Tuesday Tales: How do you respond to challenges? – Donna Thistlethwaite

Do you find that a challenge motivates you to rise to the occasion or do you often wish you could pull the blankets over your head and go back to sleep in the hope that it’ll go away? It probably depends on your level of interest but often our mindset can play a large role.

I’ve recently noticed that our 11-year-old son Matthew tends to shy away from challenges, particularly if he’s not interested in the subject area. Let’s say, for example, traditional academics. It’s possible that Matt has a learning difficulty which makes academics harder for him, however, it’s also true that he has little stamina for activities he doesn’t enjoy. This could prove to be a bit tricky given his inevitable transition to high school in 2023.

My partner, Greg, and I are actively considering ways that we can help Matthew to prepare for the world while not squashing his spirit. We talked about reducing Matt’s access to technology to allow him more time to focus on improving his academics and to potentially use technology to reward him for achieving some academic goals. Greg was a little concerned that such action could have a negative effect on Matt because it would remove a key source of joy from his life. Greg asked how I’d feel if someone told me I wasn’t able to ride my bike and I replied that I would do whatever was needed to get access to my bike.

Greg’s view brought Carol Dweck’s Growth Mindset model to my mind and I shared with him an example from my own experience. A few years ago an association that I was in changed the membership rules. A large group of people, including me, would no longer be eligible for membership because the “Affiliate” level of membership would cease (please note that we were given lots of notice). To qualify as a member from a certain date we would need to meet the membership criteria for “Professional Member”. It involved a revenue target that wasn’t going to be easy for most of us.

I’m not sure that I’ve always had a growth mindset, one in which (amongst other things) a challenge is seen as motivational, but I know that I have developed one over the past five years. Many of my industry colleagues were unhappy about the membership changes, making comments such as “It’s unfair to apply the change to long term members” and “Where will we get our future professional members from?” Some chose to stop coming to our meetings. I personally decided to set myself the goal of achieving the criteria for Professional Membership, knowing that I would need to get out of my comfort zone and grow significantly to get there. It took me a couple of years but get there I did.

I showed young Matthew a copy of Carol Dweck’s Mindset model which differentiates two mindsets as:

I asked him whether he thinks he has the characteristics of growth or a fixed mindset. He replied, “fixed”. I’m grateful for both his insight and honesty because they’ll make it easier to move forward. Developing a growth mindset is available to all of us but it will require some effort on our part.

It will be interesting to see what Matthew decides to do with the challenge ahead. Only he will be able to raise his academics to the level that allows him to successfully transition to the high school that he has his sights set on. We’ll be exploring ways to support him, further sharing Carol Dweck’s work, collaborating with him to identify what will motivate him, helping him to set goals and cheering him on.

Where do you think your mindset is right now? If you’re interested in shifting it, you could check out this great article as a starting point.

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Donna Thistlethwaite is a Brisbane-based speaker and trainer specialising in mental health and resilience. She is an accredited Mental Health First Aid Instructor and Resilience at Work Facilitator with a passion for suicide prevention and for helping individuals, teams and organisations to THRIVE. You can find out about her next Mental Health First Aid courses here.