“I can’t do it.” “I don’t know.” “I’m not good at it.” “I don’t get it.”
From an early age, we are taught that our sense of self is inherently tied to a finite amount of innate talent, be it academic, athletic or otherwise. We are praised for exam results instead of effort, percentages over perseverance, with approval a currency only grades can buy. What this means is that, too often, we disqualify ourselves from a race before ever even signing up, having internalised a narrative that tells us there are things we can do, and things we can’t. That there are limits to our abilities that are as inflexible as our eye colour. These limits, we learn, are the hallmarks of our identity; the looming obelisks that serve as our qualifiers, and, more often, excuses.
“I’m not good at languages” is a hasty defence against a world of learning because, at some point, a struggle to conquer the slippery subjunctive or that rage-inducing rolling ‘rrr’became, not a signpost en route to achievement, but rather a warning sign of a chromosomal cul-de-sac ending in flushed humiliation.
“I’m not sporty” – born out of an inability to do a push-up or run 5km – cordons off a universe of athletic potential, shutting down any interest we might have had in pushing past the trauma of a PE class to find the right exercise for us.
“I don’t understand maths” is a learned identifier from one test, one experience or one inept teacher, precluding us from the many strata of a subject that underpins our lives in all manner of permutations and undulations.
What I’m describing is the insidious phenomenon of a ‘fixed mindset.’ Enmeshed, ensconced, mashed into our identities since childhood, a fixed mindset is the perpetuated belief that our intelligence, capabilities or talents are limited to preordained amounts. This manifests in a myriad of ways – from avoiding challenges to giving up easily – and is consolidated in an internalised fear of failure or, worse again, being seen to fail at something. With intelligence and aptitude intrinsically linked to our identity – ‘languages just come easily to her’, ‘he’s a science whiz’ – failure to grasp something quickly or easily is construed as a characteristic, instead of a challenge.
Except, what if failure is a perception instead of a fact? What if it is subjective instead of objective? What if we could change not only how we approach challenges but also our ability to overcome them? Failure, meet the power of yet.
Yet. This tiny, seemingly innocuous three letter word pulverises the limits of a fixed mindset, turning ability into something fluid and malleable, instead of a predetermined boundary never to be crossed. It is the emblem of a growth mindset – a way of thinking popularised by Carol Dweck – that believes aptitude and intelligence are things to be developed. Transformative, empowering, motivational, yet welcomes challenge and destigmatises failure, embracing them as natural and essential parts of the learning process rather than a negative reflection of our ability. The singular power this holds to transform our lives is profound.
I’d like you to return to the beginning of this article and reread those phrases that are ingrained in our consciousness, vocabulary, and self-perception – “I can’t”; “I’m not good at.” Finish those sentences in your own words; customise them with the things you berate yourself over, pine for, dream of.
Feeling tied up in your own inadequacies by now? Pressurised and belittled and hyper aware of everything seemingly beyond your capabilities? Yeah, me too.
Stop. Breathe. Now, add ‘yet’ to the end of each sentence you’ve tattooed into that space of fixed understanding.
“I didn’t get that promotion…yet.”
“I’m not good at public speaking…yet.”
“I don’t understand it…yet.”
Different, isn’t it? This simple addition is the key to a world of possibility, opening doors we have shut for ourselves in learned misappropriation. An indulgent drama queen and over-achiever, I love nothing more than lamenting the things I cannot do, chastising myself over the aspirations never realised, without ever making any effort to undertake practical measures to achieve them. “I can’t run a marathon”, I find myself bemoaning more often than is necessary. However, adding the magnanimous power of yet transforms that marathon from an intangible dream dangling tantalisingly on the periphery of my vision to a finish line brought firmly into the realm of the possible.
This is because ‘yet’ necessitates a roadmap – it creates a clear destination that demands a strategy and a studied course of action. It provides direction, removes emotion and ends this problematic confusion of identity with ability. Suddenly, being unable to run a marathon is not a damning illustration of my restricted abilities but a pragmatic inevitability contextualised by logic. Of course I can’t run a marathon now because I haven’t put in the adequate time, energy or planning into training for one.
It is important to remember, if you’re a better human than I and have trained, that ‘yet’ doesn’t always mean try harder (or, in my case, just try). Sometimes, it is simply an acknowledgement of the fact that there are obstacles in our way, that we are fed up and, while we can’t overcome them today, we will begin again tomorrow. Essentially, and if you’ll forgive the hardly coincidental analogy, the power ‘yet’ holds is the potent realisation that the hurtle towards any goal is indeed a marathon, and not a sprint.
The adoption of this mindset in relation to how we view and treat both ourselves and others is far-reaching. Women notoriously underestimate their abilities, and have been shown to react to professional rejection more adversely than men. When we look at the ratio of male to female representation in positions of power – given their capabilities have been proven to be on par (women usually even outdo their male counterparts) – I can’t help but wonder if these learned insecurities could be somewhat alleviated by the inclusion of ‘yet’ into our everyday vocabulary.
Excuse the uninspired observation but, in a society dominated by soundbites and snapshots, it often seems all emphasis is on an end result and none on toiling effort. ‘Slaying’, ‘winning’, ‘killing it’ – this hyperbolic praise only comes at the pinnacle of achievement and not during the long, arduous slog towards it. For all the insight we’re granted, for the reels of knowledge unravelling at our fingertips, all we see, fixate on, and worry over is the glamorisation of success – which is generally the smallest part of a much larger puzzle. The result is a pressure and existential anxiety that most of us mask by simply refusing to try. ‘Yet’ reminds us of the importance and beauty of trying – of the pivotal need to celebrate the journey of arriving at success, instead of fearing, dreading, and generally loathing it.
In this world of noise, introduce ‘yet’. It is the gift of time, of breathing space, and an allowance of understanding in a world of ‘now’.
A practical guide to succeeding better with ‘yet’:
Listen to ‘How to Fail with Elizabeth Day’ – a podcast dedicated to discussing how ‘failure is the condiment that gives success its flavour’.
Praise correctly. Bring the joy of ‘yet’ to your children, family, and friends by praising behaviour over result. Acknowledge their efforts to succeed, instead of the success itself.
Start small. Pick one example of where you have a fixed mindset in your life and apply ‘yet’ to it – notice the change and see how you can build on this.
Celebrate your achievements! Your journey belongs to you alone so, for one moment, stop looking forward and instead celebrate how far you’ve already come, and just how good the view can look from ‘getting there’.