How Your Fantasies of Greatness Can Hold You Back



“One who fears failure limits his activities. Failure is only the opportunity to more intelligently begin again.” — Henry Ford

The irony of a deep desire to be great at what you do, can limit your ability to get better at what you do.

If you need to be a Great Writer, a Great Athlete, or a Great Genius, you actually hold yourself back.

You won’t take chances, you’ll nurture a fear of failure, and you’ll focus on fantasies instead of actually learning and getting better.

And that’s how you get stuck and stagnate, and fall into the trap of perfectionism.

A Fixed Mindset can hold you back, too.  That’s where you believe that either you were born great, or you were not.

A Growth Mindset frees you up.  That’s where you embrace the idea that you can get better with practice.

In the book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, Carol Dweck shares 3 stories about people who changed from a fixed mindset that held them back, to a growth mindset that set them free.

Don’t Let Fantasies of the “Great Author”, the “Great Athlete”, or the “Great Genius” Hold You Back

Don’t be held captive by fantasies of the Great Author, the Great Athlete, or the Great Genius.

The Great Author, the Great Athlete, or the Great Genius, is made, not born.

Sure, nature can help by starting you off with some gifts of greatness.

But you can’t grow your greatness when you are trying to live up to an image or just depend on whatever you were born with, instead of actually doing the work to get better.

Dweck writes:

“Of course, these people will have setbacks and disappointments, and sticking to the growth mindset may not always be easy. 

But just knowing it gave them another way to be. 

Instead of being held captive by some intimidating fantasy about the Great Writer, the Great Athlete, or the Great Genius, the growth mindset gave them courage to embrace their own goals and dreams

And more important, it gave them a way to work toward making them real.”

Embrace a Growth Mindset to Get Better

A fixed Mindset can hold you back.  It says you are either great, or you are not.

As a result, you don’t take chances, you fear failure, and you beat yourself over poor performance.

You hold yourself up to an ideal image that hurts you more than helps you.

On the other hand, a growth mindset can free you up.  A Growth Mindset says you can get better with practice.

Through training and development you can realize your full potential.

As a result, with a Growth Mindset, you focus on learning and improvement over perfectionism and results.

And like a fine wine, we get better over time.

You get better when you focus on the process of learning and getting better, not by living up to an imaginary ideal.

And you have to give up the idea that you were either “born with it” or you weren’t, so that you can get better with practice.

When we go from a Fixed Mindset to a Growth Mindset, we unleash our most powerful capability:

Our ability to learn and grow.

Story #1: How the Aspiring Writer Learned to Embrace a Growth Mindset

Maggie’s internal monologue went from “Don’t do it.  Don’t take a writing class.   Don’t share your writing with others. It’s not worth the risk. Your dream could be destroyed.  Protect it.” to “Go for it. Make it happen. Develop your skills.  Pursuit your dream.”

Dweck writes:

“I recognized that when it comes to artistic or creative endeavors I had internalized a fixed mindset. 

I believed that people were inherently artistic or creative and that you could not improve through effort

This directly affected my life because I have always wanted to be a writer, but have been afraid to pursue any writing classes or to share my creative writing with others. 

This is directly related to my mindset because any negative criticism would mean that I am not a writer inherently

I was too sacred to expose myself to the possibility that I might not be a ‘natural.’

Now after listening to your lectures, I have decided to register for a creative writing class next term.

And I feel that I have really come to understand what was preventing me from pursuing an interest that has long been my secret dream. 

I really feel this information has empowered me.”

Story # 2: How the Athlete Learned to Embrace a Growth Mindset

Jason’s internal monologue went from “Win. Win. You have to win.  Prove yourself. Everything depends on it.” to “Observe. Learn. Improve. Become a better athlete.”

Dweck writes:

“As a student athlete at Columbia I had exclusively the fixed mindset.  Winning was everything and learning did not enter the picture. 

However, after listening to your lectures, I realized that this is not a good mindset. 

I’ve been working on learning while I compete, under the realization that if I can continually improve even in matches, I will become a much better athlete.”

Story #3: How the Recovering Genius Learned to Embrace a Growth Mindset

Tony’s internal monologue went from “I’m naturally gifted. I don’t need to study. I don’t need to sleep. I’m superior.” to “Don’t worry so much about being smart.  Don’t worry so much about avoiding failures.  That becomes self-destructive. Let’s start to study and sleep and get on with life.”

Dweck writes:

“In high school, I was able to get top grades with minimal studying and sleeping.  I came to believe that it would always be so because I was naturally gifted with a superior understanding and memory

However, after about a year of sleep deprivation my understanding and memory began to not be so superior anymore. 

When my natural talents, which I had come to depend on almost entirely for my self-esteem (as opposed to my ability to focus, my determination, or my ability to work hard), came into question, I went through a personal crisis that lasted until a few weeks ago when you discussed the different mindsets in class. 

Understanding that a lost of my problems were the result of my preoccupation with proving myself to be ‘smart’ and avoiding failures has really helped me get out of the self-destructive pattern I was living in.”

What if your greatness was a journey, and every failure was another chance to learn and improve?

That’s how greatness happens.

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