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Growth Mindset

Updated: Aug 15, 2022

“Complacency breeds mediocrity - fight both everyday.” -Peter Corbett

Growth Mindset is a term coined by Dr. Carol Dweck, a psychologist at Stanford University. It refers to a state of mind that is primed for learning, effort, and achievement, a key component of which is reframing our relationship to failure.

In her book Yes Please, Amy Poehler describes her experience on joining the cast of Saturday Night Live. Obsessively, people would ask her if she was nervous about her new job. This was her response:

“I think it’s glorious to be nervous. Being nervous is great! How often do we get nervous on a daily basis? Being slightly nervous means you care, and you’re alive, and you’re taking some kind of risk… A friend told me to substitute the word ‘excitement’ for ‘nervous’. That way you acknowledge the physical feelings without putting a negative spin on things.” - Amy Poehler

This left a strong impact on me, and it's something I share with all my students. There’s a hairline difference between nervousness and excitement. They are nearly the same emotion. They are both an energetic, grand, whirlwind of anticipation. So choose excitement. Choose to see nervousness as excitement. Nervousness controls you, but excitement gives you control. That’s the mindset we need to improvise.

The opposite of a Growth Mindset is a Fixed Mindset, referring to a belief that you are unable to grow past a certain point, that your limits outweigh your potential, and that future challenges will eclipse your success.

Growth Mindset, on the other hand, necessitates a belief that you are capable of change. Your potential is the great unknown; challenges are welcomed; and criticism, failures, and setbacks are useful tools for reflection, as opposed to stifling blows to our ego.

While many of us might see the logic in failure - we nod our heads in agreement, understanding that practice makes perfect - we still have a difficult time actualizing that knowledge. Like a wanderer that discovers a shortcut in the form of road less traveled, but still continues on the weary path, so too do we continue avoiding failure even after learning of its utility. We slip back into the familiar embrace of our fear, fixing our mindset according to the limits that we have self imposed.

Ironically, I find that many improvisers who once embraced growth, unconsciously slide into a Fixed Mindset. When they’ve been improvising for a few years, they’ve taken all the classes, they perform every week, and have developed true proficiency, their growth comes to a grinding halt. Why?

When they began improvising they had a different mindset. It was trial and error. It was many bad performances and some that were extraordinary. And then, when they mastered the basics, their growth stopped.

Some folks are fine with this. For them, improv is a fun hobby, a pick-up Basketball game, something recreational. But for the perfectionists, the improvisers who are pursuing excellence, this phase of their development can be excruciatingly painful.

To overcome this sophomore slump the answer is to do something different. If you never play big characters, with accents, costumes, and dynamic physicalities - play big characters. If you never sing in your scenes, sing. If you don’t know how to do a dramatic improv scene, do the saddest scene possible. After that, stop doing improv. Do a play. Dance. Travel. Write. Learn a new skill. Go on a date. Talk to strangers. Practice wellness! Don’t get hooked on the rush of going to the theatre seven nights a week. Stop saying yes to improv and start saying yes to yourself.

I often ask my upper level students to remember what it felt like when they took their very first improv class. “You were probably nervous and excited,” I say. “Don’t forget that feeling! Don’t forget the fear that motivated you to try something new. Follow that fear. Seek new experiences.”

My mom used to say, “If you always do what you always did, you’ll always get what you always got.” I didn’t know it at the time, but with that catchy phrase, she was warning me against a Fixed Mindset. And that, dear reader, is a warning I pass on to you.

“You cannot pour from a cup that is empty.” -proverb

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