The Power Of One Word

I’ve never been one for New Year’s Resolutions. I tried a few times but by the end of January life would be back to normal.

That being said, I am a big fan of goals. And I believe goals can be life changing when you find 1 word that gives the goal meaning and focus. (If you don’t believe me, just read the chapter “Just One Word” in the book Wisdom Walks. To be fair, I haven’t read the book but I did read a blog about it.)

Shortly after I turned 30 I realized I needed to change my mindset. I was pregnant with my 2nd child at the time and felt I owed it to my kids to make some improvements in my attitude and outlook on life. (I blogged about this here) I was letting little things get to me, and this was getting in the way of enjoying the journey that is life. Determined not to be such a Negative Nancy (no offense if your name is Nancy- it just rhymes.) I chose the word “PERSPECTIVE” and said the word over and over in my head anytime I felt negative thoughts enter my mind.

Last month I turned 33 and realized it was time for a new goal. I’ve made significant progress with my perspective on life and I’m happier than I’ve ever been. There are a few things I feel the need to improve upon and there were a few words I had been toying around with (Excellence, Gratitude, Focus).

And then I read this beautiful blog post by my cousin-in-law Laura House. It’s funny how things seem to fall in your lap just when you need them to.

My new word? You guessed it- GRATITUDE.

There are so many things in my life I’m grateful for. So I’m going to do a better job of expressing my gratitude. And not just a standard “thank you for the gift/visit/dinner”. I’m going to do a better job of expressing my gratitude to the many people in my life who make every day a gift.

On January 2nd of this year my dad turned 60. It was a big milestone so my siblings and I decided to do something special. Anyone who knows my dad will tell you he’s incredibly sentimental. For years all he has asked of his children is to write a letter to him on his birthday. So this year we went all out. We made a photo and letter book for my dad from all 3 siblings, all 7 of his brothers and sisters, all of the in-laws, almost all of my 30 cousins and a few close friends. It took me almost 10 hours to put it together, but as I watched him tear up reading the letters and reminiscing I knew it was worth it. I couldn’t think of a better way to express my gratitude to my father for being such an amazing dad. (If you know my dad- ask him to see the book next time you see him. It turned out perfect. Thank you so much to all of you who took time to write and send pictures. It is a gift he will treasure the rest of his life.)

Here’s the cool thing about gratitude. It feels really good to catch someone off guard with a thank-you. Not only do you get to make someone’s day, but you are making your own too. And in this digital age it’s easier than ever to get creative and express your gratitude. Recently a customized card came in the mail for my husband from his aunt. I reached out to her to ask about how she made the card, and it’s a free app you can download to your iPad/iPhone. You can find the app here. There are no excuses NOT to find the time to express my gratitude.

Just One Word. Mine is gratitude. What’s yours?

(Thank you to Woodleywonderworks for the awesome “Thank You” in every language Wordle on Flickr!)

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What’s your mindset?

I have a confession to make. I’m not perfect.

Shocker. I know. I had you all fooled.

And guess what? Neither are you.

But really, who wants to be perfect? Life would be so boring.

Now that we’ve faced the cold hard facts, let’s talk about improving ourselves and others around us (especially young children we are responsible for on a regular basis). In order to improve, you need to believe it can happen. Easy enough, right?

Not so fast.

Take a moment to read the following statements.

“I will NEVER do that!”

“I have never been a morning person.”

“I have always been bad at math.”

“She will never change.”

“He has always been that way.”

“He’s never been very smart.”

“I don’t see it that way.”

Sound familiar? These are all common remarks we make on a daily basis without much thought. We are making a point. We are stating what we believe are facts. So what’s the big deal?

These statements are examples of a fixed mindset. Individuals with a fixed mindset “accept the premise that we were born smart or not smart- able or not able- in a particular domain” (Differentiation and the Brain, pg. 26). Possessing a fixed mindset means you don’t believe you have the power to influence change. To change someone’s ability, effort, belief,  or even IQ. This couldn’t be further from the truth.

