How the right mindset can fuel your writing
By Brigid Whoriskey
It’s not that I’m so smart. It’s just that I stay with problems longer.
– Albert Einstein
My 21-year-old daughter, who is sometimes my teacher, gave me permission to tell this story. In fact, she is quite proud of it, as she should be!
At age 13 she was assessed with dyscalculia (difficulty in understanding maths)
At age 15 her school advised her to give up maths after she failed a test
At age 18 she achieved a B in her final year exams.
How did this young girl (who happens to be my daughter) achieve this? When she was told that she wouldn’t succeed at maths, she got annoyed. Who are they to tell me what I can and can’t do? She refused to give up. She asked for extra tuition. She worked harder on maths than on any other subject. She was determined to overcome the challenge.
On results morning, she stood in front of me staring at her smart phone, tears running down her face, as she croaked ‘I got a B in maths’. She’d nailed some A grades too, but the B in maths was her biggest punch-in-the-air moment. Since then, when faced with adversity, she often says, if I can nail maths, I can overcome anything.
So how did she do it?
She had the right mindset.
When she was failing, she looked for ways to improve. She put in the effort. She asked for help. She refused to be labelled. She believed that her ability and intelligence could grow with hard work. She didn’t know it at the time, but she adopted a Growth Mindset.
The power of yet
Have you ever lost confidence in your writing?
I’m just not good enough.
I’ll never get published.
Another rejection, what’s the point?
Other writers are so much better than me.
That last piece I had published was just a fluke.
It’s not worth the risk
The right mindset can shift that narrative in your head. The philosophy of Growth Mindset is that everyone can change and grow through effort and experience. Intelligence can be trained, and knowledge and ability can be developed through dedication and hard work. It’s the difference between
- I’m no good at maths
- I’m no good at maths yet
Growth mindset is about embracing lifelong learning and actively seeking, rather than avoiding, challenge. Feedback is seen as a way of improving. It’s about knowing that your skills and ability are not fixed, they can grow. It’s the power of that three-letter word ‘yet’. Negative thinking (I’ve been rejected again, it’s time to give up) is replaced with a positive, can-do attitude (I haven’t been published YET, it’s time to try harder).
Fixed and Growth Mindsets
‘For twenty years, my research has shown that the view you adopt for yourself profoundly affects the way you lead your life. It can determine whether you become the person you want to be and whether you accomplish the things you value.’
– Carol Dweck
Carol Dweck differentiates between a fixed and a growth mindset in her book Mindset: Changing the way you think to fulfil your potential. Someone with a fixed mindset believes you are born with a set of talents and abilities. Some people are inherently intelligent, others not so much. You are a certain kind of person and there is not much that can be done to change that. You have specific strengths, and you should play to them. Some people have the gift of writing; others struggle to string a coherent sentence together. You play the cards you have been dealt.
Someone with a Growth Mindset, on the other hand, believes that they can develop new talents through learning and hard work. Nothing is fixed. You are not inherently good or bad at something. There are just things you are not yet great at, that can be addressed through effort.
|Fixed Mindset||Growth Mindset|
|Focus on getting published and external validation||Focus on learning, and developing your writing craft|
|Believes that great writing comes naturally to successful authors||Believes that great writing takes effort (and much editing)|
|If I have to work that hard, I’m not a good writer||The harder I work, the better my writing becomes|
|Ignores criticism and negative feedback||Learns from criticism and feedback|
|Avoids challenge||Embraces challenge|
|Feels threatened by the success of others||Is inspired by the success of others|
Your mindset can play a big part in whether you fulfil your potential as a writer. A fixed mindset can lead you to sink into despair at setbacks and to question your talent. A growth mindset on the other hand, views those setbacks as challenges you can overcome (think of the dyscalculic teenager ignoring the advice to give up maths). Your focus is on the writing process, not just the end result; and you are willing to learn, to try different things and to change.
Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones that you did.
– Mark Twain
You are not alone
Malorie Blackman, of Noughts and Crosses fame, is by all accounts a successful writer. She has written over 70 books, sold around 2 million and was the children’s laureate. She won countless awards and was granted an OBE. It would be easy to assume that she has talent oozing out of her fingertips and was born to write. But it’s not as simple as that. My guess is that Marlorie Blackman has a growth mindset. She tweeted in 2020
Actually, my first eight or nine books were all rejected which resulted in 82 rejection letters before my first book was published. But who’s counting?’
