Becoming, Resilience and Risk

“Becoming is better than being.”-Dr. Carol Dweck

“It is never the beginning or the end which are interesting; the beginning and end are points. What is interesting is the middle” –Gilles Deleuze 

“Even if you fail at your ambitious thing, it’s very hard to fail completely, that’s the thing that people don’t get.” -Larry Page


I have been thinking a lot about the idea of “becoming” lately, especially as it relates to learning. “Becoming” is an idea I first encountered in anthropology while studying the works of Gilles Deleuze.  To oversimplify, “becoming” is a state that is always in between. It is a state that represents the constant flux of life, whereby we are always both departing from and arriving to. What struck me about this idea, as it relates to learning, is that if we view learning as a process where we are always in a state of “becoming,” it allows us the space to make mistakes and learn.  This notion of “becoming” is interesting because it posits that there is no “end” per se. Whether we are becoming a student, becoming a teacher, becoming a surfer or becoming a runner , the word “becoming” reminds us that we are always works in progress, rather than finished products.

Interestingly enough, Carol Dweck also talks about this idea in her discussion of mindsets.  In Dweck’s view, there are two types of learners learners; those who feel that their ability is “something static” and those who view ability as “dynamic and malleable.”  Learners who believe that their ability is static avoid activities that may expose them to failure.  On the other hand, learners who feel that their ability is more “dynamic,” are open to taking chances and using their mistakes to learn. To put this in the language of Deleuze, those with a “dynamic” or “growth mindset” realize that they are always in a state of “becoming” better.  In this way you can fail at something, without failing “completely,” because something is always learned in the process.

As I was thinking over this idea of “becoming,” I came across the blogs of two friends that also spoke to this idea.  In her blog post on Resilience, Maggie Chumbley points out how resilience stems from recognising that “grand plans may go awry.”  Again, it is the process and the learning that are important, not only the final result.  Similarly, in his post on Valhalla, Rollie Peterkin writes that allowing your “fear of losing to overshadow your competitive drive is worse than losing. It is cowardice.” In the world of MMA you can view your ability as fixed and fight only those competitors you know you can beat to boost tour ego, or you can view your ability as something that is dynamic and use each match to learn and become better.  When we take the view that we are always in a state of “becoming,” it opens us to a “growth mindset,” in which we are more resilient and willing to take risks.  For me, there is something freeing in this notion as it highlights the sense of possibility inherent in each moment.  Once we let go of the idea that there needs to be a  clear end point, we are open to living “in the middle,” a place where we are free to make mistakes and learn.

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I am a novice. I am here to learn.

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“Now put yourself in a growth mindset. You’re a novice-that’s why you’re here. You’re here to learn. The teacher is a resource for learning. Feel the tension leave you; feel your mind open up.”

-From “Mindset: The New Psychology of Success” by Carol Dweck

I am a novice. I am here to learn.

These two short phrases have helped me incredibly during my transition to Lima and they are the ones that I will make my students repeat again and again through out the school year. When we can accept that we are novices, when we can stop trying to prove how smart we are, that is when the true learning happens. As Dweck mentions in her book, it is our fear of “not being smart” that often leads us to reject opportunities for learning. What I have enjoyed about being in a new city is that it has given me the opportunity to feel like a novice again, rather than always acting as an expert.

During my final year in Mexico I felt stale. While I loved my city, my job and my weekends spent surfing, there was something missing. When I went out to eat, I often went to the same places where I knew I could get a great meal. In my teaching, I sometimes fell back on my tried and true lessons; the ones I knew would succeed. During my weekends, I headed to the same beach, the one with the break I loved and was comfortable surfing. Though none of this was bad, I was cruising in a comfort zone where things felt easy. In the words of Dweck, things were “flawless.” I was almost guaranteed a great meal, perfect lesson, and an awesome surf session; but I wasn’t learning.

Fast forward to July 10th. As I write this blog post, I am on a bus to Huaraz in the Cordillera mountains of Peru. Embracing the growth mindset, I took a risk and tried something new. Normally, I would have headed straight for the coast, in search of the best waves. Usually surfing is what drives my exploration. This is awesome, but it also prevents me from going to places that are not on the coast. While surfing is my passion, it also acts as my comfort zone. I know that I will have a great time surfing, which stops me from trying new experiences that I may or may not enjoy. This time though, inspired by “Mindset” and my first few days in Lima, I decided to branch out and try something new.

