The Power of a Positive Mindset

MindsetTo continue on from the counterintuitive benefits of studying less, I thought I should address a topic equally as important in the way we study – our mindset.

But before I do, I’d like to explain why I’m focussing on “soft” topics rather than the clear, hard facts. The highly agreed facts are already well documented all over the internet and are the simple keys to a solid study technique which I thoroughly endorse – I’m choosing however to build on top of these resources rather than re-invent the wheel, which gives me the chance to discuss some exciting and often controversial research in the science of learning. So let’s carry on!

While studying an education paper this year in medicine, I came across this table in the research which demonstrated the different approaches students may have while studying their subjects, whether positive (approach-oriented) or negative (avoidance-oriented); learning focussed (mastery goals) or achievement focussed (performance goals).

Mastery Vs Performance Goals

This simple table carries an astonishingly large amount of insight into our mindsets, and I’ll attempt to unpack as much of it as possible in this post.

First is how negative or “avoidance-oriented”  learners perform more poorly in comparison to positive “approach-oriented” students. While at first it may seem obvious that someone hoping to get 100% in an exam will most likely score higher than someone hoping not to fail, the real value is in the more subtle examples. And it’s a surprisingly common mindset trap which holds back many from reaching their potential. Think of a hard-working student who’s afraid of letting down their parents, afraid to move down a class, or afraid to lose to their friends – all very common situations in society because of our fear of failure. I’ll explain this with my own personal story.

My Personal Experience

Although I personally had an ambitious positive approach to study most of the time, my school used to idolise top students to almost  “legendary” status, fuelling the popular culture of “no one can beat ____, he’s a genius!” This mindset subconsciously pervaded through to me that I began to accept that I could do well, but would never beat those legendary students. I did relatively well throughout, but was limited from doing more by this fear. My year 12 results put me very close to the top student, and it shocked me; I didn’t think that was physically possible. But I’ll never forget my brother Patrick’s pep talk that Summer which would shift my mindset for the rest of my academic career. I was writing my year 13 goals to be read to the school during assembly, and explained to him “I’m so tempted to write Dux on there. I mean I’m so close already, but the problem is I can’t possibly beat ____”.

His response was so incredibly casual: “Bro are you serious? This guy’s got nothing on you. Bro, you can easily take him out. Just write it, who cares – you’ll easily get it”. He kept going, and as those words came out of my brother’s mouth, I was filled with astonishment; how could he so easily and confidently put down such a great hero like that? But on the inside, it sparked a burning passion within me; that I could perhaps take him on. I nervously wrote Dux as my goal despite being a clear underdog at the time. No one else in the school did. For my first time ever I came first in the mid-year school examinations, did it again for mocks, and finally managed to take out Dux at the end of the year. In the 10 sets of exams before these, I had not once been first (and came in the top 5 about twice) and here I came first three times in a row. I realised the potential my brother had unleashed in me by dreaming big for that top spot instead of being afraid. Thank you Patrick!


Mastery Vs Performance

Right, so I’ve addressed the importance of a positive approach to study, but what about learning Vs achievement focussed study?

As you may can probably tell, I was very highly achievement driven in my high school years, putting me in the top right box of the table. But being performance based alone wouldn’t have gotten me very far at all. You see, to quote every single rapper out there, I was in it “for the love of the game” too. What do I mean by that? Did I genuinely love study? Honestly, no I didn’t at first, but I did let my curiosity run wild when I studied and soaked up the material as if I loved it, until it funnily enough became really exciting! Ironically, once you’re actually studying for the sake of learning, then the achievements start to come!

“See I don’t live for glamour,and I don’t care for fame
I’m in this for the love of the game” – Jay Sean in Kevin Rudolf’s “I made it”

And it’s a basic recurring theme in just about everything in life; if you’re simply after the money, fame or success, then you probably won’t get it; you must first love what you do and work hard at it to get there. That’s why I now identify with the top left category much more than the top right – I primarily focus on learning, with achievement no longer being the core focus. You’ll find a lot more discussion about this online around “Process vs Outcomes” and why process is far more important. You may even notice how I most often refer to study as learning rather than education and it’s more than just semantics – learning places emphasis on process while education focusses on outcomes!

