Geetanjali Mukherjee

Monday, July 18, 2016

Mindset and Creativity

Last year while researching my book on study skills I came across this fantastic book called Mindset. It’s written by renowned psychologist Dr. Carol Dweck, and reading the book changed the way I saw a lot of things. It definitely had a huge impact on the way I presented and wrote my book.

I was reminded of this book recently because I have been reading Succeed: How We Can Reach Our Goals by Dr. Heidi Grant Halvorson, coincidentally a mentee and colleague of Dr. Dweck. While reading her book I have been thinking a lot about the struggles I have been facing recently with my book writing and other goals, and thought I will share some of my insights (at least those regarding writing) in the case that they are useful.

Basically one of the big takeaways for me from the book Mindset was that there are two ways of looking at challenges, goals and similar things. One is that of the fixed mindset - where you are more concerned with how you appear to others, with proving something - that you are smart (in the context of school) or that you are a good writer (in our context). The other attitude is that of a growth mindset - where you are more interested in learning or improving, and even when something is hard, you persevere because you want to master the subject. Although in the Succeed book the terms are different, its basically the same point. And the author gives lots of examples, how you would approach goals differently based on what mindset you have.

And this is the crux - as a writer or creative person, we know this, we have heard it a 100 times, you need to keep learning, you need to keep trying, put in the 10,000 hours or whatever.

But the fact is that once you get to a certain level of competence, then if you are in the fixed mindset, you may not want to rock the boat by taking on a challenge where you might not succeed, and then you would appear to have failed. This is devastating to a person with that mindset, at least where writing is concerned (I believe that we have different attitudes in different arenas and at different stages in life). This would mean that the person would only take on writing projects they are inherently good at, or far more commonly, they would experience writer’s block and not be able to write anything. Not because they literally cannot write, but because everything that comes out is clunky or terrible (because they can’t write that sort of book yet, but they don’t want to think about that). The fixed mindset writer wants to appear to be a good writer, so bad writing throws them off.

And this can differ from project to project, maybe even day to day (but less so probably). Anyway - I realized that I have been experiencing this with one of the projects I am blocked on. I am attempting to write a book of humorous essays. Now I adore books of humorous essays myself, and have huge respect and awe for writers who can pull it off successfully. As a result, I can’t write anymore. The first few essays were ok, because somehow it seemed fun and a lark. But then I started to see that I could have a book, there were enough topics and then I started to get stuck. Nothing was good. There was no humor. And I was comparing my work to the best authors, the ones whose books I loved. Clearly I couldn’t hold a candle to them. So even though I desperately wanted to finish the book, I couldn’t get out a word.

Then I realized that this is what I was doing. I was trying to prove (don’t know to whom, since I haven’t showed the work to anyone) that I was a good humor writer. And this is absurd since I have never written humor before. I can’t possibly be good. But  I so badly wanted to be. Then I decided that I would lower my standards - focus on learning how to do it, on writing a crappy first draft and using it as my canvas to experiment. I would get advice on writing humor and try to see how to apply it within my book. Even if I didn’t get to any great level, I would have improved and maybe learnt some techniques I could apply elsewhere in my writing.

I am still hoping that the book does come out to be good and that people like it, but I realize that trying to prove that I was good right off the bat would only result most likely in no book.

So this is my little two cents of advice - no matter where you are in your creativity / writing journey, ask yourself if you’re trying mostly to learn or mostly to prove yourself. There will be elements of both, but too much of proving results in sticking to things you absolutely know you can knock out of the park and no further growth. In extreme cases, it also results in you not enjoying your work as much, and feeling too much pressure instead of enjoyment, which is really not a good thing.


I have lots more to say on this subject, but must rush off for now - and hopefully I will return to this topic later. In the meantime, go write.
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