Let’s take a look at the other side of the coin. Individuals with a growth mindset “believe that while genetics might sketch out a starting point in our development, one’s own determination and persistence-in combination with persistent and determined support-are really what predict success”. (Differentiation and the Brain, pg. 26) Instead of the statements above, these individuals understand:

1. They CAN influence change within themselves and others

2. They are passionate about helping others reach their potential

3. It’s about helping others.  It’s not about a job, money, recognition or any other extrinsic reward. That’s just icing on the cake.

This isn’t something I’ve always been aware of (unfortunately). As I began to learn more about the importance of a growth mindset, I started to reflect on my time as a classroom teacher and the many behavior and classroom management issues  I faced. I  realized many of them were escalated due to my fixed mindset. If only someone would have taken the time to explain this to me maybe things would have been different. Maybe my first few years of teaching wouldn’t have been AS difficult as they were. I also thought about how my past interactions with family, friends and co-workers could have been different. There’s no use feeling bad about the past because I can’t turn back the clock. But I can learn from it. I can use my new knowledge to make changes moving forward.

I’m about to get really geeky with some neuroscience facts here so watch out.

Our brains are designed to change. The brain we are born with is not the brain we are stuck with. This is what is called “neuroplasticity“. As educators (and parents) we are shaping and changing brains every day. Here is the scary part- we can actually DECREASE the capacity of a child’s brain. Possessing a fixed mindset is dangerous to the cognitive development of young (and adult) minds.

So what are we to do?

I don’t have all of the answers. (I told you, I’m not perfect!)

I do have a suggestion to get you started down the right path. Take a good hard look in the mirror and make sure you have the right mindset going forward. Turn your beliefs (“But I’ve always been this way”) into what if’s (“What if I wasn’t this way anymore?”). When you look in the mirror, take some time to identify something you have always believed is a part of who you are (but deep down you want to change) and change it. Think about someone in your life (a student, child, family member, co-worker or friend) you’ve always struggled to deal with and think about how your beliefs (about them) and behavior (towards them) might be compounding the problem. What if you had the power to change it? (By the way- this is difficult to do without putting our ego aside and admitting we need to change. The ego can be a pesky little thing, so beware.)

Here’s an example of something I’m working on. I’ve always been the type of person that does not communicate when I’m upset. I clam up and give you the silent treatment. Just ask my parents, college roommates or my husband. It’s not something I’m proud of, but I’ve always been that way. Over the past few years I have tried hard to let go of this nasty habit when I feel myself getting upset. I’ve read some books that have helped me effectively communicate what I’m thinking (Start With Why, Leading with Questions and What Got you Here Won’t Get You There are a few good reads if you are interested). One of the most interesting things I’ve learned along the way is that the area of the brain that contains emotion is separate from the area of the brain that contains language. So finding the words to express how we feel- especially when strong emotions (anger, love, frustration, sadness) are involved is difficult. This was a big ah-ha moment for me. Knowledge is powerful especially when you make use of it. Of course I still have my moments where I want to revert to the good old silent treatment, but I can tell I’m making progress and I feel much more comfortable talking things out when I’m upset. I still have a long way to go but I’m proud of the progress I’ve made. I’m proud of myself for finally realizing I can change.

It’s important to talk to kids about this as well. They need to understand that their brains are constantly changing and developing. They need to understand they CAN do math, they CAN write a good essay, they CAN learn. If you want to see a child flourish, make sure they understand WHY they need to learn (or do) something. Always start with why. When learning something new, meaning always trumps sense. It needs to have personal meaning for the child. WHY do I need to know this and how does it impact my life and my interests? Take the time to make sure they connect the dots as to WHY they are learning it, and you will see motivation to learn you’ve never seen before. All learning in life is goal directed. We pay attention to everything biologically relevant to us. We learn things we want to learn because it’s in line with what’s important to us. If it does not have meaning, it doesn’t matter if it makes sense.

One last note. If you are not able to connect the dots as to WHY they have to learn it…..is it really worth learning in the first place? Saying you have to learn something “because it’s always been this way” or “because you’ll need this one day” is the perfect example of a fixed mindset. You’re better than that.

So on you go with your new fresh perspective. A growth mindset. If you’re still reading- THANK YOU! I would love to hear how you are going to implement this new knowledge. What beliefs are you going to challenge? What’s your “what if”?