This past holiday season, I by-passed the standard wine and candy and instead gave a number of my colleagues at work two books that have had an enormous impact on me personally and professionally: Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, by Carol Dweck, and Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead, by Brené Brown.
I am not a big reader; I tend to progress very slowly and usually absorb information more effectively in experiential contexts. But these two books were so relevant and valuable to me that I overcame my reticence to read and as a result they have been highly influential in my efforts to lead teams effectively and to raise my own children compassionately. And most importantly, they have helped me decode things about myself and others. Why do we act the way we do in certain contexts and why do we respond to particular situations in sometimes non-productive ways? Why do we sometimes chafe at what could be helpful feedback? Why do we sometimes try to puff ourselves up and act confident when in fact we need support and help from the people around us? Why do we crave approval when we could be spending all that energy actually becoming better at the things we care most about?
In thinking about how many of us struggle with these questions in our work and personal lives as we manage and parent, I thought that the best gifts I could give my colleagues are the gifts of growth and vulnerability. Of course, these are only books; in the end we are the only ones who, through courage and resilience, can bestow these gifts upon ourselves.
The Gift of Growth
I’ve often talked about the parallels between learning to be a good manager and learning to be a good parent, and no book has brought this connection more clearly to light that than Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, by Carol Dweck. I first heard Dweck speak years ago at an event held locally in Palo Alto; it was promoted as an opportunity for parents to learn about her research into the development of what she calls a “growth mindset”. This growth mindset is the kind of perspective that encourages positive risk-taking and tenacity in the learning curve. I had observed with my own children fairly stark differences in their individual tolerance for “failure” and relishing the learning curve. One child tried to learn to water ski and gave up after falling twice, never to try again. The other child, a few years later, declared an intent to learn, and tried to get up on water skis….14 times. 14 times before succeeding. As she got back into the boat after finally succeeding at her goal, I said, “Kid, you are going places.” Luckily for me, I’d read Dweck’s book, and could recognize the signs of a growth mindset.
A growth mindset is one that believes our abilities are fluid and changeable. That we can and will learn more skills and even new talents, if we work at it. A “fixed mindset”, on the other hand, believes are talents and abilities are set and static; those with a fixed mind set tend to define their value by the skills they naturally have, and therefore failure at at level is crushing to the self-esteem.
Dweck nicely summarizes her thesis in the following quote:
Nigel Holmes has developed a great summary of the fixed v growth mindset in this info graphic:
Where do you see yourself in this diagram? I wish I could say I consistently see myself on the growth side, and indeed I think I often exhibit those attributes, but if I am being honest with myself, I can see all kind of examples where I dip into the fixed mindset. Believing I can't address and improve areas of weakness that are holding me back. Avoiding hard conversations or challenges that feel intimidating. And even feeling like success is a zero-sum game, where others doing well might mean there is less opportunity for me. These are painful admissions, but being honest with ourselves is the first step in any road to growth.
One of the most striking findings that Dweck talks about is the fact that a disproportionate number of successful CEOs have learning disabilities, when compared to the general public. Why is this so? Because they have grown up having to work hard, to struggle, and to not accept their abilities as static. They understand that “failure” is, in fact learning. For “gifted” children, the very abilities genetically bestowed upon them can, in fact, be their very undoing. Because many things come easily to them, they are less inclined to have to struggle early on and can become less tolerant of struggle and the learning curve that are critical to growth.
On the surface, this sounds like yet another self-help book filled with platitudes. But her work is extremely convincing and rigorously researched - Stanford doesn’t tend to hire people who are purely motivational speakers. There is resounding evidence that people can, for instance, increase their IQ; one of the things that we have assumed for so long is something we are innately born with and cannot change. As I listened to hear speak that night years ago in a small auditorium in Palo Alto, her words and insights resonated deeply with me, and when I read her book, I was floored by how relevant and actionable her findings were. I know I regularly catch myself, or my colleagues, or my kids, falling into the fixed mindset trap, and on good days, I am able to coach myself or them out of it, into a place where I am open to learning, development, and growth.
Recently, This American Life featured Dweck’s work and a number of stories of people going well beyond what they “should” be able to achieve. If you are hesitant to jump right into the book, this show is a great primer on the concepts of her work and hopefully will encourage you to dig deeper to explore what it means to develop a growth mindset in your colleagues, your kids, and yourself.
So we know that embracing failure and learning is crucial to realizing our full potential. The evidence is quite clear. But what keeps us doing it? That is where Brene´ Brown's work comes in.
The Gift of Vulnerability
A few years ago, I was attending the last session of TED 2012 conference, which was winding down to its final speaker, Dr. Brené Brown. The program explained that Brown was a research professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work who has spent the past decade studying vulnerability, courage, worthiness, and shame. I had no idea what to expect, but the talk ended up having a deep and lasting affect on me. She talked about the difference between shame and guilt. She talked about fear of failure. And she talked about believing ourselves worthy of love AS WE ARE, and not if we clear yet another hurdle in proving ourselves to others or, even more so, to ourselves.
