Please read this guest blog from a client of mine. It’s an uplifting story about the power of exploring who you are.
I saw a great job description the other day – Director of Operations at a downtown start-up. It had all the things that I want to be doing! I felt confident about meeting many of the requirements listed, even though I had never been a Director in my career. However, the other 20% of the requirements really made me doubt myself. I was worried what would happen if the management team found out that I didn’t know exactly how to do something they wanted. So I put together my standard cover letter and resume and only changed a few items. I patted myself on the back for applying but had already accepted that I would never get the job.
A short while later, I started listening to an audio book titled, “Mindset: The New Psychology of Success” by Carol S. Dweck. In the book she discusses two different mindsets: the fixed mindset and the growth mindset.
- Fixed Mindset
When you believe that you have a special gift, for example, that you are smarter than others because you performed so well on a test. This mindset results in people being afraid to fail and under performing after being labeled “special”.
- Growth mindset
When you believe that it was your effort that helped you performed better than others on a test. These people enjoy the process of learning and don’t worry about failure but, rather, getting better.
I’m putting these two very simply but the book helped open my eyes to how I was reacting to challenges in my career. Was I afraid to fail at this start-up? Do I stay in my current job because I know how to succeed or, at least, not fail? I then recalled something that happened during my high school years.
Setback in 8th grade
Apparently, in 8th grade I was given some kind of test to determine our place in high school and I didn’t perform as well as I could have. My best friend and I had similar good grades in grade school but in high school he went into the “honors” track and I went into “first” track. I was crushed. Not only wasn’t I in any classes with my best friend but also was labeled “not as smart” as him.
Hard work overcame destiny
If I were of the fixed mindset I would probably accept my fate and begin fulfilling the destiny that was handed to me. Only that’s not what happened. I worked hard at my homework and I tried my hardest on the tests. At the end of my freshman year I had a 97% average in my classes and won the Algebra and World History awards for first track. They moved me up to the honors track for my sophomore year – one of two people who moved up.
In the honors track, the work was harder but the results were the same. I went from being ranked in the top 20 in school to being in the top 5 now that I was in honors classes. Clearly, I’m proud of my achievements but it wasn’t until I read this book that I realized what it meant. It tells me that I have the ability to learn new things and excel in unknown environments. That’s possible because my mind is capable of growing.
Slipping into the fixed mindset
This reflection also helps me realize that I regularly fall into the fixed mindset. I did this in college when I believed that I was supposed to be “gifted” or “special” because I did so well in high school and earned a scholarship to college. In college, I struggled. Lost my scholarship because of my low GPA and was kicked out of the honors curriculum. I often put it this way: I was playing not to lose, instead of playing to win.
I was worried about my grades in college and making sure that they reinforced my “gifted” status. I turned away from challenges that might expose my weaknesses and I never really enjoyed the learning aspect of my courses. I clawed my way to a 2.98 GPA and accepted that I wasn’t good enough to be a “real” mechanical engineer.
Could I break the mindset?
After working for a few years, I went to grad school – an expensive, full-time, 2-year MBA program. I got my very first test back (in statistics) and… failed it! I was in the lower half of the class. I was so emotional that day, fearing that whatever held me back in college was inside of me and I would never be able to overcome it. Fortunately, I was wrong. The difference this time is that I focused on the learning and the experience of grad school. I joined clubs, I wrote for the paper and I worked with other students to learn. Of course, I worked hard too. Turns out it was fun and I wound up getting into Beta Sigma Gamma – a club for the top 20% of the class.
Fortunately, I learned, again, that it was my effort, not my innate ability or any “gift”, that produced the results.
Applying the growth mindset to my career
Coming back to my recent job application, I have since remembered that lesson. I am capable of learning new things and excelling at them. The key is to embrace learning and letting go of the vanity metrics of “grades” and the fear of failing. I read an article on LinkedIn Pulse the other day that said managers at companies are too afraid to fail. I understood the benefits of trying new things but never really grasped what it meant to be “afraid to fail”. For me, it means embracing the problems/issues/challenges that your team/company faces and trying to learn and get better and, most importantly, letting go of the fear of “failure” and trying something that may not work. Playing not to lose, will always deliver lackluster results – average at best.
When it comes to applying for new jobs, I’m now excited because I want to learn and take chances on the things that are new to me. It’s the spice of life! What is really surprising to me is that my current job seems so much more interesting. I’m pushing myself to see the issues we have and learn about how we got these issues. Instead of fearing these challenges and not knowing how to solve them, I want to try to figure it out! It turns out that when I put in the effort, I can learn new things and excel at them… and get a lot of enjoyment out of my career.
Amy Wolfgang is a career coach who founded Wolfgang Career Coaching and co-founded Coaching 4 Good. She brings over 15 years of corporate and coaching experience to help organizations boost employee engagement while simultaneously helping her clients excel in their careers. She is a certified PCM (Professional Career Manager) and has a Master’s degree in Educational Psychology from The University of Texas at Austin.
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