Thursday, June 5, 2014

Growth Mindset Forest: A System 1 Translation

Related Posts: Urge Propagation In Action, The Most Useful Mnemonic Technique, A Stroll Through My Palace, Ars Memoriae

I was once counseling a friend at the end of a CFAR workshop. Unsurprisingly, she had a zillion ideas running around in her head, and she was afraid they'd all vanish a week after she left. "Even the most important ones," she told me, "are so full of insight and meaning right now, and I think that even if I remember the basics of what they are in a week, I won't remember why they're so important. They won't keep their effects on my patterns of thought and emotion."

"What's the most important thing you learned this weekend?" I asked her. 

"I must cultivate a growth mindset," she declared. I could feel the strength of that idea resonating through her in her voice and body language as she said the words. In my view, the most important thing I could do for her was to make sure she had access to that feeling when she needed it most.

"Why should you cultivate growth mindset?" I asked. "What goals does it accomplish?"

"Well, sort of all of them," she said. "I have goals like graduating college, improving my relationships, and being more agenty in general. In the past, depression has gotten in the way, and I've been very fixed mindset about it, thinking I could never get any better because I was a Depressed Person and I might as well give up. If I feel like I can grow and change out of depression, all those other things are a lot more likely to happen. With fixed mindset, I'll just go with the default, never exceeding my expectations for myself or becoming stronger than I already am."

"Awesome. Break it down: What are the ideas at play?" 

We identified five central parts of her insight*: 'the process of growth', 'the feeling when you're tempted by fixed mindset', 'the unwanted outcome of remaining in fixed mindset', 'the desired outcome of adopting growth mindset', and 'The causal link from a single instance of resisting fixed mindset to becoming stronger'."

"Perfect," I said. "Time to translate this into The Language of System 1. You know the drill!"

How To Translate

1. Concretize

  • Associate with the process of growth: A green and growing tree that expends time and effort but keeps going. 
  • Keeping with the tree theme, associate with 'the feeling when you're tempted by fixed mindset: A brain carved from a tree stump made of dry, brittle wood that can never grow. 
  • The unwanted outcome of staying in fixed mindset: The brain stump is dead and rotting away. 
  • The predicted outcome of employing growth mindset consistently: A giant redwood tree reaching up through the canopy to the sunlight, too tall and strong to stay hidden in the darkness or to fall in a storm. 
  • The causal link from a single instance of resisting fixed mindset to becoming stronger: New growth emerging out of the rotting stump.

2. Exaggerate

The tree is so tall, it reaches up through the clouds! Not one tree, but a whole forest. A new tree for every skill, new growth from another dead stump every time I try something new, a downpour of nourishing rain soaked up through the roots when I risk failure to reach beyond my current abilities,  brilliant sunlight radiating from persistent practice onto every leaf in the forest!

3. Use More Senses

Not just an image of this forest. I feel the upward stretching in my body when I try a little harder. I feel warm sunlight, cool rain, and wind through the branches as the trees bend without breaking. I hear the downpour, and the music of happy birds in the branches. I smell the rotting of the dead stumps, and the fresh scent of healthy green life when they begin to grow again.

4. Engage Personally

I am this forest, of course. The trees are vaguely shaped like my body. I am the one reaching up, and I make my branches dance in the breeze to the birdsong. I call forth the sun and the rain, and I decide to make dead stumps nourish new growth. In the brain stumps, I am curled up inside, hiding.

5. Tell a Story

Right now, the whole landscape is covered in dry tree stumps. But here I am, one lone growing tree, and nothing will stop me from reaching the sky. Whenever I feel a tree stump rotting, I'll reach upward with new growth, I'll water the ground, and over time, my whole world will all be a lush forest.

Checking Your Work

"So what do you think," I asked. "Is this translation strong enough to affect your actions a month down the line, six months, a year? Does it have an emotional impact that'll hit you every time?"

"Hell yes."


After writing this, I checked back in with the friend to find out whether she still uses the Growth Mindset Forest, whether it works, and whether she's changed anything about it. I committed to publishing whatever result she reported.

Turns out she's still using this four months later, and it works well! She's changed the name, though: She's now calling it "Frondescence", which I completely love. She says it's one of the few things powerful enough for her to use when she's in a place of hopelessness and despair. It doesn't totally solve the problem every time, but it seems to help at least a little in most cases, and often it produces large positive results.

Specific example: She got a low grade on a test and was tempted to be all gloomy about it and give up. But instead, she used Frondescence and kept working so she could get a better grade next time. Yay!


*This motivation-hacking technique, and especially the identification of goals and the effects single actions have toward accomplishing them, is inspired by a method CFAR calls "Propagating Urges" (though the method and name evolve over time). The idea of "System 1 Translation" was inspired by the book Made To Stick by Dan and Chip Heath.