There are many interesting parallels between Dweck and Brown’s work. Both see the critical role of struggle and failure in the development of skills and of character. Dweck approaches this topic from a more clinical and logical point of view, while Brown goes to the heart of why we might cling fast to the self-defeating fixed mind set: our deep-seated fear of being vulnerable.
I grew up in a family where competence was an enormously valued trait. Being good at something felt like the most important thing you could be, and when you look at how the lives of my eight siblings and me have evolved, this explains a lot. Doctors. Lawyers. Bankers. People who excel. People who succeed. This tendency to focus on always doing right and being right is something that I have only recently begun to understand as a major influence in my personal and professional life. The fear of not living up to those high expectations can be crippling to personal growth. To this day, my most stressful times are when I mess something up in front of my family; more than major missteps at work (and those happen too!), these times can cause serious anxiety attacks in me, turning my usual confident self into a bundle of insecurity.
As a manager, I try to encourage people to bring their whole selves to work, to embrace and accept themselves with all their foibles and flaws, and to not try to create a facade of infallibility. No one believes in perfection, so any attempt to present oneself that way comes across as inauthentic, which in my mind is much worse than having areas of weakness. Accepting that lesson for myself, and allowing myself to be imperfect, however, has at times proven more difficult. As it turns out, I am much more forgiving of others than I am of myself.
But your employees, your children, your friends and family look at what you do much more than they pay attention to what you say. If I am unforgiving on my own mistakes or my own areas of weakness, how can I expect others to being forgiving and accepting of themselves and others? I also sometimes struggle to connect the dots between what I find appealing in leaders and what I aspire to myself. For instance, I find it enormously appealing when leaders reveal vulnerabilities; when they admit their missteps, when they reveal things they are struggling with, when they show self-acceptance of their whole selves, or the struggle to do so. These admissions only strengthen my admiration and respect for people, and in fact show them to be stronger than they may have seemed before; the exact opposite of what our culture seems to train us to believe.
In her book, Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead, Brown says, “Vulnerability is the core of shame and fear and our struggle for worthiness but it is also the birthplace of joy and creativity, of belonging, and of love.” Her research shows that we learned to protect ourselves from vulnerability - from being hurt, diminished, or disappointed - by putting on emotional armor and acting invulnerable when we were children. Brown writes, “Vulnerability is not a weakness; everyone is vulnerable, everyone needs support from friends and family. Trust and vulnerability go hand in hand.”
Perfectionism is a key way that we block ourselves from self-acceptance. If we believe ourselves to be perfect, we can avoid feelings of shame, judgement and blame. And this impacts how we look at and behaves towards others. Brown explains, “We judge people in areas where we’re vulnerable to shame, especially picking folks who are doing worse than we’re doing. If I feel good about my parenting, I have no interest in judging other people’s choices. If I feel good about my body, I don’t go around making fun of other people’s weight or appearance. We’re hard on each other because we’re using each other as a launching pad out of our own perceived deficiency.”
Her research and findings apply poignantly to parenting as well. “Raising children who are hopeful and who have the courage to be vulnerable means stepping back and letting them experience disappointment, deal with conflict, learn how to assert themselves, and have the opportunity to fail. If we’re always following our children into the arena, hushing the critics, and assuring their victory, they’ll never learn that they have the ability to dare greatly on their own.”
Brown believes we must to a wide range of feelings in order to combat shame, overcome perfectionism, and stop the act of disengagement that separates us from ourselves and others. “Rather than sitting on the sidelines and hurling judgment and advice,” she writes, “we must dare to show up and let ourselves be seen. This is vulnerability. This is daring greatly.”
The title of her book, "Daring Greatly", was inspired by a quote from Theodore Roosevelt’s speech “Citizenship in a Republic,” delivered at the Sorbonne in Paris in 1910:
Brown once said that when she read this quote by Roosevelt, she simultaneously wanted and to and feared being that person in the arena. “If we want to be courageous and we want to be in the arena, we're going to get our butts kicked. There is no option. If you want to be brave and show up in your life, you're going to fail. You're going to stumble. You're going to fall. It's part of showing up."
If you don’t want to dive straight into Brown’s book, her original TEDx talk gives an excellent primer not only on her research, but her extraordinary storytelling abilities. Don’t let her folksy style fool you into thinking you shouldn’t take her seriously; she’s a rigorous researcher who is an true expert at making her work accessible to all.
As I look at my colleagues, and my children, and myself, and consider the hopes I have for all of us to grow and flourish, I see these two researchers and their work as inspiring tools to help us all get into the arena, accepting ourselves and others as we are, and reaching new highs of learning and joy.