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Mindsets: how to maximise your mental potential

18 Apr 2017 | Daniel Lerner

The following is an excerpt from Dan Lerner and Alan Schlechter's new book U Thrive, a comprehensive guide to surviving and thriving in college and beyond.


"A mind that is stretched by a new experience can never go back to its old dimensions" ~ Oliver Wendell Holmes

Running a mile in under four minutes was supposed to be impossible.

In 1954, the conventional wisdom was that our muscles, tendons, and bones were incapable of sustaining the pace necessary for such a feat.

But British runner Roger Bannister wasn't conventional. He believed differently, and on May 6, 1954, became the first human being to break the four-minute barrier, running the mile in three minutes and 59.4 seconds. It was an incredible accomplishment, but it wasn't the end of this story.

Only one month after Bannister's landmark effort, the record was broken again. Within a year, the record was broken four more times, and as of 2016, a sub-four-minute mile has been achieved more than five thousand times.

It wasn't physical capabilities that constrained runners before Bannister, it was the mental ceiling they kept hitting. Like so many limits, the four-minute barrier was all in the mind.

Once that barrier was broken, the imagination of what was possible for the human body was forever altered - not just for Bannister, but also for those  who followed him.

Bannister didn't just break a record, he shattered a mindset.

Possible And Able


Mind Games: Challenging Our Limitations

While some of us may not have had a mindset regarding the human capacity to run swiftly, there are mindsets that many of us share. A mindset is any firmly held belief about our qualities or what we are capable of, physically, intellectually, or in any other sense imaginable.

It is determined by every experience we have ever had: our accomplishments and failures in kindergarten, how our parents praised and punished us, and relationships that brought us agony or ecstasy - every experience that taught us about our limits, or lack of them.

Our mindsets are often called implicit, meaning we are rarely aware of how they were formed and believe in them as truth everlasting. That is, until we bring our attention to them. Your mindset about mindsets is being built as you read these very words!

Our mindsets affect the decisions we make, how we understand our personalities, our relationships, our intelligence, and even the classes we take and the internships we apply for. They dictate our potential for change, motivation, behavior, learning style, performance, and potential.

Some mindsets provoke a lot of debate (e.g., does life begin at conception or at birth?), but it is the ones that are rarely questioned or contemplated that we will focus on here.

As important as your mindsets are, it can be tough to step back far enough to gain proper perspective to recognize their role in your life. As with the people who didn't believe the four-minute mile was possible, sometimes your mindset can blind you to your true potential.

With the right kind of knowledge and a bit of practice, you can learn to step back from your mindsets, evaluate them, and, as your awareness increases, alter them to maximize your potential to thrive.

You can develop mindsets to help you slay challenging courses, recover from a bad breakup, or steer out of any other skid in the road that is uniquely yours. The mindsets you establish now open you up to all the extraordinary people, ideas, and experiences that are available in college, building not just knowledge but a deeper understanding of the "real world" you're on the verge of stepping into.

Growth -v -Fixed


Fixed vs. Growth Mindsets

For Stanford University's Carol Dweck, there are two essential types of mindsets: a fixed mindset and a growth mindset.

If you have ever been told (or perhaps have said), "I can't change that, it's just the way I am", you have encountered a fixed mindset. If someone can't change whatever "that" is (attitude, ability, belief, you name it), what's the point of trying? None. Drop the mike, conversation over.

If we don't believe we can change, there's no reason to try. Feedback? No thank you. Tutors? Waste of pizza money. If the grades aren't good now, they never will be. When someone with a fixed mindset bombs a test, their effort (and often interest) in the class drops with it. Even when they do well, it is often not enough.

During college, Alan couldn't look himself in the mirror if he had less than a perfect grade which, quite often, he did not. He spent a lot of time feeling disappointed. In his senior year, his dream finally came true when a biology exam came back with a score of 105. Better than perfect! Rejoice!

But then he saw that there had been a 20-point curve, and his immediate thought was: "I could have gotten a 120." He quickly threw the test away, but even eight years before becoming a psychiatrist, Alan knew that something was wrong with his reaction.

People with growth mindsets are the opposite. Regardless of their results, they are always looking for ways to improve. Smack a student with a growth mindset in the face with a paper full of red ink and they'll respond with a tsunami of effort and tenacity.

For people with growth mindsets, a loss is a lesson and a bad grade on a paper is a fine opportunity to practice revision skills. Feedback? Bring it. Challenges? The bigger the better. When you know that you can change, that you can learn, and that you can improve, every challenge is an opportunity.

Vvg Quote

Given the differences between the two mindsets, it's not hard to figure out that a student with a growth mindset is more likely to thrive, whereas a student with a fixed mindset is going to live in survival mode.

Before you despair at having a fixed mindset, however, it's important to remember that mindsets are rarely all-encompassing. You may see yourself as having a fixed mindset in class ("I can't get any smarter") but having a growth mindset in relationships ("I am really inspired by how she pushes my boundaries").

Most importantly, mindsets change.

By the time Alan reached medical school, his mindset had been altered significantly. On his very first exam, the passing grade was a 67, and Alan received a 67.5 along with a handwritten note by the professor: "You may have passed this exam, but you do not know the material."

Alan fought his instinct to crumple up the blue book and browbeat himself, instead searching out a TA so he could learn where he had screwed up and figure out how to be better prepared for his next test. Perfection was no longer the be-all and end-all.

Progress, it turned out, was just as valuable, if not more so.


U Thrive is a fun, comprehensive guide to surviving and thriving in college and beyond.

Daniel Lerner is a speaker, teacher, strengths-based performance coach, and an expert in positive and performance psychologies. In the classroom and in his talks, Lerner integrates storytelling, humor, and science, helping students and professionals apply his teachings into their lives with immediate benefit.


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