Learning Vs Education

And that ends my long post on mindset, although I’ve just scratched the surface with regards to its power here. But finally, I’d like you to ask yourself honestly, what learning mindset do you fall under? Do you dream of what you can achieve? Or do you fear how you could fail? Do you primarily focus on learning, or more on results? Are you somewhere in between? Hopefully these questions along with this post allow you to start reflecting on your own approach to learning, and it’d be great to hear about your mindset or opinions in the comments!

5 thoughts on “The Power of a Positive Mindset

  1. That’s a very insightful post Mark! Definitely got me thinking about my own mindset and approach toward my own study/learning/education. I hate to admit that I fall into the top right box too! Just like the old saying: it’s not about the result but the journey that one is going through (something like that lol!) It’s interesting to learn how such phrase can be categorised into a table as you have done so above.

    • Thanks for your feedback Sherwin! And yea definitely, I think the vast majority of us are taught to be top right focused so it’s very normal. And yea haha what I love about that table is that it solidifies those sayings in a structured, evidenced way which is a lot more convincing for me personally!

  2. I agree with the previous commenter about the usefulness of that table. At the cost of appearing to avoid the question, I’d say my learning style, is, on average, smack bang in the middle of that table. I’m in the medical field, and, on occasion, I find myself motivated to learn, in order to master the content and be a great doctor to my future patients, putting me in the coveted box on the top-left. Sometimes, I find myself motivated to learn in order not to be an incompetent doctor, placing myself in the bottom left. Occasionally (especially as exams approach!), I find myself studying either to do well in assessments, or to avoid failure and repeating an exam.

    Though I personally don’t think that aiming for the top-left corner is what everyone should be doing at all times. The unfortunate reality of our institutionalised workforce is that training into many professions tends to very heavily emphasise assessments, some of which do not reflect the skills and attributes required to be successful in said profession. It is then a dilemma for the students, where studying with positive mastery goals may hamper their performance goals. Do I study to be a good (engineer, doctor, teacher), or do I study to pass/ace the exams?

    It’s great to be able to think of these styles in such a structured fashion, in order to best identify how my approach could be improved. It’s great to finally let you shift the mindset of MY academic career!

    • Thanks Patrick for your great comment which highlights the difficulties of a mastery mindset in our current world. Our educational system is unfortunately far from ideal, with an emphasis on numbers and grades to represent everything (In fact, this problem extends far further than the education system, into business and government for example). While measurement is incredibly important in all of these fields in order to track progress and further improve learning, an over-emphasis on it can be detrimental.

      Sometimes our exams/assignments are not well-aligned with mastery if they are poorly designed, and this is what leads us to the dilemma of studying for learning or for grades. However, education is constantly improving, and most exams/assignments can become relatively well-aligned that studying for the sake of learning can usually get you impressive grades still. The very top performers may still remain in the top right box, but I would argue that they will actually be less well-prepared than a top left learner.

      That’s why I still believe that focussing on the top left should always be an aim of ours, even when it can be less beneficial in the short term. It may cost slightly lower grades, less awards or other praise through measurement, but in the long term it will have dramatic benefits. I acknowledge that there are certainly times where our learning is pushed into other boxes because of the way our current society is set up – I’m definitely pushed into other boxes frequently too – although I think we should fight that temptation as much as we can to be truly great in the long term. This is why you might notice that even in the very institutionalised workforces that you mention, the leading professionals are rarely the ones who were scoring top grades in their assessments.

  3. Hi Mark, loved reading your post.
    It really did get me thinking, it never really clicked until now about how my mindset is when I’m studying and how it always has been. It seems I was always trying to just achieve good grades or I was always afraid to fail or trying to impress someone else. I’ve never really been in the top left box, where I am learning because I want to know more and as a result I achieve good grades.
    I guess you’re right in saying it is truly hard to not just think of getting good grades or impressing someone, because this is how society and the education system has raised us.

    So my question is, while discussing these mindsets and making people aware of the different ones and the mindset they have, you haven’t really told your readers, what they can do to shift their mindset. I know you said that I need a more process approach where it is all about the learning but in anything you learn, more often than not, there are things you don’t enjoy learning, or things that are not interesting. Usually I get myself through these things with an achievement based approach, where I think, I just need to get do this to do well and reach my goals.
    So how do I, if there is indeed a way, teach myself to have a learning approach rather than a goal approach in all the things I learn? I feel if I can do this, then indeed you are correct and I can get good grades without actually trying to get good grades. However I feel that interesting myself in learning things that I may not want to learn is an impossible task.

    Anyways, I look forward to your response. Thanks

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