The Cornered Cat

Recently, I enjoyed reading Carol Dweck’s awesome book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. I found the book mind-blowing on several levels. Please forgive the long entry below as I explore some of these levels and what they mean to me as a woman interested in the feminine art of self defense.

In Mindset, Dweck outlines two different ways of thinking about the world.

The first way of thinking, which Dweck calls a fixed mindset, emphasizes native talent, inborn abilities, and non-changeable labels like “smart” or “talented.” Inside a fixed mindset, every test you take is a measure of your inborn traits (Are you really smart?). Within this way of thinking, every job you find easy validates your worth as a person, but every task you find challenging creates a negative judgment of your value. From a fixed mindset perspective, it’s better to feel talented than it is to risk failure. Fixed mindset people find it very comforting to think, “I’m smart, so I could have ____ if I’d tried.”

The other way of thinking, which Dweck calls a growth mindset, says that people can change and develop, and that your inborn traits are not as important as what you do with them. This mindset values the process of learning, embracing mistakes as the way to learn how to do better. Within a growth mindset, every test, every challenge, every measure of your skill helps you find ways to improve your performance. An error is never a condemnation of your personal worth. When you find a task hard to do, it does not mean that you are “bad” – or even that you are “bad at” that thing. It simply means you have room to get better. Mistakes and difficult tasks provide joyful opportunities to learn and grow. From a growth mindset perspective, the saddest words in the world are, “Well, I could have ____ if I’d tried.”

Perfect in Pink

Thinking about the book as I did my errands in town one day, I walked into the pharmacy and heard this song playing on the store music system. Pink was belting it out: “Pretty pretty please, don’t you ever feel that you’re less than, less than perfect…” It’s a catchy tune, and the official video provides a very powerful statement about negative self-talk – how damaging it is, how ugly it is, how it affects everything else in your life, how it can lead to all kinds of horrible outcomes including suicide. “You’re so mean when you talk about yourself,” Pink sings. “Change the voices in your head; make them like you instead.”



The song, and the series of thoughts it provoked, made me remember another blog post I read a month or two back. In that blog, Anna talks about the lessons she’s learned in life, and especially about the lessons she’s learned through some tough relationships. In a lot of ways, this post expresses ideas that are really the polar opposite of the ones inside Pink’s tune. The writer doesn’t just admit that she’s less than perfect – she thinks of admitting her imperfections as a good thing, a comfortable thing, even as a way that she takes care of herself. She writes, “I made mistakes.  Is that a problem to you?  Because it doesn’t bother me, and I don’t understand how it can or should.  You see, I learnt from those mistakes.  I am a different, better person now than I was back then, whether we’re talking about my childhood or two weeks ago.  It’s unfortunate that I had to make the mistakes to learn the lesson, but that’s how learning often works.” That’s a very clear articulation of a growth mindset, a mindset fully intent on learning every lesson life provides.

Admitting your own mistakes and then learning from them is the opposite of a fixed mindset. Remember, a fixed mindset creates a belief system that tells you that you must “never, ever feel like you’re less than, less than perfect.” But if you have to feel absolutely perfect, all the time, you’re going to live a very stressful life. Nobody honestly lives up to their own expectations, let alone anyone else’s. Within this mindset, when you trip over the inevitable problem, the best you can hope for is a really good system of denial. You have to hide your human failings from everyone, even from yourself.

The blame game

Worse than having to be perfect all the time, the fixed mindset always requires blame when something goes wrong. Someone must be at fault. Someone must be bad or evil or wicked in some way. So whenever you admit that you made a mistake, people working from the fixed mindset rush to your side to tell you that you did not do anything wrong, that you couldn’t possibly have done anything differently than you did, that the bad outcome wasn’t your fault. They do this because in that mindset, you have to find someone to blame when something bad happens. If you admit you didn’t do everything 100% right, then obviously you’re blaming yourself for what happened – not simply trying to learn how to avoid finding yourself in that kind of situation again in the future.

The world from a growth mindset looks very different. When something goes wrong, the growth mindset does not bother with setting blame or affixing labels or telling you what kind of person you are. It simply asks, “What did we learn here? And what else can we learn from this?”

As Anna wrote in the blog linked above, “Without accepting my contribution to my past problems, I could not learn anything from my experiences… Am I blaming myself?  Hell no.  I always did my best – it just so happened that my best, at that time, wasn’t that good. To me, blaming means not only holding responsible, but also censuring somebody, and I neither do that nor allow anyone else to do it.  I don’t see any upside in playing the blame game, so I don’t.  End of.  But that doesn’t prevent me from using an experience as a learning tool.”

