You’re not perfect – and that’s the best thing you could hope for

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A young, fixed mindset Weh.
A young, fixed mindset Weh.

“I don’t divide the world into the weak and the strong, or the successes and the failures… I divide the world into the learners and non learners.” – Benjamin Barber, sociologist.

When I was a kid, I cheated in a school test.

It wasn’t the worst crime in the world. I didn’t deserve to be expelled from school. But at the same time, it wasn’t my finest moment.

I was raised with good values. That hard, honest work was the way forward.

So why did I cheat?

As long as I can remember, I was told that I was gifted. That I had something within me which was different from the rest. I could put my mind to anything and I was bound to succeed.

Not only did these claims place unreasonably high expectations on me, they forced me into only one kind of future – success.

Failure, with my inherent talents, was simply not an option.

It didn’t matter that I had taken a shortcut. What mattered was that I had fulfilled expectations, which were fixed from the day I was born.

It seems that I was not alone. Carol Dweck, the psychologist and author of the book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, describes two different mindsets that explain why people act like this.

I had demonstrated the fixed mindset, where people and outcomes are set from the day they were born.

By comparison, the growth mindset acknowledges people’s traits, but says that you can cultivate and grow upon abilities through effort.

The growth mindset says that learning does not end in the classroom.
The growth mindset says that learning does not end in the classroom.

How Mindset changed the way I view the world.

The fixed versus growth mindset can be applied in so many different ways.

Imagine a colleague is habitually late for work. Under the fixed mindset, we look at this behaviour and we see the person. They are lazy. They are careless. They don’t respect other people’s time.

The growth mindset, on the other hand, doesn’t view people as static. Perhaps the person was lazy or careless, but this doesn’t mean that the person inherently is this way.

How we respond to any situation depends very much on the mindset we take.

Under the fixed mindset, there’s no point even bringing it up with the person, because they will never change. Deep down, they really are lazy, careless and disrespectful.

Under the growth mindset, we need to understand why their behaviour is this way. We need to raise it as an issue with the person, explain the effect of their tardiness, and work with them so people around them aren’t continually frustrated.

Clearly, taking the growth mindset approach is a much more optimistic option.

Surely there is a better way to get people to be punctual, Flava Flav.
Surely there is a better way to get people to be punctual, right, Flava Flav?

How the fixed mindset encourages paternalism.

Working in Cambodia for four years, I’ve seen how the fixed versus growth mindset plays out in foreign staff here. Those with fixed mindsets believe that they are the Western experts, coming into a poor country to tell people what to do.

I’ve seen volunteers come into Cambodia with this misconception – that they are here to “capacity build” local people.

The problem with this approach is that often, the volunteer first needs their own capacity built. A 27 year old volunteer from Australia needs to understand context, culture and language before handing out expertise.

Seeking understanding is a cornerstone of the growth mindset.

Applying the growth mindset to our work in Cambodia takes off a whole lot of pressure. We are no longer infallible. We are not experts. We are there to learn, try new things, and then to learn more along the way.

I’m convinced that having this mindset will produce better results for the people we’re seeking to help in Cambodia.

A photo from an organisation that provides “ethical tourism” opportunities for people in Cambodia. No element of learning here.
A photo from an organisation that provides “ethical tourism” opportunities for people in Cambodia. No element of learning of growth mindset here.

How the growth mindset applies to leadership.

When I started OIC in Cambodia, I used to think that my job, as the leader, was to focus day to day on the child we were helping. The child who needs speech therapy, in the village in Cambodia, but could not access it.

There’s no doubt that this child is connected to our purpose. We wouldn’t be here were it not for this child.

But my job, as the leader, is to ensure the maximum growth of our staff and volunteers. I don’t just want our staff and volunteers to be the best project managers, or the best technical people in their field.

I want the OIC team to become the best possible versions of themselves.

This means that they make decisions that are ethical. They demonstrate kindness to those around them. They invest in their own growth, and their own well-being.

If we can get our staff and volunteers to do this, then the result will take care of itself. We’ll get the best possible outcome for the child in the village.

Taking this approach means resisting the constant pressure for instant results. The donors asking how many children OIC has helped this year. The volunteers itching to get their hands dirty, to get out to the villages and help.

A fixed mindset would take the same approach that I did as a child. Fake it to prove outwardly that we are the experts. Show results – any results – and get more support.

A growth mindset, however, encourages us to take a backward step from the work we are doing, and ask ourselves a simple question:

What are we learning, and how are we going to apply this new information?

Asking this questions completely changes our objectives. Particularly in the early stages of a project, the objective is no longer ticking boxes.

It’s learning, growth, and understanding.

It feeds into one of the undeniable truths of development. It’s complex, and we’re here to learn and grow. And hopefully, as we become the best versions of ourselves, we’ll produce the best possible result for Cambodia along the way.

How has using the fixed or growth mindset influenced you? I’d be keen to find out in the comments.

6 thoughts on “You’re not perfect – and that’s the best thing you could hope for

  1. Thank you Weh, for such a thoughtful and insightful piece. I really appreciated your example of the fixed mindset and the growth mindset and this has not only applied to you, but can apply to they way we view the world and what we consider to be ” good works”.

    1. Thanks Jo! As someone who is constantly self reflecting and looking to improve, I’m sure you apply the growth mindset instinctively, even if you hadn’t put a label onto it!

  2. This article really struck a chord, particularly around applying different mindsets in a Cambodian working context – thanks for the insight!

  3. Great post, Weh. There are always lessons around us waiting to be learned if we have the ‘growth mindset’ you describe. Unfortunately much of our societal structures push us in the direction of ‘fixed mindsets’ and we have to unlearn (or burst out of) these constraints to truly be able to learn from others. In many ways it’s a practice we have to consistently work on (especially those of us born into some ‘privilege’). One of my earliest experiences with this was as a young intern in western Africa where I was put ‘in charge of’ an evaluation trip and ‘supported’ by local staff. I quickly learned who was actually in charge, helping to move me in the direction of questioning traditional assumptions about authority and expertise!

    1. Thank you Bonnie for this great comment. It’s interesting to hear that even as a young “expert” you instantly understood that your role wasn’t necessarily to be in charge, in a paternalistic way. Do you think much has changed to discourage young people in the field of development to see themselves as experts?

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