The Myth of the Mindset Switch
Updated: Oct 11, 2018
The word ‘mindset’ is thrown around a lot these days, particularly from people telling us to change it. The imagery invoked is that of an internal appliance with a huge ON/OFF switch, which simply needs a mental nudge in order for it to flick over. Some offer ‘Six Easy Steps to Change Your Mindset’, as if setting a goal is equivalent to the directive to ‘plug in the red wire’ in the user’s manual. However, more commonly we simply read that we need to change it, without being offered any meaningful directions on how to reach the ON button in our malfunctioning machine minds.
And yet if only we could, we are assured, all of our desires would come to fruition. This discourse is the backbone of the self-help movement. It is based on the principle that human beliefs and behaviours are simple, and that reality itself is fairly uncomplicated. The obvious reason for this is marketing. Over the course of modern human history, it has proven necessary to simplify any ideology in order to sell it to the highest possible number of people. The reduction of complex ideas into easy to follow formulas always produces a binary product: right/wrong, good/bad, us/them, ON/OFF. The oversimplification of both the human condition and complex human systems has become the calling-card of the self-help movement, and the many industries that have formed a web around it.
The question, then, is why is this problematic? Surely encouraging someone to simply change their mindset in order to reach their goals can be useful? Perhaps, if the person is situated in a highly supportive environment. Often, however, demanding that someone flicks an imaginary switch in order to fulfil their dreams results in feelings of shame, guilt and helplessness. In many ways, it can be seen as an ultimate cruelty to suggest that there is a simple solution to inherently complex human problems, particularly as the amalgamation of these suggestions collectively serve to keep alive the mythos of the ‘easy-to-shift-mindset’. The result is akin to an ‘Emperor’s new clothes’ phenomenon, in which myriad individuals find themselves assuming it is their own fault that they are unable to achieve ‘X’, as everyone else has clearly found the ON switch.
Within the fields of psychology and social psychology, the term ‘mindset’ has been utilised with a higher level of nuance than is found in online discourse. Carol Dweck’s ‘fixed’ versus ‘growth’ mindset has its roots in the study of human intelligence. It examines our understanding of whether intelligence is an inherent trait or something which can be developed, and the way that this assumption affects childhood approaches to learning. Yet even within this very specific field, recent research suggests that there is less evidence to support mindset theory than the current emphasis placed on it in educational settings warrants. In any case, it is important to remember the need to take myriad factors into account when working towards behavioural change.
Ultimately, coaches working within the parameters of mindset theory help individuals to engage in a deliberate process of experimentation, slowly building a greater level of comfort with taking risks in order to challenge very specific assumptions about their own abilities.
Helping people to change unhealthy behaviours is, of course, a primary facet of coaching. When done well, and over extended periods of time, this can be enormously effective and rewarding. However, no coach with a solid grasp on the complexity of human psychology and systems would assume that a complete and sudden shift in the beliefs and assumptions that have accumulated over the course of a lifetime is possible, nor healthy if it were to occur. Good coaching tends to promote a slow broadening of perspectives of the client, in order for them (and the coach) to come to appreciate the complexity being presented. There is no ON switch, but deep thought and reflection supported through dialogue is a promising alternative for achieving behavioural change.