When I was a wee bairn, (unfortunately not a Scottish one, but almost ginger enough to be mistaken for one),
my parents told me I was very special. It turned out to be a disaster.
Like many well meaning parents, they believed that my brother and I were unique little blonde unicorns (“strawberry” blonde, in my case). Like most parents of their generation, they’d bought into the ever-popular self-esteem movement – the idea that telling your kids that they are special will boost their self-esteem and thus set them up for lifelong success.
AKA – something that we’re now realising is a failed parenting strategy.
Little did they know that the words “you’re special/ you’re a genius/ you’re uniquely talented/ you’re smart” are often a death sentence for a kid’s ability to continuously grow, thrive, and take risks.
Looking back on my life from my 30s, I can see a clear pattern: a constant, subconscious habit of seeking out situations in which I could be the biggest fish in the smallest pond.
From schools to subjects to travel destinations to relationships to careers, I always chose things I knew for almost sure that I could succeed at or stand out in.
If there wasn’t a near-certain chance of A+, I would stop studying a subject.
If there was a hot guy I fancied who snagged all the ladies, I’d avoid him like the plague.
Instead I’d shack up with lovely chaps who thought I was a freckley ray of sunshine and couldn’t believe their luck.
When I traveled and found myself in situations where there were very few people and I could stand out in some way, I was in my element.
When I lived on a superyacht in France and was the only crew member who spoke decent French, I was stoked to be the “special” one who everyone needed to borrow as a translator.
Find small pond, become big fish, swim around smugly.
When we’re told we’re uniquely genius and praised for our intelligence or brilliance as kids, we start to build an identity based on being “the best” or “better than others.”
This often leads us to develop what Carol Dweck calls a “fixed mindset”.
Someone with a fixed mindset believes that talent or intelligence (or lack thereof) is an inbuilt trait that is set. You’re either already special, or you’re not.
A fixed mindset means that you always need to reinforce and protect your identity as the BEST in relation to everyone else.
By definition, we can’t all be the best, so apart from anything else, this self-esteem movement has caused a stampede of narcissism, unhealthy competitiveness, and tramply one-up-manship.
Oh, as well as crippling perfectionism, risk aversion, and an epidemic of extreme procrastinators.
A fixed mindset means that an A- becomes a huge problem, and failure or rejection of any kind becomes something to avoid like the plague.
Which means risk must also be avoided.
Anything that might show you up as “not the best” is a threat to your identity, and therefore your perceived ability to “get” love or appreciation from others.
If you’re a perfectionistic, overachieving control freak like me, there’s a high chance you were also told you were special, or that you subconsciously internalised the idea that the way to get love and praise was to prove your worth by being the best at ALL THE THINGS.
What a bloody shemozzle.
Kids who are instead praised for their effort, perseverance and improvement are more likely to grow up with what Carol calls a “growth mindset”.
This mindset is a ninja mindset to have.
Someone with a ninja growth mindset believes that failures and setbacks are just challenges that can be overcome with repeated practice and problem solving.
Kids with a growth mindset are more likely to be curious, to explore, to keep trying new things, taking risks, challenging themselves, and growing.
To be a successful business owner, you have to have a growth mindset.
When we grow in self-awareness, it’s not long til we realise that a lot of the limits on our life are self-imposed by our ego to keep us feeling special
(or at least, to keep us safe from humiliation).
A short leap from this realisation is the further realisation that this is a bloody ridiculous way to live.
Which is why, as I practiced more and more mindfulness, it became impossible to ignore the fact that I was my biggest problem.
I started stepping out of my comfort zone and taking more risks (while rigorously putting the anti-panic techniques I’d learnt to use!)
Bit by bit, I was able to rewire my mindset away from “fixed” and towards “growth, without knowing that’s what I was doing.
Then I found Carol Dweck’s TED talk, and it all made sense why mindfulness had made my life so much easier.
But this big fish small pond thing has still followed me around like an accidental ball and chain.
Only now am I starting to realise just how often I’ve played it small in my life.
I’ve avoided leaping into any giant ponds with all the big fish, for fear that I’ll flail around all tiny-fish-like; inexperienced and out of my depth.
How EMBARRASSING not to know all the answers!
And so, with this awareness, comes the scary realisation that it’s time to take some more leaps off cliffs into uncertain, scary-ass waters, so I can learn to swim in new depths.
Jump with me?