Finding fulfilment in failure: thoughts on the growth mindset, from a psychologistFeatured

Some time ago I was faced with a major life event - my fiance shattered his knee in a ridiculously improbable accident, jogging on the street. We'd been avid mountaineers and runners for 10 years, and then life threw us a curveball. We tried to push through the frustration of a slow recovery with an uncertain outcome. My fiance read KneeGuru stories in alternate waves of desperation and optimism; I collected research and statistics on how to improve his chances to walk normally again. It felt tempting to just trust the doctors’ prognosis that he won’t ever run again; it felt tempting to conclude it was useless to trudge together in the bitter cold, him on slippery crutches, for an hour every day. Then my fiance noticed he didn’t crave walking after skipping a day or two. And that’s when we knew - it was about psychology, about mindset. We needed to switch to a growth mindset, and we were stuck in a fixed one. The single best way to get out of a fixed mindset that I know of is to think of everything as changeable - be it success or failure, be it for better or worse (of course, we prefer it to be better, but the first step is to see it as changeable).I’ve found three tactics to switch to seeing things as changeable: 1) perspective: imagine you’re looking back at your life in ripe old age, and this event or outcome turned out for the best in the grand scheme of things;2) meaningfulness: cultivate curiosity by removing your ego and the personal consequences for you, by looking at the event as valuable information about the world from which you can learn;3) strength: find energy and resourcefulness by reminding yourself of past situations where you succeeded in making things better or overcoming obstacles.These tactics are hard because they take mental effort, and your brain will fight to switch to the complete opposite. This happened to us with my fiance’s injury - it’s difficult to numb your thinking to life-changing consequences that seem inevitable. It’s hard to see it as something to learn from, apart from the fact that incredibly bad luck happens to anyone.We tried to see perspective by thinking this was still a minor injury compared to dying on top of a mountain (yes, it’s okay if you come up with something as ridiculous as this). We tried to see learning in that fate was telling us to be more humble about our activities and to start valuing our health. We tried to find energy and stay positive by remembering tougher situations we’d been in and got out of, in good health and spirits (a fall into a crevasse in the Alps comes to mind).This is only the first step. Once you learn to switch your mindset to a growth perspective, it’s time to take some action - these actions are what’s going to feed your energy and optimism in the future, when you need a story of success to keep going. I have two pieces of advice here: follow your intuition and stick to a routine. Intuition gets bad rep as irrational, when in fact it’s based off of everything we’ve learnt in our lives. Double down on that gut feeling that’s telling you what makes sense for you. No-one knows you like you know yourself, so other people’s opinion or expectations of the world can never be as helpful as your own intuition.We were reading all these horrible stories about recovery failures, and it was difficult not to generalize them to our situation. But we didn’t know a whole lot about these other people, so we chose to give ourselves the benefit of the doubt and do our best. We developed a routine to stick to, a regimen of exercises and step goals to achieve and adapt depending on my fiance’s progress. This routine has to be constant, but also strategic. Decide in advance how you would adapt it as needed, depending on your progress.We stuck to the routine religiously, robotically. We completed step goals by “cheating”, at times changing a phone’s clock to an earlier time zone to finish up the daily goal before midnight. My fiance walked around our apartment in circles when we couldn’t go out because a storm was thrashing outside for two days. Eventually we started having a bit of fun with planning my fiance’s daily exercises. I put together a few Excel spreadsheets that provided different workouts for him, to keep it fun. He also needed a more convenient way to get the workouts and practice the correct exercise form, so we started “programming” the spreadsheets via a bunch of functions and schedulers. We both work in technology - I dropped out of my PhD in Psychology at Stanford a decade ago to go into product management for Artificial intelligence technology, and my fiance specialises in distributed computing. At some point, we started to entertain the idea of turning our system of spreadsheets into an app that other people could benefit from.We envisioned it as “a video workout creator” that generates exercise sessions based on your preferences - everything from difficulty and duration, to how varied a session would be in terms of repeating exercises. We took the most crucial bits of everything that worked for us and we created an algorithm that designs structured workouts based on anatomical knowledge, exercise science data etc. Months later, on a holiday in Portugal, we sacrificed half our time to shoot videos of me demoing the exercises on the cliffs and beaches. We’d get up at 5 am to catch the sunrise and avoid having people walking their dogs in the background. It was hard work, but also lots of unexpected fun. We released the app in July, and called it Jumpy Cat, after our kitty. Over the past months, lots of people from all levels of fitness have used Jumpy Cat to stay active during stay-at-home orders. People with sedentary jobs, people in the blind and low vision community, seniors, have all shared with us about how they found it easier to get exercise with our app. We’re now building out Jumpy Cat into a platform where people can find diverse and inclusive fitness videos, to stay active without needing to plan ahead and without spending money on a personal trainer. Mindset and technology helped my fiance's recovery; his accident helped us to build something that we hope will leave a mark in the world, for the better.
What an amazing story! Thanks so much for sharing. I love the emphasis on perspective and humility. Looking at every situation willing to learn. You and your husband are the definition of grit!
@HannahBaldovino Thank you for reading, I sincerely hope this story buoys you up when you come across a challenge or failure. Happy New Year! :)
This is an incredible story with really powerful insights. Love that I came across this in the final week of 2020 too. Thank you for sharing ✨
@arielleshnaidman I'm so glad to hear this resonated with you! This year has been tough for lots of people, and life doesn't really ask us when to serve up challenges, does it. I hope it inspires you to keep going when the going gets tough. Happy New Year! :)
Thank you so much for this inspirational story. It is a great read in the last few days of 2020.
@susanfung thanks for taking time to read! I do hope it gives a realistic perspective on how confronting challenges with a growth mindset can lead to something positive and fulfilling. Taking charge even when everything seems to be going against you can feel so empowering, I do hope you feel this in this New Year. Happy 2021! :)
@silviaem I definitely can relate to the article. I lost my job of 9 years in 2019 & started a new job in 2020. It wasn’t the same job & I did take a substantial pay cut when I took it but I took it as a opportunity to grow & develop some new skills.I asked for a project that is completely outside of my skill set. I’m hoping that project will turn out great & it opens up another door for me within the organization. I guess time will tell.
This is just what I needed to wrap up 2020 👌🏾🤗. Thank you so much for sharing your story. Knee injuries cut my pro basketball career short but stories like these truly helps me to have perspective on life. Health is everything. Thanks again!
@NicoleSL That must have been tough, I don't know if I can even imagine what it feels to have this impact your career! In our case it affected our lifestyle, and hobbies - which we love a lot, but we were lucky to be able to focus on recovery and building a growth mindset. It's never simple, but mindset can be so so powerful. Happy New Year! :)
I love this! Parts of it remind me of something I learned at a women's leadership weekend a few years ago-After identifying the pattern or behavior, I ask myself if I'm willing to treat problems that I feel stuck on playfully.That is, I ask myself if I'm able to have flexible, imaginative, creative thinking around this issue, or if I'm committing to staying stuck in my ways? I have found that helpful to me, and believe your 3 tips for changing mindsets dovetail quite neatly. Thank you again for sharing this with us!
@MiraDaniels Thanks for sharing! Indeed, playfulness can be super powerful in helping us get a perspective, because it invites us to look at things in many different ways, without being under pressure. We can give ourselves permission to be more playful even as we get older :) Happy New Year!