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Mindset: the established set of attitudes held by someone.

Mindset is a critical component in everyday life; it accounts for how we perceive what is around us, our own personal capabilities as well as expectations from others and life itself.

The majority of us have a fixed idea of who we are and what we are capable of doing. This can regard any area (drawing skills, language skills, sport skills and so on). We do have areas that we are naturally good at and have a higher starting point to others, and areas that we have a basic starting point where others exceed at. This however does not measure our complete capability or potential. According to recent research in the book “Mindset: the new psychology of success” by Carol S. Dweck, our achievements in life are not due to a random selection of talents, but rather to a constant improvement and application of a specific type of mindset. She explains that there is a fixed mindset and a growth mindset. Through numerous examples, it is proven how people who affront a task with a mindset of growth and opportunity (I am able to learn and develop) do better in the task than people who start with a fixed mindset (my natural ability is X, the task is Y, so I will not do well). The outcome differs according to the mentality we have when entering the challenge.

Our ability to learn new skills is drastically underestimated, even in an age when neuroscience has proven that the human brain never stops creating new neurological pathways and changing. We have the potential to learn any skill, with the correct method and study. We do not however believe this.

This conditioning starts in our school years where kids are labeled as either clever or not clever. They then carry these labels into adulthood and into the choices they make regarding their future. For example, a child that was told in school to be intelligent will struggle coping with future events in life that any innate skills will not be able to deal with. By being told that they are naturally clever, they do not realise that not all skills are innate and therefore will think that there is nothing they can do to change themselves or the situation. Hence they are set up for inevitable disappointment. The same way a child who was told he was not clever will be stuck in the future because, even if he realises that he can change, he will will not think that he is able to learn, even if he tries.

Both of these approaches undermine our ability to adapt and learn. If we knew that we could learn any skill, how would that change our lives?

I do not advocate learning everything possible; this will be very time consuming. There are areas we are naturally gifted in and we should seek to improve these so that we can master them. We can also choose other areas that we do not have a high starting point in, to either add to our quality of life or as a simple challenge. We should not make these choices depend on a fixed idea of what we think we are capable of because, more often than not, that idea is wrong.

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This also brings me to the ever lasting nature-nurture debate. Does our genetic make up define us or does our environment/experiences? Which influences which? In this day of information and research, I feel safe to say that we have to consider both. Our genes are where we start. Our environment can change, or trigger, them through traumatic or impactful events. This genetic predisposition can change depending on the input we give ourselves; experiences, information, deliberate learning, growth.

This was proven by Gilbert Gottlieb and his theory of Probabilistic Epigenesis (or the epigenetic psychobiological systems perspective):
“The view that the development of an organism is dependent on the bidirectional influences of interacting biological and environmental forces that form a larger system.”

This also ties in with simple Epigenetics: the research that external events, or our choices in life, activate or deactivate certain genes. The DNA itself does not change, but what changes is which parts of the genes get expressed and which do not. What I find most interesting is that this is not just due to passive external factors (events in life), but can also be intentionally done by active, conscious choices. Lets compare this to the use of punctuation in writing by using the famous example:

Woman, without her man, is nothing.
Woman: without her, man is nothing.

Exact same words, completely different meaning. The same way that your DNA remains exactly the same, but can have very different expressions.

On an even more interesting note, our most active pieces of epigenetic information are the ones that will be passed down with stronger effect to our kids. So not only do our choices affect our own lives, but also the lives of our offspring and their future generations. Just as our genetics are the result of the diets and habits of who we descend from (the parts of our DNA that are expressed the strongest). This would explain why there are numerous new epidemics today (diabetes, food intolerances) that were not present before.

Epigenetics is quite a new field, as it only began to be studied in the 1980s. There is however a lot more to learn if you wish to research more in depth.

Let’s incorporate this information into how our mindset influences our lives: believing that we have the ability to grow and learn can already start that process within us. Not just on a ‘comforting talk’ level, but on a scientific foundation. Our thoughts open new pathways in our brains, just as our actions and habits influence our genes. It should not be considered “nice” to tell someone that they can be or learn anything, that they can move on from a situation they are stuck in, it should be normal.

In the 1800s the average world literacy rate was 12% (according to ourworlddata). If you had have asked them people what percentage of people they thought were able to read or write, I imagine they would have said maybe 20% or 30%. Only a select few, as literacy was not a normal thing. We know now of course that this is not true. We can all learn to read and write. In fact it is normal to do so. But do we share this limited perception our ancestors of just a few generations ago had, with other capabilities? Are we really as modern as we like to believe? In just another 200 years, will our decedents look back and think that we knew so little? And if so, about what?

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