A Winning Mindset

by Sandy Nelson on February 21, 2012

A few weeks ago I had one of the more vivid dreams of my life. I was flying effortlessly over Palo Alto. Well, at least a dreamlike facsimile of Palo Alto, but with a mini-Sierra-like range of mountains running right through the middle of it.

What an exhilarating, freeing experience!

I could take off and land with little effort, soar over the landscape, dive down and climb at steep angles. I could bring my focus to the ground below and observe with cheerful readiness interactions among people going about their daily lives.

As I flew in looping sweeps over the landscape, I noticed an old friend sitting on a terrace. With the warmth of the sun on my back and the coolness of the breeze lifting me, I swept down to say hello. Landing softly, I greeted him. Within an instant, we were deeply engaged in animated conversation.

Unfortunately, my friend proceeded to complain unceasingly. It didn’t take long to realize that the friend I remembered so positively had morphed into an ego-driven facsimile of his old self and was now consumed by a victim’s view of the world with little to say positively or constructively about anyone or anything. As the conversation continued, I began to plot my escape. Wistfully, I chose a path out, bade my farewell and leapt forward expecting to rise again and glide back into blissful happiness.

Sadly, I could no longer fly. Repeated unsuccessful attempts to lift off left me anchored to earth and increasingly frustrated. How could it be that only a few minutes before I had been having the time of my life, but now could no longer ascend?

Ah yes, it soon hit me. To fly is to open to and embrace opportunity. Flight is simply not possible when attempted within a context of negativity.

Exposed to the supreme discord of my old friend, I found myself no longer able to defy gravity. And so the lesson of the dream was revealed. Negative thoughts are the bane of innovation. Limited mindsets form impenetrable barriers and obscure possibility—even in a fantastically improbable dream.

Upon awakening, I found myself silently and frequently repeating this mantra—”no negative thoughts”. I continued this with some significant success until one day last week when I awoke tired and out of sorts.

Committed to regaining strength, agility and flexibility lost through many athletic injuries and related surgeries, I regularly work out with a wonderful and accomplished trainer, Rob Stuart, at the Sports Club LA in DC. That morning, Rob asked me to execute a specific set of moves from a position that seemed to me, in my suboptimal state of being, to be impossible.

My first thought, silently articulated, was “no way”! Scrambling to think of a way to decline, I began to run through possible excuses for not doing the exercise.

Thankfully, the memory of my flying dream came to me, and I chose to let go of negative self talk and give it a try. As you might imagine, that being the first time I had attempted the move, my execution was inelegant. Yet, try it I did, and after three sets of practice, improvement came.

The biggest catapult to success, and barrier, is mindset. In her 2008 book, Mindset, The New Psychology of Success, How We Can Learn to Fulfill our Potential, Carol Dweck provides extensive, illuminating insight into this most basic concept. After reading it, I began to think back over a lifetime of experiences and interactions. I could easily identify those times where I missed opportunity due to limiting mindset and celebrate those where I was able to succeed beyond my wildest dreams.

The work that my colleagues and I do at Aperio provides a clear line of vision into mindset. Cultural, team and individual mindsets predict probability of success, scope of change possible and magnitude of impact.

Winning mindsets are open and willing. Teams and individuals with winning mindsets welcome new ideas, crave learning and dive into change. Under those circumstances,  change and growth are easy to ignite.

Limiting mindsets resist learning, discount new ideas and, typically, prefer and gravitate toward protectiveness rather than innovation. In cultures with narrow mindsets, growth is illusive—fear of risk ironically increases the likelihood of loss.

Fortunately, mindset is a choice and can be shifted through practice with effective coaching over time. Once I become aware of my default mindset, I have the ability to either chose to continue it or change. A winning mindset can be developed. A losing mindset, once revealed and continued, signals a lack of commitment.

Dreams are helpful. In dreams we can soar without the limiting effects of gravity or prejudice. Through dreams we are exposed to new paradigms of possibility and learn important lessons. In wakefulness, we are also exposed to new paradigms of possibility. It’s just that in life there are real constraints.

Yet, even in the midst of the day-to-day, we can learn to soar—if we open ourselves and mindsets to doing so.

Sandy Nelson

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