“Oh wow, look at him”
Glancing around, it only took a second to realize who my mother was referring to. Coming towards us was a man, probably in his late 20s, who was built like he’d walked out of a Calvin Klein underwear ad. After a few more paces he grabbed an inner-tube for him and his friend, and they stepped into the line for the water slide we’d just left.
“Yeah, you know, some guys are just born to look that way. I’m never going to have muscles or abs like that.”
This male extended-family member (who I’ll leave unnamed not to disparage them), although certainly meaning nothing by it, had just said something incredibly depressing. I was only 11 years old, and when I heard him say that, this is what went through my head:
And I would continue believing that we each have a “fixed” body like this for about seven years. I eventually realized that belief couldn’t be further from the truth, but many people never have this realization.
More recently, I had this conversation:
“Yeah, it sucks that he just realized he wants to go into investment banking.”
“Well, he’s already a junior in college. He’s never going to be able to break in.”
I certainly hope that he didn’t say this to his friend’s face, because if he did, then he’s unnecessarily destroyed his friend’s confidence in the same way that my family member affected me 10 years ago. It’s laughable how false this belief is; there’s no single path to success and I’m confident that even someone in their late 20s with an art history degree could find a way into IB if they were dedicated. Mergers and Inquisitions even has an article on how to do this.
But we hear similar things every day:
“Well, I realize now I’d love to do [something else], but I can’t because I don’t have time to get in a degree in it.”
“I’m stuck with this body, I won’t ever be that skinny.”
“I’d love to [do X] one day, but I can’t right now.”
“I’m too old to learn [to program, a language, a new industry].”
The Tragedy of Learned Helplessness
The underlying motivation for all of these beliefs is called “learned helplessness.” In short, it’s a mental state where, as a result of past experiences, we believe we can’t do anything about a certain stimulus.
The most famous study demonstrating learned helplessness was done on dogs, using electrocution as the negative stimulus. The dogs were split into three groups:
1. Group one dogs were simply put in a harness for a period.
2. Group two dogs were put in a harness and occasionally electrocuted, but they could stop the electrocution by pressing a lever.
3. Group three dogs were put in a harness and were unable to stop the electrocution. It ended randomly for them.
Then, each group of dogs was placed individually in a pen. One side of the pen would occasionally become electrocuted, shocking the dogs. All they had to do was jump over a small barrier to escape the shock. Dogs in groups one and two quickly found out they could jump to the other side and escape it. The group three dogs simply laid there and whimpered, despite being able to easily escape their situation. They had learned they were helpless in their suffering.
Further, the group three dogs who believed they had no control over their suffering exhibited symptoms very similar to clinical depression in humans, suggesting that a major cause of depression may be a sense of helplessness in our life situation.
Animals need to experience the helplessness themselves in order to develop this reaction. The dog has to experience not being able to do anything about being shocked in order to give up in reaction to it. If a dog in group one watches a dog in group three, he won’t be affected by it. He’ll still jump over the barrier.
Humans won’t. In later research on social learning, Albert Bandura found that humans can learn helplessness simply by observing other people fail to change their situation. And the strength of your connection to them, and how similar you see yourselves, will increase the sense of helplessness that can come from your observations. For example:
- A child who sees their parents fail at dieting will assume there’s no point in trying to diet
- A student who sees their peers failing out of school and getting mixed up in drugs will assume they’re destined to do the same
- A friend who sees their best friend’s marriage or relationship fail will doubt the strength of their own
- A college student who sees all of their friends go into a few specific jobs will assume that they, too, should go into those jobs
- Having a friend fail to quit smoking will make you assume you can’t quit as well
And it will all happen subconsciously, there’s very little you can do about it. Worse, without recognizing it, you’re probably holding back the people around you and making them unhealthier / unhappier. How often have you said something to the effect of:
“Oh I have to have some sugar in my diet”
“Yeah, I pulled three all-nighters this week, there’s just no way to have a regular sleep schedule at this school”
“Well a couple hours of TV at night is fine”
“I always procrastinate, but it’s fine, I usually get the work done”
“I really don’t like exercising, it’s just not for me”
Not only are you reaffirming your own belief that you can’t change these things, you’re putting that belief in the heads of everyone around you. And you’re especially impacting your loved ones.
But don’t worry, we can change it.
From a Fixed Mindset to a Growth Mindset
The defining factor between being constantly stuck in a state of learned helplessness and having it not affect you is your mindset towards life.
You can take on one of two mindsets: a fixed mindset, or a growth mindset.
A fixed mindset says “I just am a certain way, and there’s nothing I can do about it.” Or “life is a certain way and I just have to accept it and work within that structure.”
The fixed mindset is what you will hear most frequently from people, and what I’ve quoted extensively so far. The fixed mindset says things like:
“I’m stuck with my depression”
“I always procrastinate”
“I think that job would be fun, but I can’t make enough money with it”
“I’d love to learn that, but I’m too old”
Fixed mindsets are comfortable and easy to get stuck in. A fixed mindset gives you an excuse for inaction. Change is scary, taking action is hard, and it’s much easier to simply sit there and say “well, I’ll never be in shape, I was just built this way” than to do the research and make a change.
But a growth mindset allows you to do anything. When you take on a growth mindset, you don’t see obstacles as barriers to your success, but rather to borrow Ryan Holiday‘s book title, you see obstacles as the way to your success.
Instead of doing nothing, or feeling that you can’t do anything, you simply see these problems as things to be solved. You’re not intimidated by other people’s success, you try to model it. You take advantage of criticism as feedback on ways to improve. You recognize challenge as being necessary for your self improvement. And most importantly you see everything as fixable.
You’re overweight? No problem. You research and experiment with different diets to see what works best, or just use someone else’s research.
You’re not passionate about your job? Great. Find something you love, read up on it extensively, figure out how to turn your knowledge into creating value for other people, and start emailing people you want to work with.
You’re depressed? You can fix that. Start learning about how environmental changes can affect your depression. Get your Vitamin D levels tested. Start with a 5 minute walk and work up to longer exercise from there. Cut negative people out of your life.
Changing your life is no different than changing your sheets. It’s something you choose to do, and if you don’t know how, you figure it out. Nothing has to be set in stone.
Is it more work? Yes. But it’s worth it.
First image credit to www.aboutmodafinil.com, second to Mindset: The New Psychology of Success by Carol Dweck