Your brain is a lot like a muscle. It learns by doing. There is no other way. Just as thinking about working out or watching someone else do it on YouTube doesn’t make you fit, merely thinking or observing something doesn’t mean you’re learning anything.
To learn, we must take action and do something. Like your muscles, you need to stretch your brain to the point of failure to learn and grow. Studies show that we learn best when we’re operating at the edge of our abilities, which is usually a little bit outside of our comfort zone where we’re feeling stretched and challenged.
Getting comfortable operating at the edge of your comfort zone, in what I call your learning zone, is by far the most important skill to master in our fast-changing world. And like any skill, through intentional focus and dedication you can get a lot better at it.
Decades of learning research has found that the key to learning is believing you can do it. The problem is when you’re learning something difficult, it’s natural to struggle. Now, struggle is a good thing but it can often derail us from achieving our learning goals because of our internal beliefs systems and the stories we end up telling ourselves because of them.
While fitness is very much a physical skill, it’s the growth mindset and the mental toughness we build by pushing forward and getting in that learning zone that allows us to achieve our peak performance and rise to the top.
To develop a stronger learning mindset, I recommend reflecting on the stories you’ve heard (and adopted) to explain the world around you and start mindfully observing how they shape your mental limits that define what you can and can’t do.
How To Adopt A Growth Mindset
To develop the mental toughness necessary to build the character that will allow you to achieve anything you set your mind to, you need to accept that you can change the stories you tell yourself by adopting what psychologist Carol Dweck calls a Growth Mindset.
Dweck has found in her research at Stanford University that most people have a fixed mindset, which means they believe their basic abilities, their intelligence, their talents, are fixed traits. This means they generally believe that these traits can’t be fundamentally improved through effort and persistence.
On the other hand, virtually all successful athletes and entrepreneur have a growth mindset. This means they believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work—brains and talent are just the starting point.
The growth mindset is crucial to reaching your fitness goals. It creates a love of learning and a resilience that is essential for achieving great things. It makes it much easier to “fall in love” with the process of working toward your goals.
So, why doesn’t everyone have a growth mindset?
The reason the fixed mindset is so widespread is because it’s our default setting.The most fundamental role of our brains is to keep us safe from danger so we can survive and traditionally playing it safe and not rocking the boat by fitting it was the safest path to survival.
To help us survive, all of our experience is filtered through an almond-shaped structure in our brains called the Amygdala, which is responsible for fear and anxiety. It gives us human societies’ obsession with fitting in, resisting change and avoiding risks.
In the words of creative mindset guru Seth Godin, the amygdala is the brain of a wild animal, it’s hot-wired to be afraid and to seek safety. It has kept our ancestors alive but today it keeps us from fulfilling our potential and taking the risk necessary to grow as a person.
However, if you understand how the Amygdala operates and its irrational fears, you can learn to harness it to develop a growth mindset. Whenever you’re learning and improving your skills and really challenging your limits, the Amygdala is going to freak out.
The problem is that when you start freaking out as well and fight it — or even worse trying to reason with it or justify it — it gets more powerful. Instead, what you need to learn to do is dance with you. You need to realize that it is a compass and when it freaks it means you’re on the right path and doing something brave, bold and powerful.
Growth only comes through heavy resistance and when you embrace the challenges of learning new skills, you embrace the growth mindset. Let’s take a deeper look at what neuroscience research has to say about the importance of growth mindset.
The Neuroscience Of Learning New Skills
There used to be a widespread belief that intelligence was a fixed trait and we couldn’t do much to change our brains or upgrade our abilities. However, in the last decade, Canadian neuroscientist Norman Doidge has turned this belief on its head, proving that the brain is incredibly malleable and plastic.
Essentially, the structure of the brain changes and grows along with how we use it. This is called neuroplasticity. In his landmark book, The Brain That Changes Itself Doidge explains that neurons that fire together, wire together. What this means is we build new neural pathways by connecting what we learn to our existing body of knowledge and learned skills are nothing more than connections and neural circuits in your brain.
So, to learn any skill and get really good at it, you need to set clear goals and deliberately practice it. The more you fire a circuit the better you get at it. Your neurons form new connections and a substance called myelin wraps the circuits, which allows you to do things better and faster through practice.
Our brains are malleable, they are built to learn and grow. But like our muscles, they don’t grow without effort and resistance.
While some of us have genetic advantages like height and body type, when it comes to learning new skills there are no advantages. You have to put in the work to build the neuronal connections in your brain that allow these skills to become second nature.
Now, let’s take a look at how this applies to helping you adopt a stronger growth mindset and then applying this mindset to your fitness routine.
The Growth Mindset Cycle
So, to get really good at something you need deliberate practice. This means you need a schedule plan and you need to stick to it. That’s why we created Fitplan, to make it easy to follow fitness workout plans created by professional athletes and trainers.
Let’s explore a 3-step process for adopting and reinforcing a growth mindset:
The first step to applying the growth mindset to your fitness routine is setting clear goals for what you want to achieve and sincerely believing you can achieve it. I recommend setting a number of S.M.A.R.T. goals for yourself that have different timeframes. For starters, you should set a series of realistic goals you can achieve in a week, a month and 3 months.
Having clear goals is really important because it allows you to bring your full attention to your task and you can create feedback loops to review how you are stretching outside your comfort zone and working toward achieving your goals.
When you set realistic goals that you can achieve in a short time frame such as following your new fitness routine for a week, you reinforce your growth mindset.
The next step in the growth mindset cycle is to take action and commit yourself to a schedule that ensures you will work toward achieving your goal. It’s important to practice consistently and celebrate and reward yourself for your efforts. This creates a self-fulfilling learning cycle that reinforces your growth mindset and increases your confidence in your abilities.
Finally, the process of achieving these goals will give you more confidence and mental toughness to focus and persevere through bigger challenges. This creates character, which is what allows you to achieve what you want and rise to the top.
To summarize, adopting a growth mindset allows you to learn and achieve anything you desire. Simply, follow these 3 rules of the growth mindset and you’ll be on the path to achieving your peak performance:
1. You can learn and get better at anything.
2. You learn skills by doing them, especially when you’re stretched and challenged.
3. Skills are built, not born. Your effort is what build character.
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