My main question for this week was: how do we integrate courage into our mindset in such a way that we act courageously by default? Here are some ideas I want to run past you.
Fixed and Growth Mindsets
As soon as I see the word “mindset”, I think of Carol Dweck, who has done such sterling work in this area. In her book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, she sets out two contrasting models:
In a fixed mindset, people believe their basic qualities, like their intelligence or talent, are simply fixed traits. They spend their time documenting their intelligence or talent instead of developing them. They also believe that talent alone creates success—without effort.
In a growth mindset, people believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work—brains and talent are just the starting point. This view creates a love of learning and a resilience that is essential for great accomplishment.
Dweck says that those with a fixed mindset are misguided (well, okay, she says they’re just plain wrong), and in fact this mindset can lead to great unhappiness, because when fixed-mindset people run into difficulties, they don’t have the self-belief and resilience to persevere. By contrast, most people who go on to achieve great things have the growth mindset (think Thomas Edison: “I haven’t failed – I’ve just found 10,000 ways that don’t work”).
She suggests that in childhood, parents and teachers can help instil a growth mindset by praising the process, rather than the outcome. E.g. If a child is painting a picture, it is more constructive to remark on their powers of observation, the attention they are bringing to the task, and their willingness to complete it, than to tell them the picture is wonderful and they are the best artist in the world.
Although the latter approach is probably better than no acknowledgement at all (see this research by Dan Ariely), the danger is that when the child runs into a situation where someone is producing artwork that is better than their own, the parent who praised them loses credibility and/or the child’s self-concept is undermined when they realise that they are in fact not the best artist in the world.
For a lot of bright children, arriving at university can be the first time they have not been top of their class, and being rapidly demoted from a big fish in a small pond to a small fish in a big pond can lead to a major outbreak of fresher’s paranoia. Having a growth mindset can help them weather the self-confidence storm.
So how do we take this idea of the growth mindset, and apply it to courage?
At the moment one of my pet topics is the inner narratives we hold about ourselves, i.e. the story we tell ourselves about who we are, so I am going to view this question through that lens.
Whether or not our parents instilled the growth mindset in us, we can still train ourselves to focus on our transferable skills rather than our outcomes in order to bolster our courageous mindset. For example, take some time to write down your strengths, to identify growth-mindset traits like:
I have the patience to work my way through a tricky problem.
I don’t mind failing at something because I learn from the experience how to do it better next time.
I am not afraid to try things I haven’t done before.
I believe in the value of hard work.
To state once again, these observations emphasise process, not outcome. Even if you are a superb musician, a best-selling author, a wildly successful executive, or a talented artist, this is not the place to write about it. The point is to dig deeper into the factors underlying those successes, because these factors are transferable to other domains, including boosting your courage.
By doing this, you’re crafting an inner narrative that will maximise your sense of self-efficacy when you find yourself in a situation that requires courage. As we saw last week, when we run our inner algorithm to decide what course of action to take, the first question we ask is whether we can do it. We’re not likely to act courageously if we don’t believe we can do the task.
(Although note that “can I do this?” can be a bogus question.)
Seven Steps to All-Conquering Courage Last year I published a series of blog posts using the acronym COURAGE to outline the 7 steps to courage. These all help in building a courageous mindset, so I’ll give a super-quick recap:
CALLING: a mission that expresses who you are, what values you cherish, what you are capable of
OWNERSHIP: you’re not a bystander, but an active participant in your life and the world
UNCLUTTERING: you have simplified your life so you are not distracted by the superfluous
RESOURCES: you have the material and emotional resources to act decisively
ACTION: taking action generates courage; courage is not the prerequisite for action
GRIT: tenacity, perseverance, and determination to follow through
EVOLUTION: after each achievement, consider how to build on that achievement to reach even higher next time
Special Operating Procedures
Before I set out on my first ocean, the Atlantic, I wrote a 12-page document outlining all the eventualities, crises, and disasters I could think of. It was an extended if/then analysis: if this happens, I do that, step by step. I wanted to assume that I would be exhausted and stressed, on the ocean, so the instructions were simple and detailed enough that I would be able to follow them, no matter what.
Naturally, the disasters that happened were not the ones I had considered, because that’s how life goes, and no battle plan ever survives first contact with the enemy. But the point of creating the document was to give me the confidence that I had considered all foreseeable contingencies, and had prepared accordingly. As Dwight D. Eisenhower said, “Plans are nothing. Planning is everything.” Without the confidence that my plan created (justified or not), I probably wouldn’t have made it out of the harbour.
You might want to do this the next time you are going into a potentially tricky situation, or embarking on an ambitious project. Courage is not turning a blind eye to danger – it is looking straight at the danger, and being prepared for it. Create your Special Operating Procedures to cover all risks.
In his book Anti-Fragile: Things That Gain From Disorder, Naseem Taleb talks about nurturing bomb-proof resilience:
Fragile: life is hard, so you try to wrap yourself in cotton wool and avoid stressful situations
Robust: you’re strong, able to tackle most things
Anti-fragile: you’re indestructible. You’re ready for life to do with you as it will, knowing you can handle it.
What are you? How can you be more anti-fragile, moment to moment and day to day?
You can also use the feedback loops between your physiology and your psychology to boost your courage. Amy Cuddy’s TED talk reveals that adopting a “power pose”, like the Wonderwoman stance of hands on hips, or the Superman pose with arms aloft, can indeed make you feel more like a superhero. Maintaining such a position for at least two minutes reduces the stress hormone cortisol, and boosts testosterone, which is closely correlated with bold behaviour (which explains a lot about men).
To sum up the Courageous Mindset…
“Courage isn’t in doing what comes naturally. It is rarely about one grandiose, beautiful self-sacrificing gesture. And it isn’t about doing what’s right when success is a sure thing. Courage is doing what is awkward, tedious, annoying and inelegant in the face of uncertainty. It is stepping in to cover for someone else because someone must. And it is taking small, incremental steps every week, every month, every season, every year until it becomes a habit.”
As usual, Vic and I have a chat about the topic of the week in our podcast.