It’s helpful to sort the world into categories.
Most things are easier to talk about when they’re organized in this way. Some ideas are good, and other ideas are bad. Some people are tall, and other people are short. Some food is healthy, and other food is unhealthy. This way of using language to differentiate the world into black-and-white categories makes it easier to comprehend many of the things we experience. It makes it easier to spot patterns and make quick decisions.
Unfortunately, the mental shortcuts provided by this sort of categorical thinking come at a price. The obvious problem with this way of thinking is that it oversimplifies reality. Most ideas are partially good and partially bad. Most people are somewhere between very tall and very short. All foods lie on a spectrum ranging from healthy to unhealthy. The world is more complicated than the categories we use to think about it.
If you buy a box of crayons with just six colors, you know that this vastly oversimplifies the actual range of colors found in the real world.
The box that has 48 colors does a lot more justice to the true spectrum of colors that nature has to offer, but even it oversimplifies reality.
Please don’t get me wrong. I’m not making the case that we should wholly abandon categorical thinking. There are times when it is a vital tool that makes both learning and communication easier, and certain things really do fit neatly into the cognitive boxes we’ve created for them. Furthermore, we can often improve categorical thinking by increasing the number of categories, just as the 48-crayon box increases the number of colors.
I simply want to make the case that we often use black-and-white thinking when we shouldn’t, and it would be helpful to have the flexibility to switch to a different mindset–a spectrum mindset.
Specifically, since this is an education-psychology blog, I want to make the case that the vast majority of psychological traits and academic outcomes are best viewed through a spectrum mindset. I believe that we do great harm by describing people as either “smart” or “dumb,” by describing students as either “hard-working” or “lazy,” and by describing results as either “success” or “failure.”
Partly, these words are unhelpful because they don’t inspire action. They don’t encourage students to ask the question: “What can I do to improve?”
However, for now I want to focus on the fact that these words represent non-existent ideals rather than reality. They sort the world into fictional all-or-nothing categories.
In reality, every outcome lies on a spectrum between two non-existent ideals: absolute success and complete failure. Nothing that ever happens is actually one or the other; everything lands somewhere in the middle–somewhere on the spectrum. Success isn’t all-or-nothing, and neither is failure. This inaccurate, black-and-white thinking is at the root of perfectionism and fixed mindsets, which are profoundly debilitating, especially for students.
Because a perfectionist does not have a spectrum mindset, he believes that the fictional all-or-nothing categories are real. He sees his perfect ideal as a distant shore that can actually be reached.1 Of course he never gets there, so he’s never satisfied. He’s likely to become disheartened and give up.
Meanwhile, the spectrum-minded pursuer of excellence sees his perfect ideal as a guiding star, something to move towards but not a place he can actually get to.1 This allows him to enjoy the journey and focus on making steady progress.
The all-or-nothing categories are also harmful because they are rigid. They assign people character traits that feel permanent. If we label someone “lazy,” then we’re subtly saying that he’ll always be that way. It’s far more useful–and accurate–to say that the person who appears to be lazy has “an underdeveloped willpower muscle.” The brain is like a bunch of muscles that, just like the muscles in our body, get stronger with exercise. Thus, by regularly using willpower, we can increase it.
The spectrum mindset empowers us to see that no matter where we are, we can get better. Improvement is always possible. Any person can become more intelligent. Any person can find better strategies. Any person can learn. The best athletes in the world have coaches because, despite their incredible abilities, they still have room to grow. Furthermore, no one is perfect. Even so-called geniuses make mistakes.
The spectrum mindset encourages us to shift towards healthier living and more helpful mindsets.
With this attitude, the goal changes from being good to becoming better. It’s about moving in the right direction rather than longing to reach a final destination. All the great teachers say that health, success, and happiness are not destinations at all, but life-long journeys. Excellence is not an outcome to achieve; it’s a way of life.
