my mind.

At the time, maybe I just didn’t want to think about it. But, at some point, I simply gave up on the music school idea, on the career as a musician.  I went off to a standard liberal arts college.

I left the band behind. My family got rid of the piano.

A year or so later, I sold my drum set because I no longer had a place to keep it. And it’s now been three decades since I played the drums.

We all come to forks in the road like the one I’ve described here. Places where we have to make big choices. And though we rarely think of it this way, the choices we make are nearly always determined by our belief in our ability to learn what we must learn to succeed.

Only now, with the luxury of hindsight and experience can I see why I chose not to pursue a career as a musician.

I made the choice I made because I didn’t embrace what I now see as one of the fundamental disciplines of the true learning mindset: belief.

Take a moment and consider the following two statements:

  • I have a certain amount of intelligence, and I can’t really do much to change it.
  • I can always substantially change how intelligent I am.

These are the kinds of statements asked repeatedly of individuals over many years of research by Stanford professor Carol Dweck and her colleagues.  [Mindset, 17]

Early in her career, Dweck became intrigued by how people approach solving complex problems and responding to failure. She tells the story of an experiment she conducted early in her career in which she brought children one-by-one into a room where she had them work on a series of puzzles. The puzzles were designed to get harder and harder and the point was to see how the children would behave as the degree of difficult increased. While some kids struggled, got frustrated, and even gave up.  A few of the kids really seemed to relish the challenge. “I love a challenge!” one of them exclaimed as he dug into another puzzle. As Dweck puts it,

These were kids who were not discouraged by failure. In fact, they didn’t even think of themselves as failing. They thought they were learning. [Mindset, 4]

The same thing, of course, happens with adults. We all tend to bring a certain mindset to learning. Some of us have what Dweck has described as a “growth” mindset. We believe our intelligence and our abilities are malleable. It is simply a matter of effort, of practice, of perseverance.

But others of us have a “fixed” mindset.  We believe that our ability to learn is limited, or the areas in which are capable of learning are limited.

These mindsets are so wired into us that research has shown them to be observable in our brain activity, in the waves our brains as we react and respond to learning challenges.

You can imagine the different results the two mindsets might produce.

The growth mindset – is the foundation not just for success, but for much deeper fulfillment in life.  The other – the fixed mindset – doesn’t necessarily bar us from success in the conventional sense, but it does limit how we experience success. And it limits what we can ultimately achieve because determines what we think we can learn.

So, what do you believe?

Do you believe you have a certain amount of intelligence, certain fixed capabilities, and can’t do much to change them?

Or do you believe you can always learn and change substantially?

It matters, deeply, when it comes to how available you are for learning and how motivated you will be to learn.

Belief can be a tricky thing, though, because it usually doesn’t apply uniformly across our lives. Chances are you do believe there are certain areas of your life in which you can change and grow, and other areas in which you can’t. I did not fully believe, for example, in what I could achieve as a musician, but I never doubted my ability to become a better and better writer. We have to cultivate an understanding, through ongoing self-observation and reflection – of where we have a growth mindset, and where we done – and work to shift our mindset in places where it matters.

Another tricky thing about belief, is that it does not come entirely from within.

In many cases, our belief – or lack of belief – in ourselves is heavily influenced by others. We may or may or may not be conscious of it, and we may not even be able to say exactly who these “others” are.

Think, for example, of the view that has persisted for so many years that girls are not as good as boys at math. This type of belief is particularly dangerous because it can impact how the people subject to the belief – girls – see their own abilities. Worse, research shows it can do this at an emotional level, often acting below consciousness. A specific girl may in fact perform worse at math than she is capable of performing simply because she has unconsciously absorbed this bias. That, in a word, is tragic.

Maybe you have a daughter, granddaughter, or sister. Or, if not, just think of a little girl you know. Personally, I have a young daughter who seems to love math and is very good at it. I want to be sure she never is led to believe she is inferior.

I want to sure, too, that neither you nor I ever accept the belief that we cannot continue to learn, grow, and improve tremendously as we age.

The old saw about not being able to teach an old dog new tricks is simply untrue – what we have learned about the brain over the course of recent decades tells us that it continues to change and reorganize in remarkable ways as we age. That our brains retain significant plasticity, to use the word that neuroscientists use. But if we don’t understand this is true. If we don’t believe that we that we can continue to grow and learn, the chances that we will drop dramatically.

Yes, it is true that some portion of our learning capabilities is genetic. We each have unique capabilities and face our own specific challenges. But we continue to find evidence that mindset often trumps DNA. We must strive to be alert to our own mindset and to the ways that outside forces may impact it.

And, we must continually ask ourselves, do I believe?

About the Author Jeff Cobb

I am an avid lifelong learner who writes and speaks frequently on the critical role of learning in our fast-changing world.

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1 comment
Deluar Hossain says

Belief is most powerful for our life. This is a nice content. Thank you.

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