Growing up, I was naturally successful. I always got 100% on my spelling tests, I never had to study, and, if I did, I’d never admit it to anyone. You see, I believed my intelligence was a fixed trait and needing to study was only for the kids who weren’t smart enough. (Before I get too far, Mom and Dad, if you're reading this, know that I have NO regrets about my childhood-it was pretty amazing and I grew up feeling very loved :) God knew I'd process failure in the unique way that I do and He used it to draw me to himself in a beautiful way.)
a fifth grader with a fixed mindset
Let's travel back in time and survey a fifth grade classroom in the 90's to see if you can spot me. You don't need to know what I look like. It's time to pass back the graded spelling tests and you'll see me soon. This happens to be the first and ONLY spelling test in all my formal education where I misspelled a word. Did you catch that? I got a word wrong on a spelling test once in all my education. It was a bad day. (an actual photo of a photo of me around 5th grade. That 90's hair ;)
I spelled Cinnamon as Cinammon. As soon as I saw the -1 on my test, I frantically scoured the paper for my mistake, devastated that my deskmates could see that I didn’t have that 100% at the top of the paper (the one where the teacher made a smiley face using the 0’s as googly eyes.) I remember thinking “wait, this isn’t me! I ALWAYS get 100’s! I’m the 100’s girl! Take this back, it can’t be mine!” My whole identity was shaken because of one misspelled word!
You can see me now, I'm the girl frantically air-clawing at the teacher, begging her to wait, explain how this happened, and asking her to prove that I'd actually misspelled the word. You see me now, don't you? I look frantic and desperate and I resolved to never let this happen again-my identity depended on it! Maybe you're like me-you probably feel kind of sad for that little girl that she's taking this so hard. It's just a word! I feel like giving her a little hug.
I started hearing words like “perfectionist,” and, though I didn’t understand what it meant, I was often classed as a perfectionist for acts like this. However, I was far from a perfectionist. I’ll get into that more later, but at this point, knowing my classification in a neat little compartment meant a lot to me, so, even though it secretly annoyed the heck out of me, I’d make sure my pencil was perfectly lined up on my desk, fix my stack of papers, and try to make my little fifth grade friends say “she’s such a perfectionist!” Because inside, I didn’t understand why I would care that much about a spelling test but have a messy desk and a stack of incompletes. Things about who I was were already not making sense to me, but I wouldn’t put all the pieces together for a few more years.
An eight grader with a fixed mindset tackles algebra 1
After a cross country move from the east coast to a remote portion of northern Minnesota, I jumped into all the advanced placement high school courses because I’m smart, joined volleyball, and made new friends.
I felt successful at all new things until I started that blasted math course. I struggled all year through algebra 1, staying afterward every day for extra help and running home to get more help from my patient mother. I was devastated that all my studying and hours of hard work only produced C+/B- grades. I was shaken and at that point, classified myself as permanently “bad at math.” (photo of me celebrating graduating from Calculus. I did it! But in Algebra 1 it seemed impossible!)
A fixed mindset and an epic voice crack
I developed a beautiful singing voice early in life and immediately found a reputation for being a natural talent. I began singing in public and always got perfect scores or left people with an emotional impact. Of course I did! It was who I was, right? I was a natural talent who just blew people away without even trying. And then there was the year my vocal coach forced me to sing the song “I wonder as I wander” for the holidays. I already loathed the song, but it was such a tough song to perform. On top of just adding it to my weekly repertoire, she required me to perform it in public.
So, I scheduled myself to sing it at my church. As a kind of awkward 11th grader, I got all dressed up, practiced secretly (no one could know that I needed to practice!!), and then got up in church to sing it. My crush was there-I HAD to nail it! But alas, on the final phrase of the song, as I belted “I wonder as I Waaaaaaahn-DERRRRRR…” my voice cracked approximately 3 octaves. In front of my crush.
My identity as a musical savant was crushed and that guy was probably laughing at me, right? Oh girl, I wish I could have given myself another little side hug and said “loosen up and laugh! That was legit funny!” But I wasn’t laughing because everything I believed about myself was again shaken. Isn’t that sad?
From that point on, I didn't understand how to view my musical skill and felt deeply conflicted about spending any more time on it because this one incident publicly betrayed who I thought I was.
Are you starting to sense a theme here? I'd glide on my natural skills until I reached their limits and needed effort. But effort was an admission of failure, so it was off limits. So I'd fail at something and be shaken, scrambling to re-identify myself.
Little did I know that I’d already boxed myself into a mindset so riddled with limits that years later I’d wake up each day with anxiety, devastated yet again with the feeling that I was deeply unsuccessful and letting down everyone I loved most. It wasn't until I experienced a series of devastating personal losses that I recognized this mindset and began seeking change. And though it's going to be raw, I cannot wait to share that part of my story. Because now, I see beauty in it!
Tell me below-what does "mindset" mean to you? I'd love to hear your thoughts!