Growth Mindset:

 

The Harvard Guy, The MIT Guy, Jerry Seinfeld, and the $4.00 Cup of Coffee.

Over the winter I went down to Boston with Hilary to see a few people about Team Long Run.  She scheduled a meeting with a couple of education gurus relevant to her work, one from Harvard and one from MIT, at a coffee shop in Cambridge.  I finished my meeting a little early, so managed to catch the end of hers.  I was interested in what they had to share.  I grabbed a cup of four dollar coffee (which would buy donuts and coffee for two in Bridgton) and sat down at their table.  I just sat and listened for a bit, and then one of them politely asked me what I did for a living.  I described our work and mission at TLR as succinctly as I could, as it wasn’t really my meeting.  The two men looked at each other, nodded, and said “Growth Mindset” simultaneously.  Then the conversation turned back to where it had been heading before I arrived.

I felt like I’d been given a clue to a secret… I’d never heard the term “growth mindset” before.  I jotted it down, hoping to uncover the mystery as soon as I got back to the office. 

You may know why this is funny:  “Growth Mindset” is not new, and it’s not a secret.  Carol Dweck did the research and wrote about it back in 2006 and educators have been studying and applying it all over the world ever since.

Essentially, it recognizes that there are two mindsets; fixed and growth.  A fixed mindset is reluctant to take risks, reluctant to fail, and reluctant to commit full effort to an endeavor.  A growth mindset doesn’t necessarily seek failure, but doesn’t avoid it either.  A growth mindset is willing to take risks, and it’s willing to grind.  Of course, nobody is all “fixed” or all “growth”, we all operate with both, but either mindset can be developed.  I think it’s fair to say we want to develop our growth mindset. 

So these two Hall of Fame educators recognized something built into distance running that encourages development of the growth mindset.  I do too, it’s impossible to miss.  Because we know we could always run faster, running forces us to be more familiar with and less afraid of failure, it rewards those who are willing to grind, and in inevitably uncovering our weaknesses, it makes us a little more self-aware.  

Again, we all operate with both mindsets.  I’ve coached a lot of kids who were very fixed in their mindset.  Often they had early success- the fastest kids in their elementary and middle schools.  They were rewarded with praise.  Understandably, they liked it, and wanted to protect it.  So there they sat in a new, more challenging arena, often frustrated after races and workouts, roiling with excuses and disappointment.  I wish I’d been more aware of why they conducted themselves the way they did, surely I could’ve been a much better coach to them.  More often, we had growth mindset kids show up in August.  They wanted to know if they could be faster, and were willing to do whatever it took.  This made itself evident in every facet of their college life.

The kids who showed up the fastest didn’t usually graduate the fastest.  That’s a growth mindset truism.  Over four years, an athlete or student who is willing to risk failure and work as hard as they can, regardless of setbacks, is bound to pull ahead… if not ahead of the other students or athletes, certainly well ahead of their former selves.

Jerry Seinfeld produces a compact little web series that puts a camera on him and a guest driving in impossibly cool cars and going out for coffee.  I am a big fan.  In one episode, he’s riding in North Jersey with Chris Rock.  They’re talking about skateboard kids learning new tricks.  Seinfeld describes the terrible beating you can take learning a new trick.  It’s awful to watch, but the kids keep going back to it, often a little broken and bleeding.  Chris Rock nods and smiles, and they both conclude that those kids are “gonna be all right.”  You don’t have to worry about that kid’s future, because he more or less embodies the growth mindset.  Parents and friends of runners know that sometimes it’s hard to watch a distance kid go back to it, often a little broken and bleeding, but they too are “gonna be all right”.

At Team Long Run, we’re using running to build opportunities for young men and women to take chances, to discover their own strengths and weaknesses without fear of judgment, and work persistently.  We think those opportunities will give kids a better chance to grow up and experience exceptional lives.

Chaz Wilcoxen