How many of us would keep writing after 8 books had been rejected? Blackman is in good company. JK Rowling (over 450 million books sold) famously had her first Harry Potter manuscript rejected by 12 different publishers. She didn’t give up. Dr Seuss, William Golding, John Le Carré – the list goes on. They all faced multiple rejections. Not one of them gave up. They persevered, learned, improved, kept trying. They had the right mindset to fulfil their potential.
Writers are no strangers to rejection. That manuscript that you poured your heart into, only to have it rejected time and time again. It’s easy to conclude you’re not good enough. It’s easy to look at successful authors and think that they are so much more talented than you. It’s easy to overlook the effort and constant striving to improve that preceded their success.
Someone with a growth mindset will take learnings from every set-back. They will try different things, seek feedback, identify what steps they can take to improve. They will push their defensive reaction to one side in the face of criticism and look for the learnings it can bring. They will become ever more creative and will not be afraid to take risks. They will apply themselves, work hard, edit til it hurts – and above all keep trying.
Failures, repeated failures, are finger posts on the road to achievement. One fails forward toward success.
– C. S. Lewis
The science behind growth mindset
Neuroscience shows that undertaking challenging tasks, and learning new skills, establishes new neural pathways and connections. Persevering with difficult tasks can develop your brain and make you smarter. Growth mindset has been taught in schools for many years. Studies show that students who develop their growth mindset, all other things being equal, achieve better grades than those with a fixed mindset. They work harder because they believe they can improve.
An early mindset research study asked students challenging questions while measuring their brainwaves (Mangels et al., 2006). The students firstly received performance feedback (i.e. whether the answer was correct or incorrect). Then they received learning feedback (i.e. the right answer). The brainwaves showed that the fixed mindset students paid more attention to whether the answer was right or wrong (oh no, I got that wrong, I’m not so smart). The growth mindset students paid more attention to what the correct answer was (oh, so that’s the right answer, let me figure out how I can do better next time). In the follow up test, guess which students performed better?
Now imagine applying that to your writing. Next time things aren’t going so well, try focussing on the learnings and addressing the challenge head on.
“Live as if you were to die tomorrow; learn as if you were to live forever”
– Mahatma Gandhi
How to develop a growth mindset
The good news is that you can develop a growth mindset, if you want to. All it takes is a bit of focus and effort. Here are a few tips:
- Focus on the learning.
- Study your writing craft. There are endless resources available for aspiring and experienced writers.
- Seek feedback on your writing and embrace constructive comments.
- Develop a questioning habit. On completion of a writing project or task, ask yourself what did I learn from this?
- Study writers you admire as an opportunity to learn – not just from their writing style but also how they cope with challenges and knock backs. Even best-selling authors get some 1* reviews. But that doesn’t stop them.
- Take the plunge.
Don’t be afraid to take risks. If the current approach doesn’t work, try something different. Choose difficult and challenging tasks. Write poetry if you are a prose writer. Enter a competition. Join a writing group. Read on an open mic night. If you stay in your comfort zone, you’re not going to grow.
- Change the narrative you tell yourself.
Don’t listen to that voice inside your head that questions if you are good enough. Tell yourself you are; you can do this; you can learn. You are a writer. And a damn good one. Adopt Michelle Obama’s mantra, which she repeated throughout her life when she had doubts ‘Am I good enough? Yes I am.’
- View failure as an opportunity to learn.
Never fear rejection, it’s just part of the process, as every successful published writer will tell you. When faced with a challenge, ask ‘what can I do next? It’s ok to give yourself a moment to experience disappointment but move on quickly. If you don’t, its self-sabotage.
No matter what, just write. If you don’t take your writing seriously, how can you expect anyone else to? Join a writing club (like the Sunday Writers Club), set up an accountability group to support you to develop a writing habit, set writing goals. Whatever works for you.
And finally, is this formula guaranteed to deliver writing success? Of course not. Luck and other factors also play their part. But nurturing a growth mindset will fuel your writing, boost your enjoyment, and increase your chances of success. As Henry Ford said whether you think you can, or you think you can’t, you’re right.
If you are interested in delving deeper into the worlds of growth mindset and positive psychology, there are countless excellent resources at your disposal. A few of my personal favourites are:
- Mindset – changing the way you think to fulfil your potential, by Dr Carol S. Dweck – the seminal book on Growth mindset
- Carol Dweck’s TED Talk – The power of believing that you can improve
- The Happiness Lab podcast, hosted by Dr Laurie R Santos of Yale University
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