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Adversity and learning

Improving Systems and Habits

Scott Miker is the author of several books that describe how to use systems and habits to improve.  This free blog provides articles that to help understand the principles related to building systems.  

Adversity and learning

Scott Miker

I enjoy watching sports, especially football.  Every week there are examples of every type of outcome.  Some teams win and some lose and week-to-week the analysts seem to make too much out of each game.  One loss and suddenly everybody thinks this team is a failure.  After a strong performance a player is suddenly in the race for the Heisman trophy.

But somehow teams continue to stump the analysts with performances that don’t seem to fit with their previous body of work.  It’s as though football is more complex than a few X’s and O’s. 

The reality is that it is much more complicated than what gets simplified and broadcast on ESPN.  Yet time and time again analysts want to force teams into predetermined categories.

Life can be very similar.  In fact, we tend to do the same thing when we evaluate ourselves.  We have a big win and start to feel that we are good at this.  We have a loss and suddenly think we are horrible.  We jump to the extremes instead of seeing it for what it is.

In the theories of learning there is a theory by Dr. Carol Dweck that says there is a distinction between entity and incremental theories of intelligence.  One type, entity, internalizes everything and it gets embedded into one’s self-awareness.  An “A” on a test and they get told how smart they are.  An “F” in their math class and they are told they aren’t smart enough or that they get their math ability from their parent who struggled in math. 

But the second type of learner, incremental, doesn’t internalize things in the same way.  They get an “A” on a test and are told how much work they put into studying.  An “F” means that they have to work harder the next time.

While this may have developed in all of us from the authority figures in our lives and how they praised and punished us, it is something that we have control over.  We can start to see the big picture to better understand what success or failure really means.  It really isn’t as absolute as we tend to believe. 

But why would we want to know about this?  Why would we want to change? 

The research that has been done on these two types of learning shows that the type of person (entity) that views everything as absolute tends to overvalue results.  They don’t see things as growing pains and improvement.  They tend to see validation or contradiction from their closely held beliefs about themselves. 

Further research shows something even more important.  The second type of learner, incremental, tends to handle adversity in much better ways.  Adversity isn’t a crushing blow to their ego, which shatters their confidence.  It is actually just an incentive to work harder.  They tend to perform significantly better on very challenging problems. 

While most of us probably have a little of each learning style within us, we can use this information to improve.  We can start to focus on gradual improvement.  This will help us to develop the mindset that a failure means we have to work harder and a win means we worked hard enough to win. 

It doesn’t mean we avoid challenges to avoid failure, it means we have to realize that wins and losses will happen when we take on new and difficult challenges.  We can then use the lesson behind each win or loss as the key to improve.  

By shifting from the entity learning style to the incremental learning style we can start to enjoy the process much more than the results.  This will help us to overcome adversity and continue to improve regardless of the result.