It's Very Much About Mindset

More than 40 years ago my dear friend, Harold Greenwald, wrote a book Direct Decision Therapy that would have a profound effect on my life. Harold was a wonderful, engaging fellow with an interesting life. He began his adult years as a stand-up comedian amidst the resorts of the Catskills. His brother was Kidd, a famous Broadway show choreographer. He went on to be a Freudian analyst and later earned a Ph.D. in psychology. Always a contrarian, he once wrote a report on results of a Rorschach test he had administered as a graduate student to a patient: “The patient shows signs of latent sanity.” For many years he taught at the United States University in San Diego. His wife was a very successful marriage therapist in her own right.

The major thesis of Harold’s book is that most of our problems in life stem from decisions that we have made which at one time had payoffs but no longer make payoffs after time goes on and we are in a different set of circumstances. The decision to be mentally ill might make sense as a refuge from a domineering mother who was pushing you to find a boyfriend and get married but no longer made any sense in early adulthood. The decision to be the slow child in order to gain sympathy in a family where all siblings were rewarded for being highly intelligent no longer made any sense later in life when that decision seriously reduces the options for a greater life.

The steps of direct decision therapy were:

(1) Identify the problem decision.

(2) Identify the context in which that decision was made which at the time had payoffs. Harold was adamant that we all make rational decision. Even irrational ones are rational if one takes the time to look at life through the eyes of the other person.

(3) Identify the payoffs for that decision. Harold insisted that the alcoholic needs to look at the payoffs for drinking to better assess the payoffs for remaining sober.

(4) Identify whether that decision continues to have payoffs in the present situation or if the decision renders life so problematic a better decision might be considered.

(5) Identify a new decision that might make more sense in the new context of the present situation.

(6) Identify the payoffs for that decision.

(7) Make that decision and find ways to reward yourself for consistently remaking that decision each and every day.

Harold’s process brought together existential psychology’s focus on the importance of decision making in human behavior, Adlerian psychology’s appreciation for the past context in which lifelong decisions are made and behaviorism’s insistence that we are motivated by payoffs. I would later write a paper entitled, “What did I know before I met Harold Greenwald?”

Twice I brought Harold to Roanoke to demonstrate his direct decision methodology. One such meeting was at Catawba Geriatric Hospital. Harold asked a circle of patients if anyone would like to talk to him. One gentleman well advanced in his eighties volunteered. Harold asked him if he had any concerns. The man said that he was going to be released in a few days and was wondering where he was going to get a job. Harold asked him why he was so concerned. The man replied that he had been working ever since he was eight years old. Harold asked what was so important about work. The man replied he wanted to work so he would get to heaven. Harold asked the gentleman what he was going to do when he got to heaven. The man replied, “Well, I am going to sit back and take it easy.” Harold thought a minute and responded, “Have you ever thought it might be good to start learning how to sit back and take it easy so that when you get to heaven you will know how to do it?” A palpable sense of relief came to the man’s face. He smiled, “You’ve got a good point. I never thought of it in that way.”

Carol Dweck’s book, Mindset, is about one of those big decisions that make a huge impact on our lives. It is the decision we all make on whether our ability is fixed early on or whether our ability depends on how hard we work. It is the decision between a fixed mindset and a growth mindset. The outcome of our lives depends heavily on which way we lean. Fixed mindset advocates belief that intelligence, particular talents and abilities are established early in life and no matter how hard we work there is not much to change the situation. As a result, hard work and perseverance is disparaged. We judge ourselves and others on the basis of a perceived talent level or lack of talent. Fixed mindset advocates tend to be jealous of others who succeed, hold prejudicial attitudes toward others who are deemed by society to be less endowed with ability, and disparage the achievement of others. Growth mindset people believe that success is dependent on hard work and persistence. The world is full of examples of athletes, business people and academics whose success is the result of working that much harder than the opposition. When failure is seen by fixed mindset advocates as confirmation of a lack of talent, failure is seen by growth mindset people as part of the inevitable process of learning from mistakes and pressing forward.

I grew up in a medical family where the deterministic impact of having the right genes was considered to be part of the new catechism of science. We were told, of course, our family had the right genes. We were Edlichs. As a child I wondered why, if it was all about genes, we bothered with the indignity of going to school. Why didn’t someone come with an easier plan like figuring how to give someone an injection of English, History, or Math. Both Dick and I were pretty good athletes and loved playing sports. Early on we did not perform as well in school. My dad confirmed the fixed mindset belief by lamenting that it appeared that our brains were in our feet rather than our head. In addition, when I perchance was successful in school, it was not because of my hard work. It was because I was an Edlich. The word Edlich, we were told, came from the German, “I am noble.” My first name, Theodore, came from the Greek meaning “gift of God.” Of course, when I screwed up it was my fault. I had in some way brought it upon myself. In addition, Freudian Psychology was very much the dominant psychological persuasion. What happened early in life determined your destiny and the outcome of your life.

Throughout middle school I did not apply myself. What was the use? The outcome had already been determined. My dog devoured my homework on a regular basis. My lack of success led me to believe that all the other kids were a lot smarter and I was pretty dumb. Figuring that his kids could do just as poorly at a public high school for a lot less money than the private school where we were enrolled, Dad transferred us to Stuyvesant High School, where he had gone to school as a boy.