Well, shoot!

I have had this article in process for several weeks now. It was nearly finished when Limatunes posted an absolutely perfect illustration of a growth mindset seen at work within the sphere of defensive firearms skill, which you can read at Limatunes’ Range Diary. Lima is breathtakingly, heartbreakingly honest about her skill, and her limitations, and about what her achievements have cost her. Not just the practice – that’s a given – but the hard work of admitting imperfections without blame, of setting her mind on the right track, of keeping her outlook strongly on the road to learning, of absolutely refusing to submit to negative or limited thinking.

Her story begins like this:

I entered an art contest my freshman year of high school. I drew a picture of a little girl in braids. She was looking out at you, the viewer, with a sort of somber look on her face. I won first place at the regional competition and went on to an international competition where I placed within the top 15 in monochromatic pencil. I was good. Everyone told me I was good. I knew I was good.

That summer I enrolled in an art camp and we were required to take a drawing with us to show the instructors what we were capable of. I took my little girl.

The instructors were going through the other student’s work. Some of it was good. Some of it was not so good. When he got to mine he said it was good and was about to move on when I asked him to critique it. He looked at me and said, “How honest can I be?” I encouraged him to be completely honest…

Follow the link, please. You’re truly cheating yourself if you don’t go read the whole thing. It’s a powerful story that very nearly made me cry.

Changing your self-talk

Nobody is 100% fixed mindset, and nobody is 100% growth minded. People often flip from one mindset to another based on circumstances and framing. You might have a fixed mindset in one area (for example, believing that there’s nothing you can do to improve your basic intelligence) and a growth mindset in another area (believing that with practice, you can learn to be a better gardener). Even so, everyone has a preferred method for looking at the world. Each of us has a mindset we prefer to use for most things. And – here’s the beautiful thing! – we can change our mindset any time we wish. At least, with a little work and a little willpower we can. We can choose to improve, rather than obsessing about the measures of our self-worth as seen through our (im)perfections.

More than that, we can each strive for creating a lifetime habit of holding a growth mindset, of being open to possibilities and deliberately seeking out challenges as a way to spur personal achievement.

Choosing to embrace the growth mindset can provide a powerful antidote to the bitter poison some of us have been swallowing our whole lives. It leads us to reject the apparently positive (but really, judgmental) labels we put on ourselves: smart, talented, good. The problem with those labels is that they lead to self-talk like this: “Being smart, talented, good – that’s where all my worth is. So I have to hide my struggles and deny my errors. I can’t let myself or anyone else realize that I don’t know everything already, because that would mean I’m an idiot. I can’t risk doing anything that might be hard for me to do, because if I don’t do it well, that would mean I’m a failure. I can’t risk doing anything I might have to work at, because then people might see me struggle, and that would mean I’m a loser. I have to be smart. I have to be good. I have to right, all the time…”

Don't drink poison.

Don’t drink poison.

That kind of self-talk also leads to some ugly thoughts about others. “I know I’m smart, talented, good. So if I do badly in school, I will tell myself that the test was too hard and that the teacher has it in for me. She’s the bad person, not me! If I spill my coffee, I will believe that it’s the waitress’ fault that I knocked my coffee over, because she left the cup on the table. She’s the idiot, not me! If I snap at my husband, afterward I might feel bad for doing that, so I will tell myself that he totally had it coming to him and I’m going to stew on his faults forever because otherwise I will feel like an awful person for being mean to him. He’s the jerk, not me!

Within the fixed mindset, underneath the bitterness that blames others, all the deepest self-talk caustically blames yourself. When you can’t find someone else to talk trash about, or when your honesty won’t let you get away with blaming someone else, you trash-talk yourself. You constantly call yourself a failure, a bad person, an idiot, a lousy friend, a horrible spouse or an awful mom. And the beat goes on. No wonder Pink doesn’t want you to ever, ever feel that you’re less than, less than perfect. Within the mindset, feeling less than perfect makes you feel like you’ve just taken a swig of poison.

It does not have to be that way. You can change your mind!

Guiding toward growth

As a defensive firearms instructor, I have already found this understanding of mindsets to be a very powerful tool. Before I present something new and challenging, I know that I will get a better response for my students when I first take time to guide them into a growth mindset. A growth mindset does not expect easy perfection or immediate gratification. It expects to work, to be challenged, to struggle – and it expects to learn from struggle. It does not call itself names for failing to be perfect, but simply looks at errors as important data points on the path to learning. It is the ideal mindset for a student.

