Written for the Growthseekers blog in 2017:
I am a growth seeker. Looking back at my life and career and “connecting the dots backwards”, as Steve Jobs urges us to do in his 2005 Stanford Commencement Address, it’s easy to see I’ve thrown myself headlong into every learning opportunity that’s piqued my interest.
But that’s not the narrative I’ve always told myself. In times of doubt, I lament my butterfly tendencies. Why do I chop and change? Can’t I stick at anything? How come the fire that ignites me for a new project inevitably splutters and fizzles?
Jobs tells the story of his dropping out of college after six months. He had no idea what he was doing, but he followed his intuition that college wasn’t for him. Freed from doing the classes he was supposed to do, he stuck around for another 18 months, sleeping on friends’ floors and collecting cans for the 5 cent deposit while he attended the classes that captivated him.
Jobs followed his curiosity, and those college experiences fed into his revolutionary work and life as an entrepreneur and inventor responsible for Apple and the seismic changes we’ve seen in our lives since.
Only when you look backwards can you connect the dots that led you to doing the best you can with your life. But sometimes, the positive connections can seem a little hazy. Other times, it looks a lot like one bad choice after another.
When Jobs was 30, 10 years after he had founded Apple with Wozniak in his parents’ garage and it had grown into a $2 billion company, he got fired. That had to feel like a fairly epic failure. I guess Jobs doubted his choices then too.
“It was devastating. I really didn’t know what to do for months. It was a very public failure and I even thought of running away from the valley.”
But he plowed ahead anyway, again following his gut.
“I decided to start again. I didn’t know it then, but it turned out that getting fired from Apple was the best thing that ever could’ve happened to me….It freed me to enter one of the most creative periods of my life.”
Over the next five years, Jobs founded Pixar and a company called NeXT which Apple then bought, leading Jobs back to Apple where he’d eventually become CEO. NeXT is the technology now at the core of macOS and IOS.
So, the apparently pointless question marks and downright disasters of our pasts will all come good in the end. I can buy that. I want to believe.
But before I pat myself on the back too vigorously for my sagacity in doing some things badly, I think it’s worth probing whether there’s room for improvement. Jobs might be right that if we’re willing to take risks and fail we will grow, but I’m pretty sure he’d have us mine those failures for insight into how to fail less next time.
In her influential book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, Stanford Professor Carol Dweck describes how some children were easily deflated when given a difficult task, while others were excited about the challenge. The latter children didn’t see the failure involved in the struggle, only the opportunity to get better.
This was a pretty revolutionary insight. A common view was – and still is, in some spheres – that being smart meant avoiding failure, so failing meant not being smart. These challenge-loving children instead believed we can cultivate skill and intelligence. They had a ‘growth mindset‘. And it’s not just a question of attitude: neuroscience shows that, like muscles, our brains grow through exercise.
Contrast that with the ‘fixed mindset’, where one believes intelligence is simply something you have or don’t have. Only if you have a certain personality and amount of intelligence can you succeed in life.
This belief leads people to give up easily, and to be thwarted by setbacks and so-called failures. They think the people they consider successful got there because they are effortlessly smart and talented and have avoided failure. Jobs is a shining example of just how very wrong they are.
When I survey my past endeavours, I am troubled by the hints of a fixed mindset. I have sometimes lost momentum because of the discomfort of not being competent quickly enough. I have got disheartened and turned away when the challenge has been too daunting.
Fortunately for me though, we can develop our growth mindset. I am making it my personal challenge to nurture mine.
Thomas Edison said, “I have not failed, I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work“. I like that view. But just engaging my willpower won’t do it. Once I venture too far out of my comfort zone, self-preservation will kick in and I’ll forget Edison and just want to get out of there.
In her career change guidebook, Pivot, Jenny Blake warns against getting into your ‘panic zone’. Likewise, Stephen Krashen found that anxiety delimits people’s success in learning (the affective filter hypothesis). With all the best will in the world then, if we aim too high or too fast, we get discouraged. The only way is to take baby steps.
Dweck found people with fixed versus growth mindsets exhibit two kinds of perfectionism: one that expects instant results with no effort (effortless), the other that has high standards and is prepared to work to get there (effortful).
I am committing to effortful growth. I can’t achieve perfection right away, but I can start where I am and work to improve, digesting the challenge nibble by nibble. I expect to have set-backs, but I’ll chip away at them. I am a growth seeker.