I think we can all agree that 2020 was not, shall we say, a great year. But if you look around at the people you know, there are almost certainly more than a few that seemed to navigate the past year seemingly with little or no difficulty. How did they do it?
Are there some people who are completely unaffected by outside circumstances? I certainly don’t believe that’s the case. In my opinion it has everything to do with their mindset. And in this post I’m going to share some of the most profound truths I’ve learned over the last two decades about the importance of building a strong mindset.
I guess the first place to begin is here: what is mindset? Simply put, mindset is a collection of thoughts, beliefs, and attitudes that affects how we think, feel and act. It affects how we see ourselves, how we see others, and how we see the world around us; it even determines what we believe is possible in terms of success, health, happiness, relationships, etc.. In short, mindset is everything.
If I asked you about your current mindset what would you say?
How you think about these things will determine the course of your life.
Truth #1: Our lives are always moving in the direction of our strongest thoughts. What we think shapes who we are.
If that’s true, then why do we spend so little time working on mindset? We will spend hours and hours in a gym or doing some other form of exercise in order to build an outward body that we’re happy with. How much time do we spend building our inner body, our mindset? If you’re like I used to be, the answer might be not much time at all. And one of the main reasons we don’t spend much time working on it, is because we simply become accustomed to our own way of thinking. I hope to give you some reasons why this might not be the best strategy.
You see, there are two very basic mindsets that people tend to cling to. One is the fixed mindset. People are the way they are, things are the way they are, we can’t change ourselves or our mindset. Our talents and abilities are set in stone - you either have them or you don’t.
The other is the growth mindset. Everything is pliable. Thoughts, beliefs, actions, the world around me... anything can change and my skills and talents can grow if enough effort and/or repetition is applied to it. Carol Dweck, P.hD., wrote about these two mindsets in her book, “Mindset, The New Psychology of Success.”
In fact, she goes as far as to say that your mindset explains how you become optimistic or pessimistic, that it shapes our goals, our attitudes toward work and relationships, how we raise our kids, and ultimately whether or not we fulfill our potential.
When you cultivate a strong mindset, you’re able to create a positive, supportive, growth-oriented narrative. With a weak mindset, you will most often find yourself at the mercy of negative thoughts, emotions, and experiences.
Mindset can be taught and learned. It’s a skill, and like any other skill, in order to get better at it, we must engage in repetition. What we repeatedly do, we become.
Let’s take a look at the characteristics of a weak vs strong mindset.
It takes effort to change our mindset, and there are many things that can get in the way. We have to acknowledge the things that get in the way, or we ignore them at our own peril.
Start becoming aware of your state of being; where you put your attention, how you spend your time, what you put in your body. To cultivate an unshakable mindset, you have to prepare all parts of you. They all work together.
Truth #2: The human mind, left unattended, will always go negative. It’s part of our primitive wiring to keep us safe.
One thing you need to know when working to change your mindset is this: every thought is a pathway. A different way of saying it is “Where focus goes, energy flows.” Negative thoughts keep you stuck in negative experiences. From the moment we wake up, our minds begin thinking, processing, and worrying. Most people don’t have control over these thoughts; they just happen whether we like them or not. Then as we go through the day we continue to fill our minds with more input from sources that probably aren’t the most positive. We have to be more conscious of what we’re letting into our minds.
There is a concept in neuroscience called neuroplasticity. The basic premise is this: we can change how we think, feel, and act - and that as we do, parts of our brain actually change in size and shape. There are many studies over the years that reinforce this concept. As you think, so shall you become. We are what we repeatedly do.
Neuroscientists have a saying: the neurons that fire together, wire together. And the more often we hold onto the same patterns of thinking, the stronger that bond becomes and the more difficult it can be to change. But with repetition, we can form new neural pathways, and over time we strengthen them through repeating the new behaviors. The old ones weaken, the new become stronger.
Truth #3: Our brains are designed to find the path of least resistance. This means that many times throughout the day we will go on autopilot.
Our minds are constantly flowing with thoughts. Sometimes we are intentionally thinking about something (like a task at hand, something that we have to do, or about something that we’ve recently experienced). Other thoughts appear suddenly and without any effort from ourselves. Have you ever been doing something and suddenly a thought pops in your head? These are automatic thoughts.
Automatic thoughts are often influenced by our view of ourselves, others, and the world. Moreover, there is an interactive relationship between our thoughts, feelings, and actions.
Our brains crave certainty, predictability. Once a pathway is established, it’s easiest to let it continue - even if that thought pattern isn’t good for us. And the main problem with that is this: in the long term, you cannot out-behave your thinking.
