Articles

Change Your Mindset, Transform Your Life

This article has been adapted from the original version published in the Self-Realization Magazine in Fall.

Six mindsets that are particularly important for us to cultivate in today’s rapidly changing world – Growth, Inside-Out, Transformation, Collaborative, Resilient, and Leadership mindsets.

Some time back, I was typing furiously on my keyboard when I noticed that the letter “l” in one of the words showed up as an “i” on the computer screen. I deleted the error and retyped the “l” but again it came out as an “i.” So again I deleted and retyped, and again it turned out to be an “i.” I made a third unsuccessful attempt, and convinced that I was doing my job right, concluded the computer was at fault. I started to feel very annoyed with the state of computers these days. “Why,” I agonized, “do they make such faulty keyboards?” And then suddenly it dawned on me: My computer screen was dusty and I noticed a speck of dust located right on the stem of that “l,” making it look like an “i.”

When we are not getting the results we want — in our careers, our relationships with others, or any other area of our life — we often conclude that we need to work harder or change our behavior in order to obtain the desired outcome. And when even that doesn’t work, we may end up becoming deeply frustrated with the situation. But sometimes there is a “speck of dust” that is impeding our vision – a limiting mindset that prevents us from seeing the situation in a more objective light. When we unshackle ourselves from this limiting mindset, a change in perspective occurs and we start perceiving conditions and events in our lives with greater clarity and deeper understanding. Then naturally the right behavior, the right performance, and the right results will flow. Let us discuss six mindsets that are particularly important for us to cultivate in today’s rapidly changing world. They are called: Growth, Inside-Out, Transformation, Collaborative, Resilient, and Leadership mindsets.

“With the dawning of each experience as we pass along the pathway of life, we must learn to live more consciously, more understandingly, if we are to get along in a better way in this world.”

Yogananda

The Psychology of a Fixed Mindset vs. a Growth Mindset

How much can you change your personality, intelligence or leadership capabilities? A favorite quote of mine from Henry Ford goes: “Whether you think you can, or think you can’t—you’re right.” This seems to suggest that if you think you can change, then you will change, but if you think you cannot, then you are stuck in place. Is this true?

Today, science is in fact showing this to be the case. People who have a “growth mindset” and believe they can change are more successful at changing themselves, versus those who have a “fixed mindset” and believe they cannot change. Why? Is this an act of God, that people who think positively about their capacity for change are blessed with change in their lives, while those who think negatively are not? What science is showing today is that your mindset affects your behavior, and this behavior then naturally leads to the right or wrong outcome.

Research shows that when you believe that any aspect of you is fixed—personality, intelligence, or professional capability— you are then less open to critical feedback on that aspect of yourself. You tend to become defensive, withdrawn, or uninterested when people give you feedback, believing it will not help the situation because “this is how I am!” You tend to be satisfied just staying within your comfort zone and do not want to take on new responsibilities that might challenge you in any way, because you feel there are certain things you are good at, that you were “born for,” and there are other things you are not good at. You tend to get discouraged when you fail at something, and assume that the reason is, “This is not me— that’s why I failed.” And that makes you want to stay away from this responsibility. When you are interacting with others, your fixed mindset will make you scan for ways in which you are better than them. That tendency to look for the flaws in other people in order to feel good about oneself is another telltale sign of a person with a fixed mindset.

Now compare that to a growth mindset. People with a growth mindset believe that their personality, intelligence and professional capabilities are not fixed. This belief then makes them hungry to learn and grow; they are receptive and open to feedback because they want to improve. They are not overly sensitive to criticism and do not reject it just because it was delivered in a manner that made them uncomfortable. Such people are open to stepping out of their comfort zone because they realize that they can learn a new skill. They might initially struggle and fail while attempting a new task; they might have some challenges to go through before succeeding; but they always come out whole on the other side, having developed a new capability. They are curious about looking not at other people’s flaws but their strengths, so that they can learn from others and thereby improve themselves. People with a growth mindset keep premature judgment at bay and keep themselves open to alternate possibilities by thinking, “We are all works in progress. Under the right conditions, we are all inspired to change.”

Growth Mindset Opens Up New Possibilities

How the growth mindset can open up new and unexpected possibilities, even in very difficult situations, is illustrated by the following story shared by a Secret Service agent who attended one of my leadership classes. He said: “One time my wife and I were sitting outside in the backyard of our home in Washington, D.C., when a robber with a gun broke into our property and walked over to us. With the gun pointing at me, he said, ‘I want you to go back into your home, get all the valuables—jewelry, cash—put them in this bag, and bring it to me.’”

