Mindset: A Short Story

Composite of the two characters in Fight Club

Composite of the two characters in Fight Club

The other competes against no one, not even itself. And like a flower, it simply blossoms.

By Sam Yang - Get similar updates here

Mindset: The New Psychology of Success by Carol Dweck is a splendid book that lays out the duality of mindset in a way that is easy to comprehend. In synthesizing Dweck's main concepts into an essay, I was reminded of the Native American legend on the Two Wolves. So I decided to use a similar narrative approach to lay down the story of growth and fixed mindset.

The Master and the Boy with Two Minds

There once was an old master, and every evening, his students came to sit at his feet to ask questions. One day, one of the Master's favorite pupils came to him with eyes filled with sadness. "Sit, tell me what has happened," said the Master.

The Pupil sat on the bottom step and turned his head away from the Master. "I went to the library today," the Pupil said, "to learn from books and the ways of the world. I was eager to go because you had said a book is like my practice staff — it is as versatile as the imagination of the wielder.

"Having never been there before, I was nervous to be with other children with more schooling than me. But I wanted to be brave. I looked through many books to find one that fit my level. It was short, but a good length for me, so the librarian helped me to borrow it."

The Pupil put his head down and fell silent. "Please continue," said the Master.

Without looking at his teacher, the Pupil continued, “I hurried, excited to show you the book, Master. It had many wonderful pictures. Then some of the children from town saw me. They surrounded me and called me names. They said I looked stupid. They told me I was hopeless. One boy said the book was too easy. A girl said I had no need for books. That books were for smart children and not for people like me.

"I am ashamed, Master. I was so embarrassed and hurt by their words, when they said 'people like me,' I forgot my training. They knocked me down and took my book. They laughed at me and said I knew nothing. Not even how to defend myself properly. They said hopeless fools cannot learn.

"You teach us to focus on our connectedness, but I had never felt such disconnection before, Master. That they and I were apart and different — not the same. It was a new and terrible feeling, Master, a feeling of isolation. I felt alone and small."

The Pupil was stricken with anguish and self-pity, “I am so sorry, Master. I know I am bad. I know I am stupid. You do not need to tell me.” The Pupil handed his library card to the Master.

The Master furrowed his white brow and rubbed his chin. He looked out at the faces of his students and recognized that they, too, have felt the same pain as this student. The Master stood up and addressed his pupils, "We train because we know mastery needs to be developed. We are not born with it. I have seen students come with a natural ability to cause fights, but none have I met with a natural ability to restore peace. I have seen students with abilities who do not work, be surpassed by students who showed little initial promise, yet put in great effort. There is no permanence. All things are stages of transition. You may know little now while another may know more, but neither will remain the case. All things change."

The Master sat down next to his favorite pupil. He lifted his student's chin. “Let me tell you a story," the Master said. "I, too, have felt great inadequacies by those who have made me feel lacking. That I was not born special or gifted. But that feeling only makes you suffer and does not hurt them. It convinces you that you are inferior. It is a feeling we must all endure throughout our lives. Even as your teacher, I have struggled with it. It is as if there are two minds within me.

"One believes it is born with greatness, it only needs to be awakened. These are the stories where the hero has no master, they suddenly awaken with gifts. These stories are loved in the West. Yet the other, like you, my students, believe that greatness is taught. There are no tales of heroes without mention of the teachers and the communities that shaped them. Then, in that way, there is no great man or woman. We are all equals and one and the same.

"But one mind loves vanity and will not listen to my words. The other loves to learn and will gain from these words. One believes it cannot change, which only leaves it to wilt. The other knows it can change, which frees it to grow. One avoids challenges while the other embraces them. One gives up quickly while the other quickly endures. Both are seeds, but since one is not already a flower, it competes to remain a seed. The other competes against no one, not even itself. And like a flower, it simply blossoms.

"One sees no path in effort when the other sees effort as the only path. One gets hurt and angry when they make a mistake. The other learns from mistakes and moves on. One is jealous and fears the success of others, while the other learns and is inspired by the success of their friends.

"One will never live up to its potential and defines itself by its limitations. The other will go beyond what any thought capable and does not define its capacity. One lives by simple categories, and plays to that role. The other believes once you adopt a label, you are diminished. Rather than accepting that role, it lives fluidly.

"One sees the world as permanent. The other knows permanence is an illusion. One believes they cannot. The other knows they can. Sometimes it is hard to live with these two minds, for both are hungry for my attention.”

The Pupil raised his head, “Do I have two minds, Master?” He asked with great interest.

The Master met his disciple's gaze and nodded. “Yes," he said as he handed the library card back to his Pupil. "But which mind will you feed?”

Useful Companions (Improve Your Education and This Site by Buying a Book):

  • I could probably recommend Carol Dweck's Mindset: The New Psychology of Success for every essay I write. It was that generational reminder we all needed to hear, that we are capable of change and the only thing holding us back is our self-limiting belief that we are always in stasis.
  • Is it about memorization or is it about self-regulation skills such as grit, conscientiousness, curiosity, and optimism? In How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character, Paul Tough argues it is the latter. How can a child, or anyone else for that matter, practice, study, and memorize unless they have the required character to do so?
  • Julie Lythcott-Haims was the Dean of Freshmen and Undergraduate Advising at Stanford University, and is also a mother of two. In How to Raise an Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kid for Success, Lythcott-Haims writes about raising children with wisdom and giving them space to grow. We believe children are our clones to do with as as we please, but they are their own persons who need to be given a chance to reveal themselves.
  • In The Tyranny of the Meritocracy: Democratizing Higher Education in America, Lani Guinier discusses how the educational system is based around test taking rather than critical thinking. Rather than a meritocracy, the cards are stacked against the underprivileged. If education is about ranking and sorting, then those who graduate will promulgate that legacy, rather than being active citizens and leaders of democracy.
  • Unlike the other books I am mentioning, George Leonard's Mastery: The Keys to Success and Long-Term Fulfillment is a short and easy to read book that uses plain language and personal narrative to deliver the message of efficient learning. It's the book I give most often as a gift.
  • Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance by Angela Duckworth is the popular reading material in elite social circles. Similar to Paul Tough's How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character, where Tough's book focused on several characteristics but lacked in solutions, Duckworth's emphasis is on grit, how to quantify it, and the strategies to increase it. As Tough's book focused more on the experiences of the poor, Duckworth's book is geared for the middle-class and above. It is heavy in research and evidence and has become the new model of education.