As I have been reading the book “Mindset” and learning how to navigate Lima, I have been struck by the idea that we often forget the “yet” that is inherent in the process of learning. As successful people we often feel like “hotshots,” cruising along in our comfort zone of success. When confronted with a new challenge, we feel the impending sense of “Oh my God, I can’t do that.” What Dweck explains is that we need to remind ourselves that we “don’t know how to do this-yet.” The “yet” is the key ingredient, as it points to the fact that we are not experts in everything and that learning is a process.

I have had to remind myself of this idea that learning is a process a number of times during my first few days in Lima. While at times it is difficult, it is also liberating. Rather than trying to find the perfect restaurant, the best spot to surf or the fastest bus route, I have been open to the idea of exploring and allowing myself the space to fail/learn. I am seeing first hand how failure and learning go hand in hand. By reading “Mindset,” I have become more comfortable with the idea that everything I do does not have to lead to immediate success.

As Dweck discusses, the fixed mindset makes us think that success should be immediate and that having to put in effort means we are somehow “failing.” By taking a growth mindset, I have felt more free to make mistakes and I have learned a lot more in the process. Additionally, what I would have once considered “failures” have now become “learning experiences.” If I get on the “wrong” bus, I learn a new route. If I randomly choose a restaurant, I learn about a new type of food or a different part of the city. In realizing that each experience is not a reflection of my “fixed ability” to succeed or fail, I have opened myself to learning and exploring without the tension of having to get it “right” the first time.

In reflecting, I am not saying that one has to change jobs and move to a new country to embrace the novice mindset. There are opportunities for learning new things even within the space of our “everyday experience.” The key is constantly reminding ourselves that whether we are in school or out of school, traveling to foreign lands or embracing the comforts of home, every experience holds the potential to teach us something new. All it takes is repeating two key phrases: I am a novice. I am here to learn.

No More Vows

“Research by Peter Gollwitzer and his colleagues shows that vowing, even intense vowing, is often useless. The next day comes and the next day goes. What works is making a vivid, concrete plan.”

-From “Mindset: The New Psychology of Success” by Carol Dweck

In thinking about my summer goal for the Innovation Academy I was reminded of this excerpt from the book “Mindset” This excerpt points to the fact that when we are trying to change something we need to be intentional. We need to move beyond vows, promises and vague ideas to clear and “actionable” steps. In a world of constant connectivity this step is incredibly hard. I often find myself so distracted by technology that I put off sitting down to map out a clear plan for my goals. Immersed in technology and also taking care of day to day errands, I vow to do many things but lack a clear plan for getting them done. My vow often becomes that I will sit down tomorrow and make a clear plan of action. All of this changed with the Innovation Academy summer assigment. By making the change intentional and public, I was forced to sit down and truly think about one habit that I wanted to change.

While I thought of many habits, there was one in particular that stood out to me. I feel that I have come to rely too heavily on the internet for articles and ideas and have lost touch with just simply observing and reflecting on how learning happens in everyday life. It is for this reason that I chose to dedicate my 30 days to reflecting each night on the question of how people learn. During this process, I will be reflecting on my own day to day experiences as well as considering some of the principals that stand out to me from the book “Mindset.”

Ever since I began teaching, I have always been interested in the question of how people learn. Being immersed in the school environment has made me question the traditional mode of learning and seek out other models and other thinkers that have wrestled with this same idea. The problem for me is that I feel like I spend a lot of time consuming information and not as much time reflecting on and absorbing the information.

The timing of this challenge could not be better, as I am both beginning a new phase in my teaching career with the Innovation Academy, as well a starting a new life in Lima, Peru. Both opportunities lend themselves well to reflecting on how people learn and thinking about how mindsets impact learning. In “Mindset,” Dweck focuses on the idea that “the view you adopt for yourself profoundly affects the way you lead your life.” In future posts my plan is to explore this idea as it relates to learning new things and stepping out of your comfort zone.