Can the secret to success be summed up in a three-letter word?
And the word is… “yet.”
It requires some explanation as to why “yet” is such an important word, so please be patient with me.
Earlier this year, I had the honor of speaking at the National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP) Conference in Dallas, Texas. I was even more honored because my co-presenter was Dr. Carol Dweck, world-renowned researcher and the Lewis and Virginia Eaton Professor of Psychology at Stanford University.
Dr. Dweck’s research has centered around the themes of human motivation and development. She’s come up with a theory of the fixed vs. growth mindset, which has been proven by numerous studies.
Why effort matters more than ability
Essentially, Dr Dweck’s theory predicts who will be successful over the long term and who won’t. I know, that’s a pretty big claim to make, but she has three decades of research to back her up.
Here’s a summary of the theory:
- People with a fixed mindset generally believe that their skills and abilities are fixed and won’t improve much, even with practice.
- Fixed mindsetters focus on the end result more than the process of development.
- Fixed mindsetters often focus on factors that are beyond their control, e.g. bad luck, unfortunate circumstances, unkind bosses, bad parents.
- In contrast, growth mindsetters generally believe that no matter what their skill or ability level now, they can improve with effort.
- Growth mindsetters focus on the process and the journey, instead of merely being concerned about the outcome.
- Growth mindsetters focus on factors that are within their control, e.g. effort, attitude, choices.
How can a 3-letter word make such a huge difference?
Dr. Dweck has observed that one of the things that’s characteristic of growth mindsetters is that they frequently use the word “yet.”
Fixed mindsetters think or say things like:
- “I’m not good at making new friends.”
- “I’m not disciplined.”
- “I’m not an analytical thinker.”
- “I don’t have many leadership qualities.”
- “I can’t cook.”
On the other hand, growth mindsetters simply tag on the word “yet” at the end of those sentences:
- “I’m not good at making new friends yet.”
- “I’m not disciplined yet.”
- “I’m not an analytical thinker yet.”
- “I don’t have many leadership qualities yet.”
- “I can’t cook yet.”
It’s a simple word that represents a fundamental shift in mindset. (You can read more examples in this article I’ve written about developing a growth mindset in students.)
Using the word “yet” reminds us that we’re not perfect, that we’re a work-in-progress. Of course, we’ll need to choose which areas we want to focus on and excel at, but we shouldn’t write ourselves off as being bad at something before we’ve even given it a shot.
I’ve worked with students who have concluded that they’re bad at math, bad at science, bad at relationships, bad at life. Worse still, they’ve decided that things will never change, so they subconsciously behave in ways to prove themselves right.
Case study: my fear of public speaking
I can identify, because as a teenager I was like that too. One thing I was especially afraid of was public speaking.
Given that I’ve spoken to thousands of people in various countries, I always get the “yeah, right” look—I mean, the death stare of disbelief—when I mention that I used to have this fear. But it’s true, I promise!
In school, I used to shy away from any opportunity to speak in public: talks, asking questions in class, or sharing my views. To me, being forced to give a class presentation was the worst thing that could happen in life.
Just the thought of speaking in public immobilized me. My stomach would tighten up, my mind would freeze, and my emotions would go out of whack.
This continued until I was 21 years old. One day, I decided that I just couldn’t let this irrational fear get the better of me any longer. I wasn’t familiar with Dr Dweck’s work at the time, but it was then that I changed my thinking from “I’m not confident at public speaking” to “I’m not confident at public speaking yet.”
I promised myself that I would say yes the next time someone asked me to give a talk or presentation. It didn’t matter how big or small the audience would be, and it didn’t matter how long I was supposed to speak for.
I was going to do it. No hesitating, and no excuses. I was going to become a confident public speaker.
After saying yes again and again to speaking opportunities, I eventually realized that I enjoy public speaking, and I’ve never looked back since.
Becoming a “yet” man/woman
That’s my little story of how the word “yet” has empowered me.
I’m still in the process of applying this “yet” mindset. I want to become a world-class husband and father; I want to grow as a leader and strategic thinker; I want to develop traits like courage and fortitude. I’ll be the first to admit that I have plenty of work to do in these areas!
What about you? Are there skills or competencies that you’ve already decided you’ll never be able to acquire, regardless of how hard you try?
And are you willing to make it a daily habit to become a “yet” man/woman?
Life is a journey of learning, loving, growing and contributing. We’re not there. Yet.