To help create this way of thinking for my students, I often start the class by telling them a little bit about my own background. Here is the brutal truth: I am not a natural athlete. Far from it! Defensive shooting techniques did not come easily to me, because I don’t have a single gram of inborn talent at physical skills. What I do have is an ongoing, strong commitment to learning, and a stubborn streak wide enough to keep me going when I hit a challenge. Because I started with so little aptitude, I am living proof that the essential skills of shooting are learned behaviors – not mysterious powers that somehow drop on your head out of a clear blue sky. The skills can be learned by anyone who works to learn them, even by a klutz whose childhood nickname was “Grace.” 1

Here are some of the lessons I want my students to absorb from my first talk at the beginning of the day:

Some people are dismayed to learn that learning to shoot well takes time and effort. But most people are relieved to hear it, because they understand that means nobody expects them to find it easy at the beginning. It doesn’t mean something is wrong with them if they have to concentrate hard on something, or if they need to be reminded how to do something. It simply means that they are learning something new, and are performing exactly as they should expect themselves to perform. Knowing that they don’t have to be perfect takes a lot of the pressure off, erases the need to perform, and makes it possible for students to concentrate on the one thing they came to class to do: learn.

What about self defense?

Take a look at this. Someone posted it on my page the other day, and I think it’s a very clear picture of how the world looks from inside a classic fixed mindset. Here’s the post:

I decide what I can or can’t do before I even attempt it and then, foreseeing failure, won’t even try. It doesn’t make sense to make the effort if the only foreseeable end is failure. I’m quite intelligent and have a genuine logic to the way I perceive the world around me, but if I don’t see a way for it to work out positively, I won’t make the effort. …I don’t see the point in wasting time, energy and resources into something that isn’t going to work.

Really, I can’t blame that person. Because after all, if you’re doomed to failure from the beginning, why even try? Inside that fixed, no-growth mindset, you absolutely cannot risk feeling less than perfect under any circumstances whatsoever. Kind of makes you want to curl yourself up into a comfortable little ball and stay there awhile, doesn’t it?

This whole idea goes much deeper than just learning the physical skills of shooting. It actually strikes right into the heart of basic self-defense, the process that begins long before using a gun might be an appropriate choice.

To show you what I mean about that, here’s another excellent and worthwhile article. Bonus: it’s funny, too!  It’s the first-person story of a good man on a public transit train who saw a woman being pestered by a creep. What did he do about it? He spoke up. But he did it in a brilliant, and brilliantly funny, way.

You might be wondering what an event like that has to do with a fixed mindset or a growth mindset. Here’s my take: after you’ve read the post, take a brief scroll through the comment section. There are a lot of them, and you sure don’t have to read them all. But there are some amazing stories hidden in there. Here’s what a friend of mine had to say after reading those comments: “In reading the comments … many women perceive the risk of Doing Something [when they are confronted by a creep in public] to be much greater than Doing Nothing in most cases. But is this really true? What really are the risks of doing nothing?”

My response to that was that Doing Nothing is a strategy that’s worked multiple times for most women, in a wide variety of encounters that might range from weird to creepy to downright frightening. It’s really hard to get people to change a survival strategy that has worked for them in the past, and especially when we ask them to throw away that strategy in favor of one that often has immediately negative social consequences – as women have found that speaking up for themselves often does. Then my friend said, as a counterpoint, “I am also referring to the after effects of Doing Nothing. It is not as if the incident never happened. How does she feel when she Does Nothing? My thought is that many times she feels more powerless and becomes more fearful, thus creating a spiral of discontent.”

But this is where it comes back to the question of mindset, because Doing Nothing is not just a strategy. It’s also a very natural outcome of mindset.

Inside a fixed mindset, trying and failing is worse than simply failing in the first place. The reasons we give for not acting in our own defense – cultural expectations, lifelong habits, physical fear – are also excuses that protect our self view, our image of who we are. We are Good People. Good People don’t boldly stand up for themselves. Good People don’t fight back, don’t risk being rude or confrontational, don’t break the script. Good People would rather die of embarrassment than do something outside the social boundaries. That’s just who we are. These ideas are very crucial to the fixed mindset, they all hit dead center on your sense of selfhood, and they all make a very strong impact on your ability to deflect a potential assault or step away from a violent crime before it develops.

Maybe it’s time to explore a growth mindset instead.

Well! I told you at the beginning that this would be a long post, and it is. But I hope you’ve found it a worthwhile one, too. Because even if you don’t feel perfect all the time, or even if you don’t yet feel like you have the skills to defend yourself, and even if you’re not sure you even want to try … life is good, and your life is worth defending.


  1. My parents were and are sarcastic people.