The change of schools precipitated a radical change in my life. It was fortuitous that Stuyvesant remains one of the top science and math high schools in the U.S. In many ways the instructional level in math and science was above that of the private school where we had been previously enrolled. Nevertheless, Stuyvesant High School was huge compared with the small private school Dick and I had left. The kids were bigger. The athletic competition was much greater. I was a small kid among young men. I managed to find a spot on the new varsity swim team and won enough events to letter each year. However, it gave me an opportunity, since no one including myself had classified me as a dumb kid, to actually study. In two years, my brother and I left Stuyvesant on an early admissions program to Lafayette College.

Many years later I was counseling a high school student who was having academic and behavioral problems at the school where he was enrolled. I suggested to his parents that they pay the fee to transfer him to another public school in an adjoining jurisdiction. The change made the difference. He was no longer locked in by prior perceptions of teachers, administrators, and his own perceptions. He did very well, graduated, and entered submarine training in the U.S. military. It is very difficult when we are in a failing situation for both others and ourselves to change our perception of our talents. Sometimes we just need to get in another situation and start fresh.

It takes courage to challenge the presumption that your talents are set by working hard. For there is the nagging thought that if I really went all out and fell short, it might confirm my worst fears. It was not until I was in graduate school that I decide to really test the waters of my ability. As incoming students we were told that out of 60 of us only four scholarships would be given at the end of the three years for post-graduate study. On that day I decided to be one of them. I was unrelenting in the work I put in. Three years later at a special convocation I heard my name read aloud as one of the four. In fact, I had graduated at the top of my class. I would go on to Yale University, a place where earlier I had been denied admission, for post graduate studies.

For many years I thought about playing competitive chess. Nevertheless, I hesitated because I had the assumption that only really smart people can succeed at chess. In spite of my past academic success, I secretly wondered about the risk of being trashed at this game for geniuses by someone of perceived lesser ability. So I hired Rusty Potter, a former Virginia master level chess champion, as a coach and entered rated chess competition. I never kept at it to achieve more than an average rating. However, just working hard and taking on the challenge was very confirming. Interestingly enough, in chess just as in life, we learn more from the games that we lose than the games that we win. Often just giving in to fears about a set level ability and avoiding hard work can be very debilitating.

Dweck’s book, Mindset, shows how both fixed mindsets and growth mindsets influence personal performance, working styles in a team, leadership, organizational cultures, personal relationships, values and how we teach our children. Those who believe in growth mindset are more adventurous in pursuing success, are more willing to work on relationships, work harder to improve performance, are more appreciative of the growth ability of their colleagues, and are more likely to embrace the values of hard work, setting big goals, relying on sheer grit and persistence, and showing compassion for self and others. Those growth minded parents and teachers are more likely to complement their children for their hard work rather than an implied talent.

Albert Ellis, Ph.D., a friend and colleague of Harold Greenwald, was one of my inspirational heroes. Ellis created “rational emotive behavioral therapy.” He reasoned that it was not what happened to you that determined how you felt about yourself and your subsequent behavior. It was what you thought about what had happened to you that determined the outcome of feelings and behavior. His simple advice was that “shouldhoods” led to “shithoods.” If we impose on others or the world that it should be a certain way we always end up angry, depressed, and unhappy. Rather, he said to substitute the phrase “It would be better if.” “It would be better if my wife had not left me.” “It would be better if I had not gotten fired.” “It would be better if my neighbor hadn’t run into my car while it was parked outside my house.” He also eschewed the use of “always” and “never” when looking at life.

My wife, Liz, and I went to hear Ellis speak at Radford University a few years before he died. The subject of the conference was “Love and Relationships.” He told the story of how he overcame an intense shyness with the opposite sex. He set up an experiment for which he would go to the botanical gardens in Washington, D.C. When he saw a young lady sitting on a bench he would go and sit beside her and start up a conversation. At the end of the conversation, he would ask the young woman for a date. He would not stop doing this until he had approached no less than 100 young women. He summed up the results of his experiment. “I never got a date but I got over my shyness with the opposite sex.”

At the end of the conference, members of the audience passed on questions to the moderator for a question and answer session with Ellis. I will never forget one of the questions. “Dr. Ellis, what do you think about “soulmates?” Ellis looked up, frowned and said, “I have one word that sums up my position on the notion of soul mates. That is bull-shit!” Ellis, happily married for many years, new that much of any relationship is not fixed talent but hard work. Ellis had a growth mindset.

In the intermission between his remarks and the Q&A, I walked up and introduced myself. I spoke of my past relationship with Harold. I was very sad when he told me that Harold, that wonderfully dear man, had just died. Ellis had come back from a memorial service for our friend.

I am so fortunate to have known Harold Greenwald, to have met Albert Ellis and to have read Carol Dweck’s book, Mindset.

I have created a self-administered test on fixed and growth mindsets and a chart summarizing the difference between a growth and fixed mindset. Those interested can simply contact me through my website.

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