There was a time when clean water was impossible. Today it’s a given. Remember when human flight was impossible? Now it’s commonplace. Here’s the thing: history is littered with examples of unthinkably difficult problems—“impossible” problems—solved by those who chose to believe differently and keep working at them.
We all know, intuitively, that most things aren’t actually impossible. They just haven’t happened yet. We know most of the world’s issues will eventually be solved, so why do we still see many of our own problems as impossible to work with? The career change that would take years and endless education; the world travel that would cost more than our savings; the marathon we aspire to. Impossible, impossible, impossible. But, really, we know these things are doable; we see them done regularly. Just not by us.
So it must be something else holding us back. Is it a lack of privilege? Lesser resources? Are we not smart or strong enough? Of course not. What these examples really illustrate is a fixed mindset. And that’s dangerous.
In her seminal book, Mindset, Carol Dweck explains that you might have a fixed mindset if you believe your traits are static, i.e. however you think of yourself—unintelligent, incapable, untalented—is simply the way you are. And you can’t change.
The opposite is a growth mindset—your traits are malleable. If you work at something, you’ll improve. And study after study seems to prove it. Those with a growth mindset tend to improve their skills and accomplishments, while those who are fixed stagnate.
What’s funny, as Dweck uncovered, is that it’s not your mindset that makes improvement possible or impossible. It only determines whether or not you’ll try. And those who try tend to end up succeeding—even if those attempts are met with painful failures along the way. She notes: “We like to think of our champions and idols as superheroes who were born different from us. We don’t like to think of them as relatively ordinary people who made themselves extraordinary.”
So, if you hold a fixed mindset yourself, I’d advise you to correct it because the dangers of ignoring it are threefold.
First, there’s a danger to yourself. When you allow yourself to be content in your fixedness—convinced that some things just aren’t possible for you—you prevent yourself from realizing your potential, whatever it may be. If you believe you’re not cut out for something, you won’t try to prove yourself wrong.
Second, there’s a danger to the people you love. American entrepreneur, author and motivational speaker Jim Rohn is famous for suggesting that you’re the average of the five people you spend the most time with. Look around at who you keep close and you’ll see it’s true. You’re subtly influenced by the people you love. Likewise, they’re influenced by you. If you carry an attitude of “impossible” around, it’ll rub off on them. You quietly signal to the people you care for most that it’s okay to not challenge yourself.
Third, there’s a danger to society. All the people you know also know other people. Like the butterfly effect, the way you approach the world influences others who then pass that mindset along. Research around social networks has demonstrated a cascading effect of influence as degrees of separation increase. Your mindset can affect people you don’t even know.
When you say something is impossible, what you really mean is that it’s not possible right now. It’s not a priority. But the language you use and the way you think about the “impossible” affects both you and everyone around you. Use the word with caution, if at all. Your world depends on it.
Tyler Tervooren is the founder of Riskology, a leadership training company for introverts.
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