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Can Your Mindset Make You a Better Student?

Do you feel like you’re bad at math? Is learning a new subject difficult for you? Some may attribute such difficulties to not being smart, or the subject not being within their scope of talents. Perhaps though it is that prevailing viewpoint that is keeping you bad at math or making it difficult to learn new subjects.

Enter mindset. There are a couple of different ways to define what a mindset is. Decision theory calls it a set of assumptions, methods, or notations held by a person or group of people. Cognitive psychology says that it represents the cognitive processes activated in response to a given task. However you define it though, it is the way that you respond when confronted with a situation.

Some aspects of your mindset were established while you were a child: are you allowed to do this or that and what reasons were given for those decisions, if a reason was given at all. As you grew up among other children, a collective mindset began to form through similar values shaped during that period of growth. As certain tasks became assigned to certain people in that group, that information began to create boundaries; you can or cannot do this because (insert any reason why someone told you that you couldn’t do something).

Attitudes of older generations influenced your mindset as well. Respecting and listening to your elders was important because they were the most experienced with life, but as times and societies change, sometimes their experiences couldn’t reflect on newer happenings. We see it now in the schism between the Baby Boomers and Millennials; so different was the experience for each group growing up and living in the world that the term “Ok, Boomer” came to reflect the disdain that many in the new largest generation feel towards the old largest generation’s opinions. As some might say, modern problems require modern solutions. It doesn’t mean we can’t still learn from each other.

Your mindset is built by your experience within the society you were brought up in. The religion you did or didn’t follow, the language(s) you spoke, the neighborhoods you grew up in, the ways that people looked or didn’t look at you. Is mindset something you can change? Could you learn and make yourself good at the mathematics of quantum neutrino fields if you could barely do long division? (The name alone would prevent anyone from taking it, unless they misheard wonton burrito meals.)

Yes, mindset is something that you can change, and it can make you a better student. This is something we know because we keep on experiencing new things and finding new ways of doing or being. If your mindset isn’t fixed by default, that means that it can be as fluid or fixed as you want it to be. Consider it as water: the same molecules, able to be arranged in three different states based on their temperature. If your mindset is hard and rigid, you’ll take in nothing. Too vaporous, everything will pass through and nothing will be retained. Let your mind be as water, the middle state, shaping itself to fit its task and letting nothing prevent it from flowing down a path of its own creation.

How do you change your mindset? The biggest way is to allow yourself to fail. Yes, that may be the one thing that you can’t allow yourself to do, but the benefit of failure is that you learn how to not do something right. Take a moment to think about that. If you learn how to not do something right, are you going to repeat it when you try again? And when you try again with a new method and it still fails, you’ve learned that the new method you tried is also a way to not do it right. Now you know two ways to not do that thing right.

Why is that important, to know ways to not do something right? It certainly rules out doing them again in the future. It also might be that doing it that way works for some people, but not for you. Maybe it takes a bit of mental fluidity and experimentation to come to the solution you seek. If everyone is telling you that you must do something “This Way”, and it still isn’t working, then the solution is to find “Your Way” of doing it. It might not make any sense to the people around you, but who said that their way was the only right way? Maybe the way they’re doing it now didn’t make sense when it first came about. Think about the number of ways you can cook a meal: you can use the oven, stovetop, a grill, a smoker, a pressure cooker, sous vide, or combination of several, and the result is a delicious meal. When you find your method of success, after experiencing all the failures along the way, the result will be every bit as delicious.

And maybe the solution that you come to will work for someone else too. You aren’t the only person who has struggled with learning a subject before, nor will you be the last. Maybe what you learn can benefit a classmate, a family member, some random person on the sidewalk, who is struggling and thinks that they’re incapable of doing something. You’re the proof that despite repeated failures, you found a way to succeed.