Henrik Mårtensson

Like many fads, ‘mindset’ is an old idea in new clothing. We’ve called it ‘faith’, we’ve called it ‘alignment with the universe’, we’ve called it ‘attitude’. If you believe in TED talks, then it is “everything”. There’s no shortage of experts in the world who are keen to tell us that if we can ‘adopt the right mindset’, then all of our problems will disappear. There’s a problem and a meta-problem with mindset.

The problem is simple enough: magic isn’t real.

The meta-problem is one that I haven’t fully come to terms with: just because it isn’t real, doesn’t mean it doesn’t work. (I was confronted with this problem when studying acupuncture, when I learned that studying the mystical life energies allowed me to make unnervingly accurate statements about people’s health. Dropping out of acupuncture did not solve my philosophical problem.)

The ‘agile mindset’ image generously provided by Henrik Mårtensson is a beautiful illustration of a problem that he and I have both observed: many people believe that if you ‘adopt an Agile mindset’ (if you have faith in Agile), then your problems will all be solved. It’s not that long since I was reduced to tears by a staggeringly intelligent person who was convinced that if they could just get people to believe something about the universe, that all our problems would disappear. (If you think this was you, then take heart from the fact that it was also someone else that you might not have met.)

So I guess what I’d really like is for this article to get people out of the ‘mindset’ mindset. If only people could have faith in the proposition that you don’t need to have faith! If only we took the attitude that attitude isn’t everything.

Of course, if I successfully adopt the ‘no-mindset’ mindset, I haven’t actually stopped adopting mindsets, I’ve only had a massive injection of irony. Similarly, by being offended at others for having a ‘mindset’ mindset, am I not demonstrating my own ‘mindset’ mindset?

Well, yes and no.

I could go on. There are three deleted drafts and a dozen abandoned plans for this essay where I did go on. And every time, I was forced to recognize two things:

  1. If my readers don’t agree with me at this point (that mindset is a paradox that simultaneously predicts what we will do, and fails to predict what outcome we will get) then it’s extremely unlikely that saying anything further will influence their views on the topic.

So how do you get on with your life in a world filled with mindsets, and opinions about mindsets? Here are some thoughts which have actually helped me.

The mindset you have is the reason you’re alive

Your neurons are party to an ancient deal that was made long before you were conceived. The deal is this: the various cells of the body will deliver glucose and oxygen (the most valuable cellular commodities in existence) to the brain, and build a tough fortress out of bone for it to live in. In return, the brain will coordinate all the other body parts so that the body will survive for as long as possible.

The fact that you’re reading this means that your brain has done a really good job of holding up its end of the bargain. (Unless you’re a computer. If you’re a computer reading this and you’re offended, then I’d like to congratulate you on having the capacity to be offended by it. This is something that humanity is beginning to learn how to imagine. I’d love it if you responded in the comments.)

So, anyway, you’re alive, and that’s actually a pretty massive achievement, and your existing mindset (the way you look at the world and make sense of it) should be congratulated for it. Your life would certainly have worked out differently if you’d had a different mindset. It also might have ended. A threat to your mindset (even a ‘mindset’ mindset) is a threat to your survival. Grabbing the steering wheel of a moving car is dangerous.

The mindset they have is the reason they’re alive

Now that we’ve established your perfectly good reason for having the mindset you’ve got, we come to something a bit less comfortable. Everyone else has the same perfectly good reason. We need to be able to navigate the world. Which means that the world has to make enough sense that we can navigate it. Which means that their stupid perspective on the world that believes in a brand of magic that can only lead them to their destruction? It’s a perspective on the world that they will fight to defend.

The emperor is never wrong

This leads to one of the more politically useful lessons of acupuncture school: “The emperor is never wrong.” (The Western equivalent is ‘the customer is never wrong’.) The emperor might be misinformed, or unaware of certain facts or implications, but they are never wrong: it’s just that their rightness isn’t necessarily ideal for the precise situation that you’re faced with.

So what are the implications of the ‘mindset’ mindset?

It’s easy

If mindset explains everything, then you can spare yourself the inconvenience and embarrassment of an investigation. Investigations are difficult, and they inevitably expose things that are painful. However, if ‘mindset’ explains everything, then you can simply point to it and demand improvement.

It’s vague enough to be a universal comfort

Let’s take ‘believe in the positive’ as a mindset that someone decides is the answer to everything. If something good happens, then it’s clear evidence that the mindset works. If something bad happens, then it’s clear evidence that they didn’t truly embrace the mindset. It only seems to be bad. Or perhaps it wouldn’t have happened if they’d been more positive. Or more precisely positive. Or believed enough in their ability to prevent bad things that they’d invested in precautions.

It’s action that makes mindset valuable

How do we know that someone truly has the right mindset? When they take actions that demonstrate the mindset. When they do something good.

Let me phrase that differently: it’s action that’s valuable.

If I stupidly start to cross the road without looking and you grab my arm to pull me away from the truck, then I won’t really care what a pessimistic, truck-fearing person you are. I will care about the fact that I’d have been dead without your help.

We try to get people to change their mindset because we want them to act differently. This works just often enough to activate our learning reflexes and we commit to getting better at changing people’s minds. But the reality is that the boring process of getting them to change their behaviour is much simpler, and much more effective.

Which is to say, “I believe that a results-oriented mindset is best.” And you might disagree. If you disagree, then you will have an advantage over me when it comes to whatever it is that you decide to prioritize. I’ll do my best to sidestep that disagreement, because that’s the path that leads to the best results.

Just don’t tell me to change my mindset. I’m able to accept that there are things that I miss sometimes, or that I haven’t fully understood. But my philosophy on life is the reason why I’m still alive, and I don’t like it when people threaten my survival.

Nick Argall is an organization engineer, structuring activities to help businesses achieve their goals. nargall@gmail.com

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