Humans are the most experience-dependent species that have ever existed. Genes play a role in forming what we are but it largely comes from our experiences. Humans have the ability to perform an action and then reflect on it as well as correct it. This simple loop is behind all of humanity’s greatest achievements.
“I don’t feel that it is necessary to know exactly what I am. The main interest in life and work is to become someone else that you were not in the beginning.” – Michel Foucault.
This statement can be broken down into two pieces: the present, and the future; which one can potentially work towards. The first part of the statement, i.e. the present, is where the speaker exists only as they were born e.g. in a state of stagnation, or rather, the two statements show a case of nature versus nurture and a change from a fixed mindset to a growth mindset.
The nature side, i.e. a fixed mindset, dictates that every human is born with a finite number of skills and executive abilities and that they can’t develop more. However, neuroscience finds this to be completely inaccurate. Genes only provide a blueprint and there is only a limited amount of information encoded in the genes. In actuality, experience builds the cerebral structure.
The second part of the statement, the nurture side, reflects a growth mindset. Dr Carol Dweck, Professor of Psychology at Stanford University coined the term Growth Mindset. The growth mindset dictates that a person’s most basic abilities can be developed through perseverance and hard work—brains and talent are just the starting point. This view demolishes the “I can’t” attitude. Research on brain plasticity has found the Growth Mindset model to be effective – if certain actions are performed over and over again, and mistakes are learned from, the brain being a very malleable organ, adapts to our pace. With practice, neural networks grow new connections, strengthen existing ones, and build insulation that speeds transmission of impulses. This process is called myelination and it helps the human brain execute the practiced actions effortlessly in an almost automated way. This means that over time, these actions begin to feel natural.
Habits are the compound interest of self-improvement. Albert Einstein famously said that compound interest is the most powerful force in the universe. He said, “Compound interest is the 8th wonder of the world. He who understands it, earns it; he who doesn’t, pays it.” Albert Einstein also recognised five ascending levels of cognitive prowess: smart; intelligent; brilliant; genius; and simple. In simple terms, compound interest is dogged, incremental, and constantly in progress over a long period of time.
Newton’s third law says, “For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction” – if one was to take a philosophical look at this statement, it would imply that whatever one puts out into the world, it comes back to them in the form of mirrored reciprocation. If one were to work towards a seemingly unachievable goal, with dogged, incremental, and constant progress over a long period of time, the goal would become achievable.
If a person were to employ this strategy and improve 1 percent every day for one year, they will end up thirty-seven times better than they were at the beginning. However, if they get one percent worse each day, they will decline down to effectively zero. Whenever you interrupt a constant increase above a certain threshold, you lose compounding. In mathematical terms, this is called the variance drain.
We have successfully discussed the implications of both sides of the statement in theory. However, this narrative connects to a larger picture that affects all of humanity. In classrooms, a student with a fixed mindset disengages when challenged while a student with a growth mindset feels challenged and remains engaged. In society, the fixed mindset proves to be regressive and gives rise to institutional oppression. For example, women’s “natural” lack of physical strength in comparison with men has been used to justify oppression since forever.
The fixed mindset would have us believe that the human condition is such that we can only push our metaphorical rock up the mountain, just as far up as the mountain goes, before we must descend. However, through grit and resilience, we can move said mountains.