Optimal Training Principle: Ability is a Variable, Not a Constant. The harder a person works, the more able he or she becomes over time.
This is part 2 in my discussion of the above Optimal Training Principle. To read part 1, please see here.
Understanding Ability Matters
I first heard about Carol Dweck from a post on Guy Kawasaki's blog referencing an article about her work called "The Effort Effect". I highly recommend the article, and for those of you interested in entrepreneurship, Guy's blog is great.
Professor Dweck studies what she calls "mindsets". Mindsets refer to how people view ability. Some people view ability as something that can be developed (the "growth" mindset), while others view it as something inherent that needs to be demonstrated (the "fixed" mindset).
Dweck argues that these two different mindsets determine whether a person is able to undertake challenges rather than shy away from them, focus on improvement rather than looking good, and take responsibility for poor performance rather than blame others. Most importantly, she makes a convincing argument that these different mindsets are often the product of our environment, and that we can change from a fixed mindset to a growth mindset.
In Part 1 on this Optimal Training Principle I explained why it isn't true that ability is fixed. Here's why it matters. Not only does it eliminate any incentive to work hard at the task at hand, it also creates a perverse incentive to try and look smart (or fast, strong, etc.), and to protect yourself by making excuses and blaming others when it doesn't work out for you. An example:
I had a teammate in high school who had always been the star on his teams, and he'd long been told how gifted he was. On our team he barely cracked the top seven, though. After a while he slacked in practice or sometimes didn't come, and he always had an excuse for why he wasn't performing well. He eventually quit.
Looking back, I no longer believe he was just lazy. He had a fixed mindset about running and saw himself as being "less" of a runner than the few guys faster than him. He believed success would come naturally for him if he had real "ability" (see also: talent). It made him look bad to not be the star, so he built excuses into his training for a while, lost enthusiasm and then eventually quit (#5 on the list of "Seven Reasons" I wrote about the other day).
Dweck's research gives an explanation for why this happens: When you have a fixed mindset, you believe that talent determines ability and your focus is on looking good (because performance reflects upon you as a person) rather than on working hard (because if you're truly talented you shouldn't need to work hard).
Adopting a Growth Mindset
Running changed my mindset. I worked semi-hard in high school, but I was chewed up and spit out my freshman year in college. I showed up out of shape, injured myself twice, and did a lot of soul-searching during that year. I don't know that I had a fixed mindset, but I certainly had fixed mindset tendencies. Four things made me start to believe in the power of hard work:
- First, my high school coach told me he thought I could be good. At the time, this gave me an amazing amount of confidence.
- My first year in college I had a great model in Meb Keflezighi. He was a four-time national champ and the hardest worker I'd ever met.
- At the same time, I had difficulty reconciling teammates and competitors beating me who I just knew weren't as talented as I was.
- Finally, I began to improve. This validated the work and motivated me to keep going.
Self-efficacy is the belief that one can achieve a goal based on one's efforts. The theory says there are four ways one can improve one's self-efficacy. The first is to see improvement as a result of your efforts (Experience). The second is to see someone else whom you identify with do something you aren't currently able to do (Vicarious Experience). The third is to be told you can or can't do something by someone else (Social Persuasions). Finally, how you respond to your body's natural reactions is the fourth (Physiological Factors). I think these also apply to developing a growth mindset.
This is the way in which we are most likely to finally and completely believe that our ability is not fixed. But two other things have to happen before this can have a positive impact. First, we have to put in the effort in the first place. But this is the very problem! When we have a fixed mindset we avoid effort altogether.
Second, we have to see our improvement as being the result of our hard work, not luck or the challenge being easy. If a runner wins a race, for example, but honestly thinks it was just luck, well, that performance likely won't be a stepping stone to more personal records.
Think of Tommy Boy making that first sale. After he'd done it once, it was no problem.
There are two different types of people you can study to change your mindset: people similar to you, and people far better than you.
There is great value in studying people who have achieved excellence. But how you study them is important; you will find what you look for. If you look for talent, you'll find it. And you'll come away saying things like, "Of course Meb is great. He's African!" Or, "Of course Alan Webb is so dominant. He's a freak of nature!" But if you look at an excellent individual through the lens of their efforts, that is exactly what you'll see. You'll see that Meb and Webb have been working incredibly hard for an incredibly long time.
As for studying people similar to you, this is an incredibly useful way to motivate ourselves to work harder. Especially when we see someone like us make a big leap. When I was in college a runner at Berkeley named Peter Gilmore (now a 2:12 marathon runner) made a big leap in the Pac-10. My teammate and I made a rallying cry for our training: "If Peter can do it, we can, too!"
Are we as talented as Peter Gilmore? Doesn't matter. We believed we were. And that got me to increase my effort, after which my improvement led to even more effort and so on.
This is always present on a running team. Coaches and teammates always encourage runners to practice hard. But some are more quick than others to judge performance as the result of talent.
What your coaches and teammates say explicitly doesn't matter, though. It comes up when you talk about goals, expectations, competition, race strategy, past performances, personal records, and planning workouts. We often infer that something can't be done simply by the goals we don't set, the practices we don't do, the competition we don't face.
Being held back isn't always a bad thing. But it's important to have someone reminding us that it's only because we're not ready right now. With hard work, we can be ready in the future.
Basically, your body will have a natural reaction to stress (getting butterflies before a race, for example) and how you respond to that feeling can either increase or decrease your self-efficacy. The important thing here is that you understand it is normal to get nervous before a race. Everyone does. It alone does not make you a worse runner, nor will it hurt your ability to perform well.
This factor has the least impact on an individual's self-efficacy, but it is worth mentioning because young runners may be prone to misinterpreting their body and thus altering their goals or expectations.
Understanding what ability is and how it can be improved is fundamental to continued, consistent success. Which makes it fundamental to Optimal Training. If you don't understand ability--don't cultivate a growth mindset--you may be successful, but you'll have difficulty sustaining that success.
It's never too late to change your mindset. Try hard to remember the effort you've put into your previous achievements. See that hard work for what it is. Find someone you can model your behavior after. Surround yourself with encouraging people as much as possible. And finally, don't read too much into how you feel right before your races, workouts, etc.