How To Have An Infinite Mindset

July 5, 2020

Here’s a test: “A train leaves New York City at noon and travels at a constant speed of 75 mph toward Toledo. At the same time, another train leaves Toledo headed toward New York City at a constant speed of 50 mph. If New York and Toledo are 560 miles apart, then at what time will the two trains pass each other?”

Give up? When I was in school, I absolutely hated those kinds of word problems. I would sit there, taking a test, starting at the page, and wonder things like, “Why would anyone want to go to Toledo in the first place? And, do they even serve lunch on this train?”

The truth is, after I reached a certain point in my academic career – it was 4th grade – math started not making much sense to me. It was very frustrating. I always wanted to know why X and Y cared about Z at all. What had Z done for them lately?

So, when I was handed a word problem like two trains traveling at different speeds, I would just give up. I didn’t think I was smart enough. I would guess. Or I would write, “The two trains will pass each other at the appropriate time.”

It wasn’t until I went back to school – to community college night school when I was in my 20s – and I took a college algebra class that was taught by a mechanical engineer. It was only then that math suddenly began making sense. Part of it was, he was able to put problems into ways that were less abstract and more visual.

Early in the semester I admitted to him one day that I was just dumb about math; that I didn’t know anything. And very seriously he said, “You’re not dumb. You just think you don’t know. You’re suffering from a finite mindset. But the truth is, you just don’t know it yet. We will get there, together.”

And that changed everything. Which is why I’m now an astrophysicist.

Of course I’m not. The point is, that shift in my mindset was incredibly liberating. I never thought it would happen, but I actually enjoyed doing math problems. Because if I came across something I couldn’t solve, I thought, “Not yet.”

This has been quite a year so far, and we’re now exactly halfway through it. Our whole experience with the COVID pandemic, and everything that’s happened since the death of George Floyd, has rocked our world.

And they still are. We’re rocking on. Both are incredibly complex issues. Both involve life and death and inequality. Both are scary, while at the same time, we have hopes that both will be things we can make better and solve and learn from, and move forward into a better future.

Both COVID, and the realization that we desperately need to examine our attitudes and behaviors related to race, and retool so many of our assumptions and our institutions so that we can all live in a more just and equitable society, has changed us forever.

And that change is not something that’ll happen overnight but that we’ll continue working on.

One way to look at both COVID and where we are on racial justice is to claim they are problems lacking any solid solutions. That we’re not equipped. Or that they’re just too large.

For instance, even when a vaccine for COVID is developed, it’s not as if this will be the last time a deadly virus will threaten humanity. We’ve known for years this was coming, that a major pandemic was just a matter of time.

So as bad as this is, it’s a little disingenuous to say, “Oh my gosh, we never could’ve imagined.” No. It’s been imagined and predicted. It’s just been ignored, and adequate resources were not allocated to prepare for it and to deal with it. And that’s been true for many decades. Elle’s grandfather died in the 1918 flu pandemic. Walk through any cemetery and you’ll see plenty of evidence. You’d think we would learn that these things just happen. The question is, are we ready?

And it would be a real joke – a really bad one – for any of us to express shock or alarm at the response to the death of George Floyd or any other Black person at the hands of law enforcement. It’s been 400 years since the first Africans were brought here against their will and forced into slavery. The history books I grew up with said slavery ended with the Civil War, and the 13th amendment.

But we all know that was in name only. Racial equality – social, economic, educational, and political equality and fairness – has yet to be achieved. All we’ve done, really, is held onto attitudes that belong to the middle ages, and told Black people to wait. And offer empty assurances that things will get better. And the rest of us have told ourselves that it’s really not our problem. So, why should anyone be surprised?

So, we have work to do. Problems to solve. Big ones. And they’re big ones because they filter down to all of us. They’re personal. And in grappling with these problems, just trying to understand them can feel like we’re helpless. Like we’re stupid. Like we’re not equipped.

But that’s a rather finite mindset. Which for us, if we’re people of faith especially, is not at all where we should be.

Jesus said, "Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.

Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.

For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light."

How many times have I heard those words, and thought that Jesus was talking to someone else? I’ve read that passage at plenty of funerals, to bring comfort to a grieving family. It works in that situation. It’s helpful to know that no matter the burden we’re carrying, we never need to bear it alone.