In the business world, there’s an old adage called the Peter Principle, that says people rise to their level of incompetence. But I believe there’s something much more powerful at work in our lives, and that is that “People rise to their level of conditioning!” And the way you think is 100% a result of your conditioning in life.
You may be asking yourself some questions right about now. So where do I begin? And how? Will it work? Is it too difficult? Is it too late, am I too old? Well, there’s an old proverb that says “The best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago. And the next best time is right now.”
You need to know is this: simplicity is the key. Complexity is the enemy of execution. Don’t make it harder than it has to be. We have this funny way of thinking that says, “If it seems too easy, it won’t work.” Well, none of this is easy. It is simple, just not easy.
Step 1: Awareness is a huge component of shifting your mindset. If you’re not aware of how you think, there is no pathway to change. Become aware of your state of being, what you’re thinking, what you’re putting into your body, how you use your time. You have to begin to elevate your awareness and get out of the rut of automatic thoughts
How I think determines how I feel. How I feel determines what I do. What I do determines what I become.
Your thoughts are the story you’re telling yourself at any given moment. Become aware of the stories you’re telling yourself as you go through your day. Notice how you’re feeling in the moment (awareness) and then ask yourself, “What is the story I’m telling myself about this situation/event/person?” Challenge those thoughts. The truth is you’re in charge of your stories. If you don’t like the story you’re telling, change it.
Step 2: Another huge component of shifting your mindset is your physical health. How are you sleeping? Do you get regular exercise/physical activity? What do you eat? How much alcohol do you consume regularly? Are you overwhelmed with activity both at work and at home? How exhausted are you at the end of each day? It’s almost impossible to have a healthy mind if you don’t have a healthy body.
Move your body daily. Walk. Lift weights. Do yoga. Anything to elevate your heart rate and increase physical well-being. Exercise releases endorphins in the body that lead to feelings of positivity and happiness.
Step 3: Another aspect of building a positive mindset is your spiritual connection. This isn’t about religion; it’s about being connected to nature, the universe, God, whatever you want to call it. There are a few ways to do that. Spend time in meditation and/or prayer. I’ll tell you that this one thing has had more impact on my mindset than almost anything else. I spend an hour minimum each day in prayer and meditation, and it sets my mind on a calm, positive pathway. I avoid social media, news, TV, or any other outside input until I’ve spent time cultivating a positive outlook.
You can also spend time in nature. Hiking. Walking. Just being outdoors. Find something and do it regularly. Repetition is key in all of these areas.
Step 4: Finally, you must become a master of meaning. We are creatures of meaning. Everything that happens in our lives we give meaning to. It’s how we make sense of the world around us. But know this - nothing in life has any meaning except the meaning that you give to it. Here’s the thing: as soon as you give a meaning to any event, that meaning becomes your experience. If you say, “That meeting was humiliating,” then you will feel humiliated.
In his renowned book, Man’s Search for Meaning, author Viktor Frankl talks about the need for the human mind to assign meaning to everything that is occurring in our lives. Frankl was an Austrian-born Jewish psychiatrist who, along with his pregnant wife and parents, was imprisoned in Nazi concentration camps during World War II. While there, he noticed that some prisoners succumbed to the conditions while others were able to withstand the brutal conditions. He noted that those who were able to find meaning in their circumstances were the ones that thrived, or at the very least survived. He would later say, “Those who have a 'why' to live, can bear with almost any 'how'.”
To me, the most powerful thing he says in the book is this: “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
And just as we need to begin to challenge our own thoughts, we also need to question the meaning we give to events. When we learn to master meaning, we gain true agency over our minds and true freedom over our lives.
Ritual is the key: To cultivate this strong, positive mindset, it’s critical to establish daily rituals to support you. Just like getting in physical shape requires repeated trips to the gym, developing a strong mindset requires daily repetition and practice. Remember, “Repetition is the mother of skill.”
My days are forever changed since I began doing this. I wake every morning, 7 days a week, at 5:30AM and spend the first hour in meditation and prayer. Then I move my body with some form of physical exercise. The difference these have made in my life is immeasurable.
Mind. Body. Spirit. Commit to working on these and your mindset will change.
And let me be clear about something. You’re going to “fail.” You’ll struggle, waver, have difficulties from time to time. Isn’t that how we learn any new skill? Don’t let that stop you. If anything, that should get you to double down on your effort, because it means your mind is actively resisting. You can push through that resistance. Whatever is in the way, is the way.
All of this to say, mindset is the most important thing you can work on in your life. It drives every aspect of your life, and can make for a wonderful experience or one filled with suffering and negative emotions.
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Kevin Ciccotti, Human Factor Formula
Helping companies create sustainable, effective teams that are committed to the success of their projects, the organization, and the individuals with whom they work