The spectrum mindset encourages us to focus on the process of becoming better rather than the outcome we’re aiming for. Focusing on the process will, ironically, produce a better outcome than focusing on the end-goal. Having a goal doesn’t necessarily get you anywhere; making a consistent effort always leads to improvement.2 This is exactly the kind of thinking that creates a growth mindset.
We don’t have to change every aspect of our lives to see benefits. In fact, because willpower is a finite resource, we can’t change everything all at once.1 What we can do is start moving in the right direction. Thus, the spectrum mindset inspires the following motto:
Every step in the right direction is beneficial. Can you take more steps than just one? Of course, but some days that’s all you’ll have the willpower for.
The “everything counts” motto is empowering because it creates countless opportunities to take action. Just because you can’t take a big action today doesn’t mean you’re unable to take any action at all. Can’t exercise because you’re too busy? Park on the far end of the grocery-store parking lot so you have to walk an extra 50ft. Take the stairs instead of the elevator. It’s better than nothing. No time to meditate? Take deep breaths while you’re stopped at red lights. No time to read? Listen to an audio book while you cook.
There are many ways to make incremental progress. It all counts.
For example, there are a variety of ways to improve brain health. Every time you avoid sugar is beneficial. Every vegetable you eat helps. Every time you read instead of watching TV, you’re improving your brain. Every act of generosity benefits both you and the recipient. Every good choice counts.
If everything counts, then you can pat yourself on the back for every little bit of progress. By contrast, with an all-or-nothing mindset, you’re only allowed to celebrate once you’ve finally achieved your goal, which you may never do.
With a spectrum mindset, every step in the right direction is a victory, and your journey of self-improvement will have thousands of tiny victories, each one worthy of a little celebration.
To be clear, I don’t mean that you should congratulate yourself for ‘being awesome.’ I mean that you should congratulate yourself for making a strong effort. Be proud of making progress and start to see yourself as someone who consistently does the work. It is your effort that should be celebrated.
However, I’m not advocating for “participation awards.” I’m a bigger fan of “most improved” or “most inspirational” awards – those awards that are earned through hard work. But I do think showing up is a critical first step in any growth process. I do not think that standing in front of a mirror and stating positive affirmations will lead to long-term change.
Consistent effort is what leads to change, and I think that acknowledging my own hard work makes me more likely to put in even greater effort in the future.
Returning once again to Francis Bacon’s old maxim that “Nature, to be commanded, must be obeyed,” we should envision our progress towards excellence as an evolution rather than a revolution.
Things don’t change instantly in nature. Big things in nature are built of little things. A giant redwood is grown slowly and steadily, and is made of countless, tiny cells. Likewise, a great intellect is developed slowly and steadily, and is made by capitalizing on countless, tiny learning opportunities.
When we have a spectrum mindset, we’re able to see the path of improvement for what it truly is: a lifelong journey of many steps.
Big, deep, character changes start with small, repeated behavioral changes. You can’t become a new person overnight, but you can change one little behavior today. You can take one small step in the right direction. The more you change, the more your children will be inspired to change. Everything counts.
About the Author
Chris Loper has been an academic coach for Northwest Educational Services since 2014. He also writes the popular self-improvement blog Becoming Better, so if you liked this article, head on over to becomingbetter.org and check out his other work. Chris also offers behavioral change coaching, helping busy adults with habit formation and productivity. He lives in Seattle, WA.
1 Ben-Shahar, Tal. Psychology 1504: Positive Psychology. Harvard Open Course, 2009.
2 Clear, James. “Forget About Setting Goals. Focus on This Instead.” http://jamesclear.com/goals-systems.
Title Image: Yellowcloud. Sunlight spectrum with Fraunhofer Lines.” https://www.flickr.com/. Creative Commons 2.0. Text added.
Six Colors: Noricum. “Crayon.” https://www.flickr.com/. Creative Commons 2.0.
48 Crayons: Mahoney, Sally. “Rainbow of Crayons.” https://www.flickr.com/. Creative Commons 2.0.