Growth Mindset and Rage of the Fading Elites

Great newsletter this week from Ribbonfarm, this time expounding on the neuropsychological underpinnings of the great populist revolt.

What both sides share with each other, but not with cognitive elites, is a fixed mindset.

A fixed mindset is about having a sense of dignity based on a fixed sense of who you are, whether based on wealth, or prowess at a type of work presumed to be of eternal significance.

A growth mindset, on the other hand, is about having a malleable, adaptive sense of identity that is subject to constant renegotiation with the universe. To some extent, this is an unearned privilege, but one perhaps more democratically distributed than other sorts of privilege.

This constant renegotiation is achieved through steady experimentation with your own life. This means skills never harden into ossified habits, or turn into hardened identities, or into anchors for patterns of social affiliation.

This also means wealth, or any other form of accumulated gains, cannot become a source of hardened identity or social affiliation.

Real experiments can surprise you with their outcomes. To experiment on yourself is to be open to changing yourself in unscripted ways. This inevitably means your social milieu is also subject to change. You may come to despise old friends, and learn to admire those you formerly despised.

This also means things you may have accumulated, be it wealth, degrees, or awards, may suddenly seem worthless to you, while things you ignored as worthless and not worth accumulating may suddenly become priceless and leave you feeling impoverished.

Fixed mindset people also have a fixed sense of their place in the society. The only sort of social mobility considered acceptable is scripted mobility that does not betray the values of “where you came from.”

This stricture is particularly strong in America. You will not be punished for starting from the wrong side of the tracks and making millions. You will, however, be punished for abandoning an interest in football for an interest in French poetry, and making new friends.

Industrial age psychology reflects these norms. As William Whyte noted in The Organization Man, psychology in the industrial age was about producing “well adjusted” individuals, not mentally healthy ones.

Being “well-adjusted” with respect to a disappearing class is a sort of insanity. At the same time, “betraying” obsolete class loyalties to adapt to new realities is sanity that makes you externally maladjusted.

One consequence of this well-adjustedness bias in industrial psychology is that you’re mostly on your own if you choose to adopt a growth mindset. Society is by definition not designed to provide support to transgressors of its own, class-segmented norms.

If you are living in an experimental way — self-learning skills for which there are no schools, making the “wrong” sorts of friends, living in the “wrong” places, and cultivating the “wrong” tastes — you are part of the cognitive elite.

There are no core textbooks, maps, or scripts for this path. You are a lifelong ongoing experiment. You may sometimes find co-conspirators for some experiments, but your default sample size is n=1. The only expert authority you can appeal to is you.

You may spend a few years in one community, move on to another, or spend some years pursuing solitary personal challenges. Experimental living can take many forms.

You may be attracted to experimental (and experiential) living communities devoted to particular kinds of exploration, but your primary loyalty will be to the deepest truths about yourself.

Quantified Self, the rationality community, hipsterdom, lifestyle design in Bali: ultimately, these are just chapter headings. Not the text, let alone the whole novel.

Some friendships may endure for a lifetime. Others may be restricted to one or the other chapter of your life. Still others may turn into enmity despite your best efforts.

Experimental living isn’t about living in San Francisco and going to Burning Man every year. Many “burners” are very colorful people but creatures of habit living highly non-experimental lives.

It isn’t even about that well-studied psychological trait (part of the Big 5) called “openness to experience” because you can be safely “open” in very risk-limited ways.

Experimental living is about being willing to pay the emotional and social costs of truly experimenting on yourself, with your entire self being open to radical reconstruction. For the rest of your life.

…crowds are good for going insane with, but regaining and maintaining your sanity is by default a solitary, lifelong struggle.

You are a being at the intersection of two worlds: one is the shared external world. The other is your private internal world, which ultimately only you can truly access.

The cognitive science of you, like any other science, is a path of accepting pain in order to discover novel truths about yourself. And like it or not, on some parts of this path you will be alone.

You will have to repeatedly overcome the fear of being an outcast, and resist the seduction of false promises of communal belonging. You will inevitably hurt others, despite your best efforts to be gentle. You will inevitably be hurt, despite your best efforts to be stoic.

If you rise to all those challenges, congrats, you will be part of the cognitive elite, and live a life under constant, unpleasant siege by the fixed-mindset world.

But I’ll guarantee you this: whatever the outcomes of your experiments, you will never regret choosing growth and change over the comforting stasis of a fixed identity.

From The Cognitive Psychology of You

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