Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Fixed Mindset vs. Agile Mindset

I was impacted pretty sharply by a podcast that I listened to a couple weeks ago: Hanselminutes #389 - The Agile Mindset with Linda Rising. If you haven't heard this conversation, you should go listen to it right now.

Based on this, I went out and watched a keynote given by Linda Rising (in the links of the podcast): The Power of the Agile Mindset.

This got me thinking about my attitudes toward others and toward myself.

The Short Version
The short version (if you don't want to listen to these talks) is that there are two basic mindsets: a fixed mindset and a growth (or agile) mindset.

The fixed mindset says that we have a specific potential that we can live up to. If we succeed at something, it's because we are smart or are meeting our potential. If we fail at something, maybe we just aren't smart enough. But the general idea is that everyone can be grouped by what he/she can be good at and not good at. Someone can learn something new, but there's a ceiling at which he/she will stop getting better. One very telling result is that people with a fixed mindset will often meet failure with helplessness -- "I failed; I guess I'm just not good enough."

The growth/agile mindset says that we are all capable of constantly learning. If we succeed at something, it's because we worked at it. If we fail at something, that's okay. We can use it as a learning experience and do better next time. With this mindset, we continually improve at whatever we work at.

Now there are limits. Not everyone can be an Einstein or a Bach or a Michael Jordan. But we can learn to be competent (and possibly excel) at whatever we set our minds to. And there isn't a "hard cap" on what we can learn. We can keep getting better even if it's just in small steps.

This is a really bad summary, so go and click on the links at the top of the article to find out from the expert.

Mindset in Business
In the Hanselmintues podcast, there was a discussion of how certain companies have the fixed mindset and others have the agile mindset. I've seen this first-hand (although I never thought about it this way).

I was at a company that had two distinct teams and two distinct approaches to software development. I was (thankfully) on the team with the agile mindset. We were constantly learning from our previous projects, looking for things that we could do better, and helping each other grow. From the way that we treated each other, it was obvious that our team embraced the agile mindset. We saw potential growth in each one of our team members.

The other team had a fixed mindset. This team was always looking for the tool or process that would make their development idiot-proof. This really bothered me. If I was in charge of that team, I would have focused on how to make the developers better -- to find out where the gaps were and bring everyone up a level. But it seemed to me (as an outside observer) that the management team had given up on improving the developers. The mindset was that the developers were "only so good" -- they had reached their potential as developers.

I have always treated other developers with an agile mindset. That's not really surprising since I spend so much time helping other developers get better. If I didn't believe this, then I wouldn't spend so much time speaking and writing and teaching.

Mindset in Myself
I did find something surprising about myself though. Even though I treat others with the agile mindset (the potential to continuously get better), I treat myself with the fixed mindset.

I've never really struggled with something. When I was growing up, I was told that I was smart. I did well in school. I did well in sports. I did put a lot of work in. For example, I practiced basketball a lot when I was in high school. But I never struggled with it. I was never overcoming challenges, I was simply putting in time.

There are things that I consider myself to be "not good at." These are things that I have not put much effort into. Music is one of these things. I play the keyboard and guitar very basically. I don't play a lot. And I considered myself to "not be a natural" when it comes to music. Maybe I was missing a trait that would allow me to play really well. And I never really put in a lot of time to learn.

So, I've managed to put limits on myself in some areas but not others. For example, in development, I'm constantly learning, usually through books (that's how I learn best). When I'm speaking, I elicit feedback from the people who attend, and I try to incorporate their suggestions. When I completely blow a presentation (which has happened a couple of times), I try to figure out what I did wrong so that it doesn't happen again. I think that this makes me a better presenter as time goes on.

The Rubik's Cube
I grew up in the era of the Rubik's Cube. If you've never seen one, here you go:

The goal is to get the each side to be a solid color (at the same time). I was never good at this. There were 2 ways that I could solve it: (1) follow step-by-step directions, or (2) take it apart. When I followed the directions, I wasn't really learning the concepts behind the cube, just following the numbers.

Since then, I've been content to think "my brain doesn't work that way." I never thought that I could learn to solve it.

This came up a few weeks back. I was standing around talking with a group of devs after a user group. Someone picked up a Rubik's Cube on a desk and proceeded to solve it in a few minutes. I admitted that I'm not capable (and I don't think I ever would be).

Guitar Hero
So, let's go the other way. Many years back, I saw Guitar Hero (the video game) and decided that it looked like fun. I even went out and bought a PlayStation 2 so I could play it.

The first time I tried to play, I was awful. The beginner level only uses 3 buttons (out of 5) and goes very slowly. But still, I was awful. After playing for a while, I simply turned if off and thought "well, that was a waste of money."

But for some reason I went back to it. And over the years I got really good (which isn't that hard if you have free time). I got to the point where I could not play the beginner level anymore because it went too slowly. And I continued to play through many more iterations of the game (I think I have almost all of them). And when I started a new version, I would start on the "Hard" level.

I even used this to my advantage. The first time I spoke publicly was at the So Cal Code Camp in Orange County in January 2010. I was nervous as heck, and I wasn't sure that I could actually go through with the presentations that I had planned. There was a speaker dinner the night before at Dave and Buster's, and I ended up at the Guitar Hero game there. I played a bit, did very well, and other people commented on it. There was even a teenager who asked to play head-to-head with me. That boosted my confidence -- I could perform well in public. And I was successful in my presentations the next day.

My Challenge
Many times I find myself getting frustrated at things or thinking "I'm not good enough." There's no logical reason for this based on my past performance, but that fixed mindset keeps creeping back in.

So, I'm challenging myself. I will learn how to solve a Rubik's Cube. I know that doesn't sound like a very big challenge, but it really is. In order to solve the cube consistently, I will need to break out of the mindset that says "my brain doesn't work that way."

So, the next time you see me at an event, ask me how I'm doing with that. Hopefully, I'll pull a cube out of my pocket and solve it right in front of you.

The fixed mindset vs. the agile mindset is not simply about how we treat other people. It's also about how we treat ourselves. Keep learning and keep growing.

Happy Coding!

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