“As a professional security expert, I was mentally preparing myself for my next move when my wife began to speak. She looked at the burglar and said, ‘I can’t believe you’re doing this. I am concerned about you. I can only imagine what led you to take this kind of risk. You must be going through a very difficult time.’ After a moment, she continued, ‘You know, my husband and I were just having some wine and we were going to have dinner in a few minutes. Why don’t you join us? I want to hear about what’s happening in your life because I am really worried about you.’”

“My jaw dropped when I heard what she was saying! But the next minute this man had put down his gun and was sitting with us, having dinner. After the dinner, as he started to leave he reached out for the gun but I said, ‘You can leave but you can’t take the gun.’ The personal story he had shared with us at dinner was of course a very sad one, and I didn’t want him to run into any more trouble with others or himself. And so he left without taking his gun.”

“The next day there was a knock on the door, and it was him. He said, ‘Sir, I have not come here for the gun. I just wanted to let you and your wife know that I’m deeply grateful. Thank you for what you did for me last night.’”

Imagine if this woman and her husband had operated with a fixed mindset that day—what a different reality would have unfolded. But because of their thoughtful and empathetic growth mindset, the couple and the robber walked away from that difficult experience with a profoundly deeper understanding of human nature.

Growth Mindset Frees You From Prejudices and Biases

In 2018, I visited Robben Island in South Africa, where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for eighteen years during apartheid. The post-apartheid government interviewed former prisoners and placed their recollections of prison life in the cells for visitors to see. One of these accounts described how something magical happened between the white prison guards and the black prisoners.

The guards came in with a lot of negative preconceptions about black people, based on how they had been educated and raised. But when they interacted face-to-face with the black prisoners on a daily basis, they learned that black people were really no different from themselves—they both harbored similar hopes and fears about their lives and families. The black prisoners, too, started to realize, “Good heavens, the guards don’t innately hate us or think they are superior. This is something that has been fed to them from the system and their environment. Once they come to know us and get free of those prejudices, their humanity starts to express itself.” And so, the black prisoners also lost a large part of their hatred.

Both parties were dissolving the fixed and uncharitable mindsets they held in relation to one another, and some were even forming bonds of friendship. That was a remarkable testament to the capacity of people to adopt a growth mindset and change themselves. In fact, when Nelson Mandela became president of South Africa years later, he invited one of his chief jailers to be an honored guest at his inauguration.

Inside-Out Mindset

Many of us have the tendency to separate our inner life from our outer life. We may say, “over here” is my deep inner yearning to be true to myself and “over there” are my work and outer engagement with family and friends. But our best outcomes actually come from creating a fusion of these two lives. Cultivating an “inside-out mindset” means abolishing the false distinction between inner and outer with the realization that our outer duties are only another dimension of our authentic self. The person with this mindset realizes, “The more I am anchored in my inner core, the greater is my ability to access the qualities I need to do my best outer work for my organization.”

Tremendous opportunities for personal development arise when people adopt an inside-out mindset. Even in the business world, where people are very invested in the outer aspect of life, the inner life can still be brought into central focus. More and more, executives are recognizing that the best way to lead their organizations is to first anchor themselves in their inner core—a place from where they can feel a deep sense of selfless commitment to a noble purpose, where they can be calm and centered when facing challenges, where they can experience a deep sense of empathetic connection with other people and be open to receiving truth in whatever form it comes. Then they are not just anchored in their convictions but are open and curious enough to learn. And they are able to access a fountain of joy within themselves which allows them to come to work every morning with a positive spirit.

The calmness, centeredness, connectedness, and commitment we experience when we are anchored in our core frees us from the shackles of personality, habit, ego, attachment, insecurities and blinding beliefs that often hinder us from doing our best outer work. The inside-out mindset will open us up to operating daily with positive intention rather than habitual instincts—as we strive to naturally express outside what we endeavor to cultivate within.

Transformation Mindset

When people undergo changes at work or in life, they often feel burdened and experience a lack of motivation because of the uncertainty of the situation. There is always the risk of failure when new things are attempted. Some may fear the loss of the “tried and true” ways of the past as they are faced with the need to drop old habits, cultivate new dispositions, and change the ways in which they engage with others.

In such situations, we may view change as bad or overwhelming, and find ourselves thinking, “I wish there was a clearer plan of the path I need to take. I want to know how things will work out. I was in such a comfortable situation before this change came. I wish things would just stay the way they were and I could stay the old ‘me’!

To put these challenges in perspective, it is helpful to remember that the world is predicated on change. Self-Realization Fellowship (SRF) Founder Yogananda said, “Everything is undergoing a process of change. These changes are either detrimental or beneficial to the object that changes….You must either go forward or backward. That is a great and inspiring truth, that in life you cannot remain stationary.” If change is inevitable, then progress is the ability to adapt positively to change.

