Between the ears.
On growth, reframing, and harmony.
When the external affects the internal.
The city we live in and our daily environment can provide positive, negative, or neutral energy into our lives, which affects our ability to grow. But the simplest way to sabotage or support our environment actually has nothing to do with the external and everything to do with the internal.
It’s our own mind.
Have you ever noticed how some days you wake up ready to take on the world, full of positive energy and feeling great? And then you fast forward to the next morning and you’re waking up sluggish, somewhat defeated, with very little desire to take on the day ahead of you? Oftentimes we can’t really pinpoint what the difference in these two mornings is. We feel like we’re being pushed and pulled by the current of life, and can’t figure out why some days we’re at the top of the mountain and other days we’re beat up and limping at the bottom. What happens is simpler than we might think. We’ve let our external world affect our internal mind.
I’ll give you a very basic example of my external affecting my internal. If I rewind the clock several years, I was living in Denver and loving everything about life. My city and environment was refreshing, motivating, and inspiring. One morning I was walking from my car to a cafe to grab some coffee, enjoying another perfectly sunny and beautiful Denver day. It was a Sunday during football season, so I was wearing my Chiefs shirt like I always do on game days. As I’m walking back to my car I pass a guy about my age on the sidewalk that I’ve never seen or met before. He looks at my t-shirt, then looks at me and says “Nice shirt douchebag” just as he passes me.
Internal joy, meet external asshole.
I wish I could tell you my mindset was so sound and aligned that I let it go in one ear and out the other without skipping a beat. Instead, the comment immediately made my blood boil and stayed with me the rest of the day. You could have been a fly on a wall inside my head eight hours later and I would have still been thinking about it. I should have hit the guy. I should have made him regret ever saying something to me. Little thoughts like this consuming my mind for the better part of my day. I had allowed my external world to disrupt my internal environment. We find ourselves falling prey to this constantly. This external disruption of the internal is draining to us, and most of the time it’s draining us subconsciously. Hence why some days we just don’t have the juice. We’ve expended it all on the mental energy required to fight our battles of the mind.
It has been estimated that we have between 20,000 and 80,000 thoughts per day. The citations are scarce when trying to find any sort of accurate number, but it’s not really the actual number that matters. The bottom line is that we have a massive amount of thoughts every single day, and most we aren’t even aware of. (Can you recall the 20,000+ thoughts you had yesterday? Good, neither can I.) This doesn’t bode well for us when we allow those thoughts to affect our energy. So how do we remove or reduce our mind’s ability to sabotage our environment? The next two sections will show us how our mindset can use every thought and circumstance in our lives to our own growth advantage.
A growth mindset and giving ourselves a break.
Carol Dweck, professor of Psychology at Stanford, popularized the idea of fixed mindsets and growth mindsets in her book appropriately titled “Mindset: A New Psychology of Success”. In her own words from an interview about the book,
"In a fixed mindset people believe their basic abilities, their intelligence, their talents, are just fixed traits. They have a certain amount and that's that, and then their goal becomes to look smart all the time and never look dumb. In a growth mindset people understand that their talents and abilities can be developed through effort, good teaching and persistence. They don't necessarily think everyone's the same or anyone can be Einstein, but they believe everyone can get smarter if they work at it."
This definition of fixed mindsets and growth mindsets at surface level doesn’t seem to be correlated to my story above about letting some fleeting comment disrupt my joy. But let’s dig a little deeper. When I spent the day frustrated by my encounter I was never delusional about the fact that this was something silly to be upset about. I knew it was ridiculous, but that didn’t change the fact that it upset me. Like Dweck said in her definition about the fixed mindset, I didn’t want to look dumb, and at that moment I felt dumb. I had a fixed mindset about the situation, and believed in a nutshell the old adage of “I am who I am”. I was irritated, and that’s all there was to it. How would the situation have looked different if I was aware of the fixed mindset I had about the interaction? What would a different version of myself, a growth minded and improved version of myself done? In short, I would have recognized the anger in myself and used it as an opportunity to improve. My internal dialogue would have gone something like this.
“Adam, you’re pissed off right now. What an asshole that guy was. This could easily ruin my your day. But why? Use this as an opportunity to grow. If you simply let go of the anger right now you’re going to turn your day around for the better, instead of letting the anger simmer like it has so many times in the past.”
