[Life Back West] September 2009 – “Back to School”

There are random events, and there are events that are chock full of patterns: the trick is knowing one set of events from the other, and in figuring out what, if anything, any patterns mean.

Something as simple as a run chart stuck up on your bulletin board wall helps you plot experience, whether it be the number of times your seven year old wakes-up at nights (less common lately – thank goodness) or the number of times things a client calls with one “last” change.

Data can tell you if things are tamped down and OK after the Great Recession or if we’re due for another bubble or two to burst (guess what: more is likely to come).

Without data and its patterns you’re flying mostly solo with subjective impressions. Dan Ariely, the author of Predictably Irrational , has shown through his work on “clutch players” in sports and business that this subjective recollection is mostly unreliable. Dan’s work here is telling: clutch players are not generally any better they anyone else, they just get more chances. We remember their successes and tend to forget their failures.

The need to decipher patterns means in effect that you’re always back in school: it’s all about the learning, discovering and deciphering. What we think we know subjectively needs to be informed by real data – and, as Ronald Reagan once said – “facts are stubborn things .” They have an odd habit of showing us that we’re spotty in our judgments.

I had these thoughts of patterns, facts, and subjective assessments in the back of my mind as I went to a real “back to school” last night. My son J. Traylor’s kindergarten year taught by Doug Zesiger was by all accounts – both real and subjective findings – a good one as he did the things kids should do at this age – play hard, enjoy learning, and begin to develop the belief that talent is mostly hard work and trying – not something that you either have or don’t have. Last night I got a glimpse of what his first grade taught by Jenny Jones and Elizabeth Teasdale might look like.

Stanford professor Carol Dweck, author of Mindset , has shown in her research that the real secret in the psychology of success is in what she terms a “growth mindset:” an attitude supported by behaviors that enables you to keep trying, doing and learning. Her research also shows us that a fixed mindset (e.g. “I’m great”, or “I’m lousy”) leads not to doing better, but actually doing worse.

And what applies to kid’s education in schools applies to learning and performance in other areas, such as business. It’s not the fixed “label” mindset that helps; it’s the growth mindset (“If I work hard I can do better”) that promotes trying which leads to performing.

So on this back to school night there was only one pattern I wanted to see – and I did – was that of a growth mindset in his teaching, where my son is encouraged to do, and to try, and to learn.

And I know from the patterns gleaned from research data that having this growth mindset will lead to good things down the road.