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Matter over mind: You’ll get out of this what it’s willing to give

<h6>José Pablo Fernández García / The Daily Princetonian</h6>
José Pablo Fernández García / The Daily Princetonian

As we begin another semester of COVID-19-related uncertainty and instability, it serves us to put things in a less judgmental, self-deprecating perspective for those times when we come up short. One rhetorical trick often used to quash this forgiving perspective is the meritocratic assumption that whatever we do, wherever we are, and however many obstacles are in our path, our success or failure is determined first and foremost by our attitude and mindset. This conventional wisdom, which masquerades as necessary tough-love advice that every adult should internalize, is both misguided and harmful.

As we’ve written before, productivity culture encourages unhealthy self-critique alongside an obsession with how others spend their own time, lest we or they be unable to show with decisive rigor that with every moment, we are indeed self-optimizing. The idea that our attitudes are a uniquely consequential ingredient in our outcomes is similarly disempowering. It tells us that whatever negative thoughts exist in our heads shouldn't be acknowledged and processed appropriately; they should rather be overcome by some metaphysical grit that we have if we are worthy, and that we lack if we are not.

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Commitment, self-confidence, and resolve are independently valuable assets for someone striving for any type of success, but the way to cultivate these feelings in individual people is not to preach personal responsibility and toxic positivity to an audience facing different structural impediments and personal obstacles. Rather, we should acknowledge that limits actually exist, and sometimes life actually just sucks; but that doesn't mean we should only concern ourselves with the things directly within our control.

It is true that, in reality, we will sometimes be called upon to cope with less-than-ideal situations, and to do so with our chins up for our own sakes or others. Yet, we can still acknowledge that the way things are isn’t acceptable, and even if we can't change it single-handedly, we can join hands and make a more concentrated effort in the direction of fundamental transformation. In the meantime, it's worth pondering: is it actually possible to establish the status of mindset as the secret ingredient to a fulfilled existence, and even if it is, what determines who has what mindset? Where is the boundary separating a flawed and complex human being with a positive mindset, and a just as complex person whose misery and failure are seen as a self-fulfilling prophecy born of negativity?

A common way people discuss mindsets is through a dichotomy between fixed mindset and growth mindset. Each is presented as a way that people process failure. People with fixed mindsets become discouraged and defeated, believing they will never succeed at their tasks. People with growth mindsets, on the other hand, conclude that they will succeed if they only work harder and take lessons from their failures.

On the surface, a growth mindset feels intuitive; it aligns with values like the importance of perseverance and self-belief. But creating a dichotomy like this places an excessive onus on the individual to determine their own fate in a world shaped in many ways by external structures. Following the logic of this model means that if one does fail again, the reason must be a flaw in their mindset. Inevitably, all responsibility rebounds to the individual, eliding the complexities that shape each of our life circumstances. When we fail, not only have we failed at the given task but we’ve also failed to have the proper mindset. Failure then becomes not just an indictment of your ability, but an indictment of your character.

We argue that the issue with society’s focus on mindsets is not that the model is completely bogus — it is true that we should believe in our ability to grow and improve, and we shouldn’t become completely defeated when we fall short. The problem is that there is an over-reliance on this way of thinking. The reason someone receives an unsatisfactory grade may not be because they simply lacked the grit to succeed; perhaps the teaching style was ineffective, or the assignment structure was onerous, or they did not study effectively — or a confluence of these factors.

The point is that success and failure are both complicated, and they are not a dichotomy. Failure in the grading system’s eyes often does not align with failure in a student’s point of view.

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At a place like Princeton, and at a time like this, it is especially important to transcend the obsession with “mindset.” The pandemic has magnified the extent to which this mindset model fails to take into account external factors that affect performance, and the extent to which academic performance simply is not the most important measure of personal character. By letting go of the focus on individual mindset, we can better appreciate the varied forces that shape our outcomes and approach resilience and perseverance in a healthier way.

Julia Chaffers is a senior history concentrator from Wellesley, Mass. She can be reached at chaffers@princeton.edu.

Braden Flax is a senior from Merrick, N.Y. He can be reached at bflax@princeton.edu.

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