My situation without a doubt would have improved because of a simple shift in mindset. Instead of approaching the anger with a fixed mindset that believed I was wronged, looked dumb, and I was who I was, I would have approached the anger as an opportunity to grow and improve. A simple awareness of our ability to do this is oftentimes all it takes to turn our mindset around. The growth mindset, in essence, allows us to give ourselves a break. If we’re frustrated, upset, angry, or simply drained, a growth mindset lets us view the emotion as an opportunity to grow instead of state we need to live in. Those days when we wake up drained and we don’t know why? There’s a good chance we’ve had a lot of mental chatter going on lately, and we haven’t given ourselves enough breaks, viewing each and every situation as an opportunity to grow.
This sucks, but...
The growth mindset doesn’t just apply to our internal world. It can be just as valuable when we apply it to the external as well. Take setbacks, obstacles, and heartache for example. A fixed mindset would tell us that these things are negative and we simply must endure them. A car accident, a death in the family, a job loss - to the fixed mindset these are all unfortunate occurrences that we have to live with because well, that’s life. A growth mindset, in contrast, views everything as an opportunity to grow and improve, both internally and externally. The car accident becomes an opportunity to practice gratitude that everyone walked away uninjured. The death in the family becomes an opportunity to celebrate a life and appreciate each moment we have above ground even more. A job loss becomes an opportunity to improve our skillsets and seek out a more fulfilling role.
In his best-selling book “The Obstacle is the Way: The Timeless Art of Turning Adversity to Advantage”, author Ryan Holiday summarizes this topic succinctly and elegantly when he says:
“The obstacle in the path becomes the path. Never forget, within every obstacle is an opportunity to improve our condition.”
The thing that is perceived as a setback by the fixed mindset becomes an opportunity and our new path through the growth mindset. It is our perception that changes, not the situation, and this perception has the utmost power to help us grow or hold us back. I’ve experienced the power of this truth time and time again in my own life.
In 2014, my wife and I were pregnant with our first child. Our baby boy was already stitching memories in both of our minds and we were ecstatic over what the future held. Life had different plans for us however, and those future memories would never actually come to fruition. Due to a genetic condition that we didn’t know our son had until he was born, his time on earth only lasted a couple of days. This little baby that held so much of our futures in his hands, was quickly rewriting the script for our lives. Just 36 hours into his tiny life, we held him in our arms as he took his last breath. Our world had its first permanent crack in it.
Oftentimes in a marriage, the death of a child can lead to the dismantling of the marriage. A couple’s world is forever changed, and many times they simply don’t know how to operate together in this new territory. After Cade, our son, passed away I became acutely aware that this could happen to my wife and I. This initial tragedy had the power to spiral downward into my own personal despair as well as our relationship’s despair. A fixed mindset would have surely triggered and supported this downward spiral.
At this point in my life I was aware enough of my mindset to approach our loss with intention. I viewed the pain, loss, and heartache as a chance to grow. It was an opportunity to express empathy of not knowing what others are going through. It was an opportunity to process my own emotions and come out better on the other side because of them. It was an opportunity to strengthen my wife and I’s bond. It was an opportunity to be there for other couples going through heartbreak. It was an opportunity to experience even greater joy and appreciation for our next child. It was an opportunity to use my writing as a positive outlet to impact others. In short, it was simply an opportunity to become a better version of myself, albeit through the most painful process possible. What could have led to destructive habits, divorce, and depression instead led to opportunity to impact the greater good of myself, my family, and the world around me. It’s worth noting how incredibly grateful I am that my wife also utilized a growth mindset through our loss, whether or not she was aware of it, and has since positively impacted countless women going through loss and infertility struggles. Had we not both used a growth mindset to process our pain, it’s tough to say where we’d be today.
Internal and external harmony.
Even when our external environment, the city and community we live in, fosters our creativity, positive energy, and growth, it can still ultimately be derailed by a fixed mindset. We can be as motivated and inspired as possible by the people and places around us, but if we still aren’t aware of, and recognize, each moment and situation as an opportunity for growth, then we will stay on the outside looking in. We’ll be watching the world around us improve while we sit idly by. However, when we can couple our positive, external environment with a growth mindset that views every circumstance and interaction as an opportunity to improve ourselves, we have a recipe and foundation for creating a remarkable life. The external environment creates the springboard for growth, and the internal harmony with that environment keeps us on the growth path. Perhaps that word, harmony, is the ultimate thing we’re seeking between our external and internal environments when it comes to growth. Harmony is by its very nature frictionless. Our city and community provide us the canvas on which to paint our remarkable life, and our mindset improves upon the painting as we go. But we cannot paint to our full potential without both. A poor canvas will limit the beauty of the final artwork, and a fixed mindset will never stretch our abilities. But when there is harmony between the two, with the canvas and mindset in alignment, our creation that we call our “life” has the opportunity to be more remarkable than we could have ever imagined.