We need to realize that the process of change is founded on a certain amount of healthy uncertainty—in small endeavors just as much as the big ones. This means that we must develop a “transformation mindset,” one that embraces change on this human plane as a natural part of who we are, individually and collectively. We can summon the confidence to deal constructively with change by reflecting on changes we have successfully adapted to in the past, and then telling ourselves: “Just look at where I am today versus where I was in the past. I have successfully navigated these forces of change on so many occasions, and I will adapt this time as well.” Acknowledging this, we start to take it on faith that if we keep doing the right things, then the right things will keep happening to us. And with each step forward, because of our new attitude toward accepting a certain level of uncertainty and letting go of past attachments, where we formerly saw the risk of failure we instead see the possibility of success. More and more we become comfortable and invested in the journey of transformation, whether it is on the personal, familial, organizational, social, national, or global level.

Collaboration Mindset

From time to time, we experience conflict. Maybe there is an argument in which one or both people walk away upset; or maybe one party withdraws from that conversation because they feel uncomfortable in disagreeing, pushing back, or simply asserting themselves. People in conflict may feel upset and distracted for long periods of time as they try to process the situation. Or they might move on despite not having resolved the conflict, leaving open the possibility of further recurrence. Recent scientific research on relationships shows that conflicts are natural, and yet we tend to have a very limited view of the positive role that conflict can play in our most personal relationships and social life in general.

One psychologist proposed that human relationships can be divided into two types—“master relationships” and “disaster relationships.” “Masters” are people who stay in the relationship long-term and are happy. “Disasters” are people who either walk away from the relationship, or stay in the relationship but by no longer connecting with each other on a deep level become perpetually unhappy.

What the research shows is that even for masters, a large percentage of whatever initial conflict they experienced early in their relationship does not go away. For example, in a spousal relationship, two people typically come together, get married, go on a honeymoon, and then live together. Maybe one of them is found to be super organized, clean and punctual, while the other one is disorganized, messy, and in the habit of being late. One person may want to go to mountains and other scenic spots for their vacations; the other person may want urban vibrancy and wish to go to museums and big cities. These kinds of differences do not necessarily go away—even after many years together—but masters do come to a type of resolution. Crucially, what separates masters from disasters is not that conflicts are absent but how conflict is handled. In master relationships there is a ratio of around three to five positive experiences to one argument. This is what relationship experts call the “magic ratio.” If the ratio is a thousand good experiences to few or no negative ones, then that means that one party is actually suppressing their needs, their voice, and their authentic self.

This magic ratio is applicable not only to married couples but also to the workplace or any type of team effort. You put any group of people together and there are bound to be differences in points of view, and hence the possibility of conflict. What we can learn from masters and the magic ratio is how to manage the differences by seeing conflict as natural and appreciating it as an integral part of growth. This is the “collaboration mindset.” What research found for disasters was that conflict leads to a downward spiral—anger, judgement and criticism, blame games, condescension, withdrawal, disengagement, simmering disappointment, and defensiveness that makes one reject another’s point of view or become uninterested in what the other person is thinking.

So the next time you experience conflict, rather than letting it send a signal to the brain of “uh-oh, this is awful, this needs to be avoided,” “I’m not going to be able to deal with this person,” or “I wish this wasn’t happening,” say to yourself instead: “Conflict is not a bad thing. In fact, without it I would be limiting my growth as an individual and the growth of this relationship or project.” We all have a partial understanding of truth. What conflict provides us with is the opportunity to put together these facets of truth—the different perspectives, angles, trade-offs, and options at any given moment—so that we can collectively see that whole diamond of truth. Then we become more nuanced and complete in our understanding, and thus can take a more collective approach as we seek to move forward. This is managing conflict constructively, and it all begins with the collaboration mindset—seeing conflict as natural and helpful, and being open to dialog and the possibility of joint problem solving.

Resilient Mindset

In pursuing a noble goal or facing a difficult challenge, we often need to make at least several attempts before we reach a level of success. And there are times when a certain mental voice will tell us: “We’ve gone down this path before. We’ve tried making similar changes. It hasn’t worked. It doesn’t work!” When we think like this, we limit the possibility of trying again—in a new way, with new people, and in new conditions. We become victims of what scientists call “learned helplessness”. The late SRF President Sri Daya Mata encouraged people to persist in progressive ways with this counsel: “Learn to accept and like yourself for what you are striving to become. Take each day as it comes. Someone has said, ‘Each day is like a fresh sheet of writing paper.’ You have the marvelous opportunity every day to write your life anew. Let it be beautiful, creative, constructive thoughts that contribute to your own spiritual well-being and that of others.” Her words show that we should never let any failures from the past limit us from feeling optimism and energy about striving, even if we have tried many times before. And, as Daya Mata also implied, we can help others with constructive thinking, infusing our own optimism into any situation where someone else may be expressing doubts or harping on past unsuccessful attempts. “Thank you for raising this issue,” you can say. “But I think we can learn from what worked or didn’t work before, and go about things more successfully this time.” This is what we can call manifesting a “resilient mindset.” We realize the uniqueness of the present situation; we let go of past failures and progress with optimism and the spiritual understanding that today “anything is possible”.

