Did you know there are two ways to react to failure? I didn't until very recently.
My whole life I have struggled with perfectionism - a quality which I would always tell people with pride. I would attach this trait to how tidy my desk was, how meticulously I would work on a project and how successful I have been at school. I am in the final year of my PhD in Neuroscience and very much used to thank my perfectionism for getting me to where I am.
But I have been so wrong.
What I have been acknowledging when it comes to my perfectionistic ways are the times things have gone my way. I have not ever been open to the fact that this 'trait' has been holding me back from really trying to pursue my goals and expand my skills. Because to be a perfectionist is to be deathly terrified of failure and therefore this must be avoided at all costs. Not ever trying to do something because I might fail has kept me comfortable; in my bubble of achievement with complete shame about any of my unsuccessful events. Because as a perfectionist, these failures have defined my self-worth, they have stopped me walking before I could attempt to run in so many areas of my life.
Perfectionism is not something you are born with, it is not a genetic trait carried by a set of perfectionism genes which some people have and some people don't. Perfectionism is a mindset. Your mindset - which is a term defining your thoughts and beliefs - is built up over your lifetime through your experiences. Our mindset defines how we react to certain situations - like failure, adversity and challenge. Psychology has described mindsets as being either 'fixed' or 'growth'. A fixed mindset - which is where most perfectionistic thoughts come from - perpetuates the idea that our gifts and skills are innate, something we are born with. Therefore, if you are not talented at something, there is no point trying as you do not have the ability to become good. A growth mindset instead sees 'traits' as skills to be nurtured, practiced and worked on as they believe with effort and time, you can become better at whatever you put your mind to. Although intellectually we know the latter is true; that effort brings results; but putting this in practice in the face of adversity in a fixed mindset can be a real challenge.
As a neuroscientist, I always look to the brain for answers - why would my brain make me act like this? In terms of evolution, mindset has been vital to our survival. If we think about what the brain truly is, it is an organ sat in a dark box (your head) processing the world around us through our senses. The brain takes your experiences to create perceptions about the world in which you are living in in order to protect you. So if you are 'good' at maths and in a fixed mindset, you will likely prefer doing maths work over other subjects where you may feel less comfortable; leading you to self-fulfil the belief of your best subject being maths. However, if you came up against a particularly tough equation to solve, this is where a real dilemma can hit. Your brain has the belief you are a 'natural' at maths - so putting in effort or - even worse - getting a question wrong can lead you to question your ability and feel not good enough. These run ins can prevent you moving forward as your brain does not want to feel the discomfort of failure again. On the other hand, a growth mindset in terms of evolution doesn't make as much sense. A growth mindset likes challenge and requires failure to level up. If this were millennia ago, many of these failures would have undoubtedly ended in death. So whereas a fixed mindset keeps you safe, a growth mindset could potentially put you at risk. And we know which one of these would more often survive.
Nowadays, with the cushiness of our sophisticated society, a fixed mindset does not serve the purpose it used to. The protection it once granted us now serves as an entrapment to our individual advancement. Therefore, attempting to perpetuate a growth mindset is one of the best things to do to propel yourself forward in your career. An amazing book to read on this is Mindset by Dr Carol Dweck; who highlights leaders in business, sports and arts with growth vs fixed mindset. Seeing these comparisons side by side really emphasises which is more consistent in bringing success. This is the book that showed me my own fixed mindset, and that I am holding myself back to avoid the potential failure. After reading, I decided to work on my own thoughts in order to get myself into a growth mindset as it is definitely a key to success.
As a first step, I have started to incorporate personal development work into my daily life including establishing a morning routine to focus on me. This is something I have never intentionally done before - I normally only get up early to hit the books before dawn when a deadline is looming - but I did used to go to the gym in the wee hours during my PhD as central London workout space is limited and packed during rush hour. Although this routine was purely based on fitness, upon reflection I have realised when I did this consistently during my second year it was the most productive time of my PhD. So I am now getting up early again, but to do a mental workout. I have started to meditate, journal, write my future goals (affirmations) and exercise before I open an email. One week in, and I can already feel a difference in my motivation and focus.
But is this down to actual changes in my brain? What is going on there? My itch to know the neuroscience behind EVERYTHING is no different in this situation. So that is what I am going to do - use my knowledge of the brain to find the science behind all these techniques. I will research what information is already out there and report on new studies coming out in the field of personal development neuroscience to give you a backstage pass to your brain. I find personally knowing the science behind an action makes me (1) more likely to try it and (2) less likely to give up. If you are already into personal development, I hope I can give you an insight into the biology behind these practices and if you are how I was about two months ago - aka not about any of this stuff - then this information might allow you invest some more time in yourself.
I'll be reporting back with my findings on the regular so make sure to check back here, subscribe to my YouTube and follow my instagram if you are keen to know more about your brain on personal development.