But like practically any passage of scripture, there could be another meaning. Truth is, the words Jesus speaks always have a way – at least for me – to surprise me. Like this saying, it never fails to be relevant to whatever it is I’m going through at the moment.

I mean, what’s a burden, anyway? A load we’re carrying: physical, emotional. Something we’re trying to get from point A to point B and having trouble with. It could be, trying to navigate grief. It could also be, attempting to solve a problem that we don’t feel equipped to handle.

And the solution Jesus offers – if we read it carefully – is not that he somehow supernaturally lifts every burden from our shoulders. He says, “learn from me, be gentle and have humility, like me. And in gentleness and humility you’ll find rest.”

And what’s rest, but a solution, the point at which we arrive. And the other important piece of this is, he uses the future tense. You will find rest. You’re not there yet. But I’m with you all the way.

So, I want to know, in the midst of everything we’re dealing with, what’s all this about gentleness and humility? Is it supposed to be within me, within others, or does “learning from him” mean, in treating others with gentleness and humility, as well as yourself, in the way he does, is that when the burden gets lighter, and we move toward rest?

Carol Dweck does research around the ways we think about ourselves and our situations. Her specialty is motivation: what compels us to do one thing and not another; to pour our time and energy in one direction or one cause.

So, one of her areas of research is to find out what creates what she calls a “growth mindset.” That’s the idea that we can actually grow our capacity to learn and to solve problems. That none of us are stuck.

Let’s say you’re confronted by a problem that’s slightly too hard for you to figure out. She discovered that there’s a huge difference in ways you can think about that problem.

The first is to say, “I’m not smart enough, or capable enough, or I don’t have the resources, to solve it.” But the second way to approach it is by saying, “I just haven’t solved this problem…yet.”

Sounds like my community college math teacher.

Carol studied elementary and middle school students, and how they were doing at math. One of her findings was that there not a problem with math problems. People are still using that old train question. The problem was in the approach teachers took with their students and that parents took with their children.

For a long time, the model for things like math has been that it’s a finite game. You must learn and master one thing before you can move on. Which makes sense on the surface of things.

But if you get stuck as a student at some point and you’re told that you’ll be stuck if you can’t master algebra before you can move on to geometry, that plays a real number on your head. It tells you that you’re not smart enough, so don’t even keep trying.

Instead of that approach, she found that it’s super important for us to praise the process that students are engaged in. Focus on their efforts, their strategies, their focus, their perseverance, their improvement. And that builds stamina and resilience.

With the help of scientists from the University of Washington, they came up with a math game that rewarded effort, strategy, and progress. The usual math game rewards you for getting answers right, right now, but this game rewarded process. And the students got more effort, more strategies, more engagement over longer periods of time, and more perseverance when they hit really, really hard problems.

They found that just saying the words "yet" or "not yet," gave kids greater confidence, and gave them a path into the future that created greater persistence.

They found that they could actually change students' mindsets. In one study, they taught them that every time they push out of their comfort zone to learn something new and difficult, the neurons in their brain can form new, stronger connections, and over time, they can get smarter.

So, the students understood that they were literally reshaping their own brains. And when they knew that and believed that, they believed in themselves. They moved out of a finite mindset about themselves, and into a not yet mindset.

So, what if we did the same? What if we took the advice of Jesus, and learned from him? If there was ever anyone with an infinite mindset, who believed and taught that all people have the capacity to be healed and to be healers, who believed and taught that every person is invested by God with worth and dignity, who believed and demonstrated that everyone deserves an equal place at the table?

How would that change the way we think about ourselves and our fellow human beings? What would it look like to ourselves and to our neighbors, in this moment in history when we may have more questions than solutions, for us to say, “I’m going to be a person of gentleness and humility, with myself and with you, and regard me and you as someone who is not finite, but filled with unlimited potential.”

And how would it be if we took any problem, and saw it not as finite, but viewed it instead through the infinite and loving eyes of God. The God who believes in us, because we always have “not yet” built into our very being.

How would that change our world? Let’s work on that, let’s ask that question, and let’s keep in mind that any burden is lighter, when we believe in the promise of “yet.” And we’ll work on yet, together.

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