Friday, January 16, 2009

When the student is ready...

From this site.

I am currently reading a book that I believe will change my life.

Considering the years I have spent reading self-help and how-to books, believe me when I say that I do not make this claim lightly.

The book is called Mindset by Carol Dweck, Ph.D, and it's about, well, your mindset and how it can help or hinder your efforts at success. She writes about two main mindsets—the “fixed” mindset which is the belief that talent is either there, or its not, and effort cannot change that; and the “growth” mindset that values hard work and sustained learning more than talent.

You can guess which one I have.

See, from an early age, certain things have come easily to me, and these are the things I have built my life around. Books, words, stories. I don't remember learning how to read, because I actually don't remember not knowing how to read. I adored school, adored the constant praise and steady stream of rewards. School was a place where I could be the best, unlike at home, where I was the far-behind youngest child.

Once I had a taste of being the best, well, I wanted to stay the best. And that meant avoiding anything that I wasn't immediately good at doing. I would tentatively try a new activity, and unless I showed unmistakable signs of genius, I would leave it alone. Because if you have to TRY, then it's obviously not in you.

I won't exactly say this attitude worked for me growing up, but I didn't challenge it because I was still doing well. I was still a straight A student in the subjects that mattered to me, still viewed as a girl with a great deal of potential. Potential was my very favorite word while I was young, and I wanted to stay potential forever. That way I could still see my future genius off in the hazy, pearly future—and not have to deal with the possibility that it wouldn't work out quite that way.

In college, I worked harder than I ever did in my life, but I couldn't seem to make headway in several subjects. I blamed this on the fact that my fellow students had grown up with much more enrichment (in all the ways that mattered)--better schools, more cultural capital, parents who were educated, money. It didn't dawn on me that I was still struggling with the central idea that “Either you have it, or you don't. Either you know it, or you never will.” I couldn't seem to learn, perhaps because I was afraid to make mistakes and then try again.

My professional life didn't work out much better. Again, people saw potential in me, and again I felt incapable of translating that potential into something concrete. I began to see myself as a failure, and stopped seeking career-level jobs. Instead, I worked clerical jobs that frustrated TEG, and others, who couldn't understand why I wasn't blazing some sort of creative trail.

Short answer: Because if I had to try, that very attempt would be an admission that I had no talent, and thus would never succeed.

My mindset changed briefly after Madam was born. Not only did motherhood come with its own steep learning curve, but the tasks were immediate and vital. I had to learn to feed her, soothe her, change her. I had no choice. And because I didn't have any weird beliefs about needing to be a “natural” mother, I was able to learn what I needed, for Madam's sake.
I don't think it's any surprise that the first year and a half of Madam's life were the most productive, creatively, of my life. The growth mindset carried over, briefly, into my writing. I started blogging and began to write fiction again for the first time in years.

But soon, I felt like I hit a plateau. How did I know if I was getting better? So many people were better than I was! And the worst part was: I could see good writing all around me, could even articulate what pleased me about it, but I couldn't learn it myself. I would see people turning their blogs into books, stretching their stories into novels, and I had NO idea how to do it myself. How to start, even. Because if I couldn't envision every step of the process, and couldn't come up with perfect ideas before touching fingers to keyboard, well, then...I needed to forget it.

Yep. The fixed mindset was back.

And so I've kept laboring under this desire to be prove brilliant, without taking the risk of actual work. I've read books and been unable to see past my own sickening envy.

Well, goodbye to all that. Goodbye to a rotten tooth of an idea that has spread its poison over my life for a good three decades. Goodbye to the idea that talent is uber-alles. After all, what really happens if I write a terrible novel? I waste my time? I waste finger energy? I'll be killed for Crimes Against Fiction?

So what?

I'm going to go slowly, and write without inspiration or pleasure until the inspiration and pleasure inevitably appear. I'm going to rewrite even when I am unsure exactly how to fix something. I'm going to be wretched, no doubt.

I cannot wait.

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Blogger Lisa said...

Good for you! I am so proud of you!

I understand completely the fear of doing things you won't immediately excel at. Seven years ago (when I was 40) I knew I needed to try something that I would most definitely not be good at and not only would I suck, but it would be impossible for me ever to be good. Why would I do that? I wanted to do it to learn humility, persistence and I wanted to learn to appreciate incremental improvement, even if it only meant I was getting less horrible at something. So I started taking adult beginner ballet classes. If you know anything about dance, I don't have to tell you how ugly, painful and humiliating it was, not to mention pretty pointless in many respects. But I kept at it with group and private lessons for about two years and I was pretty dedicated and I learned to be proud of myself and happy with small improvements and I learned not to care what anyone thought. It was possibly the best thing I ever did in my adult life.

You may want to consider the idea of trying something one day that there is no chance you can be great or maybe even good at, but giving it your all anyway. It's incredibly freeing.

Good luck, my friend.

1:16 AM, January 17, 2009  
Anonymous Emmie (Better Make It A Double) said...

What an awesome bunch of revelations. Honesty - i think motherhood can be very good for self-awareness. So many moms of little kids I know have spent the last few years getting to understand themselves better, myself included. And I struggle with many of the same demons. I'm happy for you.

1:23 PM, January 17, 2009  
Anonymous Marianne said...

Wow - so insightful and so brave. When I sit at my kitchen table writing even though I'm convinced that I don't have the "special talent" required to make it worth while, I will raise a glass to you. To trying!

3:58 AM, January 24, 2009  
Blogger Becca said...

I recognized so much of myself in this post of yours. For so many years I've settled only for doing the things in which I knew I could succeed.

It takes great courage to go that extra step - I'm cheering you on!

8:03 PM, January 24, 2009  
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going to add the book to my next to read list, thank you, enjoyed your post very much!

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