I have always believed that learning is a lifelong journey. There is no fixed time period that works universally to keep our minds strong and healthy. Just as with our bodies, our brains need constant exercise. Failing to keep active results in entropy and a mindset that is unwilling to grow and change with the times and needs of the world.
I remember reading a story about Michael Jordan from years ago. When he was in middle school he was not regarded as a particularly good basketball player. Rather than simply accepting that he might never make a team, he set out to improve his skills through practice and hard work. He followed this kind of regimen to the very end of his career, repeating moves over and over again until his muscle memory reacted instantly. With his growth mindset he became a legendary player.
Many of us grumble that we are not very talented at this or that. As a mathematics teacher I have often heard people assert that they are just not good with numbers. My colleagues in the English department had students claim that they would never be great at writing. Such ideas indicate a fixed mindset, a belief that we are each somehow born with certain talents or not. This theory of life is based on the erroneous idea that there is little use in pursuing certain skills or ways of thinking because we do not possess the inborn abilities to do them well. If Michael Jordan had believed this, we would never had heard of him.
A growth mindset leads to more well rounded individuals. The idea behind this theory is that any of us can learn any new skills if we are willing to put in the time and effort to master them. We may develop at different paces, but with determination we can achieve much more than we may have originally thought.
I am reminded of one of my former students who was rather exceptional in mathematics but struggled with the art of writing. He was convinced that freshman English in college would be his downfall. Luckily he encountered a professor who adhered to the idea of the growth mindset. The educator worked with my student one step at a time, helping him to learn how to improve his writing skills slowly but surely one sentence at a time. By the end of the semester my former student was truly amazed at how much better his essays and presentations had become. With the teacher’s patience and helpfulness and my student’s willingness to practice, practice, practice a new confident writer was born.
We all too often categorize ourselves as athletic or non-athletic, mathematical or not, literate or not so much. We give up before we even try to change our thinking about ourselves and the world itself. When someone approaches us with new ideas or theories we too often recoil and refute before we have even studied what they have to offer. We cling to what is comfortable and easy rather than challenging our own thinking. We avoid changes that force us to push ourselves into new frontiers.
Much of the trouble that we see in the world today comes from a majority of fixed mindsets rather than growth mindsets. We do not question things that would require us to do some research and analysis. We cringe at the thought of adjusting the ways in which we have always done things, even if there are signs that it is time to change. We want to be left alone to simply accept the status quo. Learning about our true history or the realities of science is tiring and we are already weary. It’s easier just to be naysayers and reject new ways of doing things. Our fixed mindsets ignore the need for the inevitable flow of progress that is so much a part of history until events push us into action. Thinking ahead can be too hard. We tell ourselves that we just can’t consider about such things because it stresses our brains too much. Learning is often draining, so we too often stop when we should keep going.
I exercise my body on most days. I don’t enjoy it. My joints are riddled with arthritis and it hurts more than it once did to maintain my mobility and strength. I push myself because I understand that just sitting around may feel more comfortable, but it will most assuredly hasten the breakdown of my health. The same is true of my mind. If I let my reading and writing and ciphering go, my brain will begin to grow into mush as I age. I may also be unwilling to accept truths about science, climate, our human history if I stop thinking. Doing that affects how I vote and whom I support in elections. Ultimately it has an impact on my state and my nation that may be bad for all of us. It’s important that we each work hard to be as mentally and physically healthy as possible. A growth mindset encourages us to keep working with determination even as we may believe that we have reached our limits. A healthy nation requires citizens who are willing to push themselves to truly understand the truth of what we need as a community.
If we were to overhaul our educational system and our society in a productive way we would adopt a growth mindset all around. Growth should be never ending. it must be a daily goal in which we are willing to feel the burn in our bodies and minds. Our personal and national health depends on it.