In the first quarter of my freshman year at Brown University, I decided to take Psychology 101. When the first exam rolled around, I was pretty sure I knew the material well and that I would, as usual, get a high grade.
Which is why I was shocked when my professor handed me back my exam marked with a big, red D+.
As a self-avowed, perfectionistic “grade grubber” whose entire identity was dependent on being “smart” and “an A student,” this D+ threw me for a complete loop.
My initial reaction was that the Psych professor had made some sort of terrible mistake. Because it couldn’t possibly be me— a student my high school teachers had anointed as “bright” and “special”— who had performed poorly. And so, I made an appointment to see my professor to point out the error of his ways.
My professor took a quick glance at my exam, and then shrugged. “Hmm,” he said, “I was actually pretty charitable—I probably should have given you a full D.” Then he matter-of-factly explained each of my errors, while I shrank further and further into my chair.
By the time I left my professor’s office, I was crushed. Am I not smart enough to be at this school?” I wondered. Did the University make some sort of mistake by admitting me?
I agonized over what appeared to be a colossal failure on my part. I was never, ever supposed to fail—not me, not the anointed golden girl. If I couldn’t get an A, or even a B+, how worthy was I, really? I railed at the heavens, at the professor, at the unfairness of it all. Tumbling down the rabbit hole, I thought What if this D+ is just the start of a whole series of bad grades? What if I can’t hack it here, and need to drop out of school? The prospect of leaving Brown and severely disappointing my mother and father made me bawl like a baby. I was still crying when my friend, Rick—a senior, with a razor-sharp mind and wise, philosophical nature, dropped by to visit. Between sobs, I explained my pathetic situation. Rick listened, then gave me a hug and a grin. “It’s just an exam,” he said. “Take a breath, and then figure out how to do better the next time.” Then he took me out for a beer and a laugh.
As simple—and tossed-off—as Rick’s words were, they were a revelation to me. They implied something I hadn’t really considered before: I didn’t have to choose to believe that I was either “perfect or nothing.” I could choose to believe that I could be “imperfect and growing.”
And so, I immediately decided to do two things I’d never conceived of doing: I joined a small study group of fellow Psych 101 students. And I changed my grading option for the class from the standard A-F scale to Brown’s unique “Satisfactory-No Credit Scale,” in which I either passed the class with an S (for Satisfactory) or a N/C (for No Credit, and no mention of the class on my records). The study group opened me up to new ways of learning and ingesting information. The grading option took me off the hamster wheel of pursuing an A grade at all costs, allowing me to focus on learning for learning’s sake. I went from “Maybe I can’t handle this class” to “I can learn how to study more effectively for this new, more challenging level of exam.”
What I learned from that experience was that could take something I considered a “failure” and, through my attitude and my actions, use it as an opportunity to learn, grow and improve.
Looking back, I realize that I had made the mental shift from what groundbreaking researcher and educator Carol Dweck calls a fixed mindset to what she terms a growth mindset. Here’s how she puts it in her wonderful book, Mindsets: The fixed mindset makes you concerned with how you’ll be judged; the growth mindset makes you concerned with improving
Basically, in a fixed mindset, people believe that their core talents, abilities, and intelligence are fixed and unchangeable. Their goal then becomes to prove themselves and their worth over and over again—to look smart all the time. In a growth mindset, people realize that their talents and abilities can be developed through “effort, good teaching and persistence”. People with a growth mindset essentially believe that everyone can get smarter and better if they put in the work.
Your mindset sets the stage for your ability to perform at your peak in a spotlight moment. This is true for life in general, and public speaking in particular.
Some phrases that are representative of a fixed mindset about public speaking skills are:
“I always mess up when I give a presentation”
“Other people are better than I am at speaking in public”
“I can only speak effectively to groups of under ten people”
“I can’t manage my performance anxiety.”
These sorts of phrases are driven by a fear of failure, of looking bad—and they leave little room for learning and growth. Since they are limiting beliefs, they lead limiting behaviors—like avoiding public speaking opportunities, or choosing not to do the work needed to improve their speaking abilities.
I hear these sorts of fixed mindset phrases all the time. Which means that part of my job is finding ways to encourage my presentation skills coaching clients to slowly and deliberately move towards a growth mindset.
A growth mindset implies a possibility of change in relationship to your abilities and your attitude or approach to a challenge (like speaking to groups when your anxiety kicks in). Some examples of phrases that are representative of a growth mindset about public speaking are:
“I am learning new tools and techniques to help manage my fear or public speaking.”
“I am willing to believe that, through commitment and practice, I can improve as a speaker, “
“The more I allow myself to risk being human and vulnerable when I give presentations, the more I can grow and develop as a speaker.”
A willingness to embrace a growth mindset can make a huge difference in a person’s ability to see a setback (like getting a D+ plus in Psych 101, or forgetting your place in an important presentation) as an opportunity for learning and development. Put another way, if you don’t believe you can change, you won’t do the work to make changes.
Staring down that D+ back in college, I made the choice to shift my mindset from one that limited me and kept me on the defensive to one that was open to change and possibility. I was willing to believe I could change my study habits and let go of the need to acquire an A, in order to focus on genuine learning in my new, more challenging educational environment. Interestingly, because I made that shift in mindset I not only enjoyed my studies in Psychology, I got excellent scores on my Psych exams and papers. Had I still been opting to take the class in the standard A-F grading format, I would have, in fact, wound up with an A for the semester. Instead, I got an “S” for Satisfaction, and I couldn’t have been happier. Furthermore, the study habits I learned during that semester, combined with my newly minted change mindset, helped me graduate from college with flying colors.
What about you? When it comes to dealing with challenges or risking the possibility of failure, do you tend to have a fixed mindset, or a change mindset? Are you willing to embrace a change mindset? Are you willing to do the work to make the shift to a mindset where growth and possibility abound?
Remember: Your mind is powerful. How you think about who you are and what you can do can make the difference in your success (and fulfillment)—both as a public speaker, and as a human being.