On Growth Mindsets
by Nathan Thomas · 10 min read
The Hunger Pangs of Fear
At the beginning of his book Never Split the Difference, Chris Voss, a legendary former FBI hostage negotiator, describes being put on the spot at Harvard by two top professors in the negotiation and conflict resolution field.
They wanted to catch him off guard and debate him to see if his negotiation techniques (based around emotional intelligence and empathy for the other party) held up to their more logical, analytical, and rational approaches.
Chris says that, in that moment, he "experienced a flash of panic, but that was to be expected. It never changes: even after two decades of negotiating for human lives you still feel fear. Even in a role-playing situation."
In that moment, Chris says he felt like he was just "a street cop turned FBI agent playing against real heavyweights." But he chose to pull himself together, remember that he was there for a reason, and that he'd spent his life learning techniques that would help him succeed.
According to the story, he then proceeded to win the negotiation discussion by a landslide.
Why is it that we so often question ourselves when we're presented by huge growth opportunities? Why do we feel fear in the pit of our stomach and have a gut impulse to run away (even if we're experienced)?
We all desire on some level to learn and improve, so why do we respond this way?
"It's not that I'm so smart. It's just that I stay with problems longer."
- Albert Einstein
Opportunities Can Feel Daunting
When we're presented with new opportunities in life that will stretch and grow our abilities, it often looks to others like we have a simple choice between "yes" and "no." But that's not how it feels to us in the moment.
Under the surface, our mind might be running wild with considering how much work it will be, how we could fail publicly in front of others, or how we might end up discovering we're not as capable as we thought we were (which is what many people are most afraid of).
It's easier for us if we just say no. It's easier if we avoid finding out whether or not we really have what it takes to succeed.
Have you ever wondered why there are a million critics for every creative person struggling to reach their dream? If the critics are really such experts, why aren't they the ones out there developing great new music, manuscripts, or apps?
I read a while back (from a book that I can't seem to scrounge up at the moment) that, if we never actually try to reach for any of our dreams, we can take comfort in "what could have been" if we had.
If the dream stays a possibility but never a reality, we can tell others that we totally could have done something if that's what we had decided to do.
We're effectively choosing to stay where we are because we're worried that opening up that box in life will provide us with answers we don't want. It allows us to wallow in our own minds and continue existing in the fantasy world where we picture what could have been instead of what is.
It's like Schrödinger's cat, but it's your life instead.
("Schrödinger's cat" is a thought experiment in quantum mechanics where there's a box with a cat in it and also a device with a 50% chance of killing it. Until you open the box, you don't know if the cat is alive or dead. It's effectively both.)
However, not taking risks will end up being the biggest risk you ever take.
By not taking risks, you never grow. When you don't take opportunities as they pass you by, it also becomes easier and easier to utter the words, "I don't think this is the right time," "It just all seems so sudden," or "I'm just really busy right now."
"Always do what you are afraid of doing."
- Ralph Waldo Emerson
Default to Saying Yes
If this sounds like you, take heart in the fact that I've been there (and will be there again at different points throughout my life). Most other people have as well.
Instead, take a moment to appreciate your current mindset. You might be unhappy that you're not seizing growth opportunities, but something made you click on my article. Something brought you to the point of reading this sentence.
It's because you know something needs to change.
What I can offer you is the ticket out of the rut you're in. It's worked for me multiple times. Try saying "Yes."
It's really that simple.
Now, I don't mean that you should start saying "yes" to absolutely everything in your life like Jim Carrey in the movie Yes Man (where he has to say "yes" no matter what). Instead, what you need are some healthy boundaries while also accepting great opportunities in life as they pop up in front of you.
The next time you have a chance to make new friends or learn that new hobby you've been thinking about, turn off the negativity in your brain, say "yes," and figure out how to make it work afterwards.
If you feel fear in your stomach when thinking about presenting a speech, perhaps it's because you need to practice giving more speeches.
If you feel annoyance at the idea of mentoring others, perhaps it's a sign you need practice at teaching and building others up.
If a call goes out from your manager to work on a new project that would expand your skillset and your first impulse is "Eh, that sounds hard," maybe you should reconsider.
In these sorts of situations, try defaulting to a "yes" answer. By saying yes and committing, you're placing yourself in a position where you need to execute. Committing is the first step; the growth comes afterwards.
Smarter, Not Harder
There's a major problem with the prescription that I described above, and you probably already spotted it.
"This is stupid, Nate. If I start adding on tons of new tasks, I'm going to become burdened by life and never have any time to relax, be creative, or be myself."
You're right. There's a second part to this journey of growth discovery that desperately needs to be discussed, and it's about how to say "no."
This is the step that you've been waiting for even if you didn't know it yet. If you don't say "no" a lot of the time, you'll never be in the position to say "yes" when it's really important that you do.
Reevaluate your life and your day-to-day tasks. Are there any that can be safely cut loose?
Saying "no" can be just as scary as saying "yes" when it means that we're letting go of something that might be part of our identity or that others perceive we do really well.
However, it's an essential skill to develop; practicing it will open up the time you need to say "yes" when it matters.
"It is hard to fail but it is worse never to have tried to succeed."
- Theodore Roosevelt
There's a Cost You Can't See
Once upon a time, you made a series of decisions that led you to where you are right now. Those decisions might even have seemed risky or taken your breath away in anticipation.
As time went on, you quickly adapted to your new circumstances. Your mind started to adjust to the small details, both the good and the bad. Eventually, you accepted new annoyances as "life." The devil you knew seemed better than the ones you didn't.
But what you forgot is that there's a cost to growing complacent, and that cost will accumulate over your lifetime. You won't see it day-to-day because you've adapted, but it's there all the same.
I'm not writing this to scare you. Everyone (and I mean every single person) has regrets or actions in their past they would change if they could. Instead, let this motivate you.
Focus on the fact that there's a cost to staying still in life. Use this knowledge to your advantage when making big choices. Don't let your emotions trick you into thinking the risks are all on the side of striking out into the unknown.
The unknown will always feel difficult. But it's in exactly those moments where you need to weigh the costs of staying where you are against taking action to become what you could be.
"There is nothing like returning to a place that remains unchanged to find the ways in which you yourself have altered."
- Nelson Mandela
If there's one final point I can leave you with, it's to not beat yourself up too much. Everyone struggles to motivate themselves sometimes, myself included.
Focus on the future and saying "no" to what doesn't matter so you can default to "yes" for new growth opportunities that do.
Finally, remember that there's a cost to both sides of a choice when you're deciding whether or not to take action, and that taking a step into the unknown may never feel easy even if you're extremely experienced at it.
You've got this.
Thanks for reading. ☕️