Leadership Mindset

This all ties in exactly with the last mindset, the “leadership mindset.” This mindset is beautifully illustrated in the following story told to me by a former student of mine at Columbia. She said: “When I was fourteen years old, I had a major health issue and had to be rushed to the hospital. The doctors said I would need surgery, and their plan was to first keep me under observation for a week. But the day after I was admitted, the surgeon came by with a troubled look. He beckoned to my father to step out of the room with him. I didn’t find out what they discussed until my father told me a few years later.

“The physician had apparently told my father that he had two pieces of bad news. The first was that my medical condition needed more urgent attention than they had thought. While I would be fine and get through it, they needed to operate on me that same day instead of waiting a week. The second was that they would not be able to give me anesthesia during surgery because of complications with my blood type and risk of infection.

“Then my father returned to my room. With a beaming smile he looked at me and said, ‘Dear daughter, I have two pieces of good news for you. The first is that the doctors say you don’t have to wait another week for your surgery. They can do it today—and before the end of the week you’ll be able to go back home! And the other good news is the physicians have been observing you over the last twenty-four hours. They have remarked that you are the most courageous fourteen-year-old they have ever seen, and they feel you won’t even need anesthesia. There may be a little pain here and there, but fundamentally, you will be all right. I know you are an incredibly courageous and brave person. You can go through the surgery without anesthesia. All will be fine.’”

“When I heard these pieces of good news, wow, what could I say? I was excited that the surgery was going to happen that same day, and soon I would be going home. And I was very inspired by the faith that my dad and the surgeon had in my courage.”

“It was not easy to go through that surgery, but what carried me through was that empowering message from the doctors, and the invitation from my father to be the bravest and most courageous version of myself. The situation was saved because of the attitude my father helped me to have in that moment.” Now, imagine if you had been that father and you just heard these two pieces of bad news from the surgeon. How would you feel about the pain that your daughter would undergo while you watched helplessly on the sidelines? And how would you move from that feeling of dejection to a state of acceptance, and then to a state of inspiration that would enable you to reframe the situation for her? And then how would you enter that room and execute your plan, giving the right message to your daughter and helping her cope?

Sometimes we look at great people from history and assume that leadership must be a mystical quality endowed on certain special people. That is not true. Acts of leadership can be learned, planned, and performed. The father in this story was not merely living but leading. He helped his daughter to succeed through a true act of creative leadership. And she also, in choosing to meet the challenge before her and be the most courageous version of herself, performed an act of leadership. We may at times believe that we do not have the ability or the authority to affect the situation we find ourselves in. Or we may worry that we lack the resources—which we usually think of as outer rather than inner—to make things better. But stories like this remind us that leadership is really about bringing out the best in ourselves and others, in all situations, in service of a positive purpose. The leadership mindset allows us to think and act like a leader in everyday situations, making sure that our most creative, resilient, and collaborative self emerges in all of life’s moments to solve problems and bring about the best results.

I discovered something very powerful about leadership when I visited the prison on Robben Island: When Nelson Mandela was held there after publicly leading a fight against apartheid, he was completely isolated from the movement for over two decades. But the thing is, he never stopped leading.

In prison Mandela saw the same conditions of apartheid that was prevalent outside. For example, black prisoners were given less food than the white prisoners, and they were made to wear shorts instead of the trousers worn by the whites. So he started to take small steps towards fighting apartheid within the prison system, based upon whatever influence and opportunity he got while being there. Slowly he was able to make other fellow prisoners realize that, even in that situation, they had a degree of freedom to shape their destiny. Through collective action and dialog with prison officials, he began forging change. And behind all of this was Mandela’s commitment to cultivate his inner core. For example, he worked hard on mastering his anger while he was in prison so he could operate from a place of wisdom in his dealings with the authorities and with fellow prisoners.

“Reform yourself and you will reform thousands,” Yogananda said. The power and the responsibility to do so have been placed squarely in each of our hands. We can surely reach this tremendous goal when we align ourselves with the healthiest and most helpful mindsets possible. Then, instead of finding life full of daunting challenges we will find great possibilities. By changing our mindsets, we can truly transform our lives and the world.

This article has been adapted from the original version published in the Self-Realization Magazine in Fall 2019.