Becoming your own version of exceptional: the mindset model
Would you like to get better at something? How can we make sustainable changes to our selves and our organizations?
My new book, Exceptional, comes out September 22. It shows you how to build your own personal highlight reel — a collection of positive memories about you from your network — to improve your life and access more of your potential. It would mean a lot to me if you would pre-order it, because the industry relies on pre-orders to figure out which books get attention. If you want to help me get the word out, send this post around to a friend!
I wrote the article below to help you unpack the psychology of improvement. It answers the question: ‘How can we make changes sustainable?’ One of the key problems that I tackle in Exceptional is that learning and change often feel a lot like failure — at least in the middle of the process. In fact, this is why so many personal and organizational change attempts fizzle out.
So, in the stages below, I cover the five ‘make and break’ investments you need to make for lasting improvements.
Three years ago, did you know that AI would be better than humans at cancer diagnosis? Two years ago, did you know blockchain was on its way? Last year, did you foresee you’d be working from home due to a pandemic?
Luckily, change is easy. In fact, it’s as easy as writing your name. So try it: write your name down, but use the hand that you don’t normally use. This is not me being rhetorical. If you really want to learn something here, you actually need to write down your name. What feelings are you experiencing, as you write with your ‘other hand?’ Does it feel uncomfortable? Unnatural? Perhaps you feel childish.
Did you find that you wrote your name faster or slower? Does this version of your name look better, or worse?
This exercise provides such an important lesson. You learn is that change is not a cognition. Change is not something you think about, and strategize about; change is moving your arms and legs and mouth in new ways.
Why do you think it feels uncomfortable and awkward to write with your ‘other hand’? After all, you’re using the same technology. You’re writing the same letters. Your other arm has the same bone structure, muscles, and nerves. So why these awkward feelings? Why is it taking longer to write the same letters? Why does it not look as smooth?
The answer has everything to do with practice. Because, in life, everything in life is hard before it gets easy. Nobody has walked without falling and learning. No child has thought really strategically about walking, watched other people walk, and then just stood up and walked. Writing your name, meeting on Zoom, driving a car, holding a client meeting. None of these things are easy the first time. But then after we try a behavior 50 times, and then 500 times, it becomes second nature. Practice makes it feel natural.
Once we practice a behavior enough to make it feel natural, it’s hard to remember it was ever hard. What is the magic in practice? What is happening that makes difficult things feel easy?
It comes down to the fact that the brain is a muscle. I know it doesn’t feel that way to many of us. In fact, for most of human history we didn’t see it that way. It seems somehow that the brain must be different from the other parts of our body. But in the end, it is a muscle. And like other muscles, it gets stronger with practice.
Here’s an example. Last year, my daughter and I started bouldering together. Bouldering is where you climb up fake plastic rocks without wearing a harness or using ropes. It’s exhilarating as you get higher and higher. Anyway, it is an activity that uses biceps and grip, so pull-ups really help. So, my daughter and I installed a pull-up bar in the stairway up to her room. The first time she tried to do a pull-up, it didn’t look like much at all. Her face was straining, but her body wasn’t moving. Her biceps just were not strong enough.
But she was persistent, trying it once or twice each day. Within a month she could pull herself up three inches. We tracked her progress with pencil marks at the bottom of her feet, so that she could see the progress. After three months she could move up 12 inches. After six months she could do a pull-up. So what have we here? She was not able to do a pull-up (despite ambition and desire), and then she could do one.
What allowed her to change her behavior? What happened was physical: each attempt created a demand signal on her biceps (and other muscles). At first, the muscle simply was not there and it could not respond. But with each demand signal, the muscle became stronger.
This also is what happens with our brain. When we first try a new behavior, like writing with our other hand, the neurons and the linkages are weak and underdeveloped. They are slow as they send the impulses to our hand, and we feel like we are using our hand like a puppet. We rely on feedback loops of information where we watch ourselves writing the letter and are constantly adapting and instructing our hand (‘Pull the pen down, down, down, OK, STOP. Now go to the right.’) It’s laborious, it demands our focus, and the writing looks amateur.
After practicing this 1000 times, we develop the neurons and the linkages so that rather than a small path they are like a superhighway, with the information zooming quickly and easily. We don’t even have to watch and adapt to each letter. This is called ‘automaticity’: we issue the command (‘write my name’) and it seems like the hand does it naturally and our brains are freed up to work on other things.
Now, what would happen if your leader came in and said, “Starting tomorrow, we are all going to start writing with our non-favored hand.” What is the first question you would ask?
Most people would ask ‘Why?” Because we already have a way to write, and it works. It has worked for a long time. And it feels more comfortable and natural. And it is quicker. And it looks better. So why would we change this?
‘Why’ is step one in the model of sustainable change.
1. Start with why
Human beings care a lot about why. And a good answer is not ‘because I said so’ or ‘because I am your boss.’ If we are going to change a habit or a behavior, we need to understand the purpose of that change. Especially since, at first, the change will feel awkward and create worse results while taking longer.
The desire to know the ‘purpose’ or the ‘why’ of a change actually reveals something very interesting and unique about human beings: We humans evolved a neocortex that likes to create stories, and that can project us into the future. This ‘simulation center’ part of the brain is able to think about worlds that do not yet exist, and see possible futures that have not yet happened. Our ability to speak another language, invent cars that drive themselves, or fit into a size 32 jeans. We humans can see it, and we can say to ourselves: ‘That’s attractive…but we’ll never get to that if we keep acting the way we have always acted. So we should change the way we are acting to move us toward that future.’
Like my daughter with her pull-ups, we often can’t do something now, even though we can envision it and we want it.
This is why we need to start change with why. Human beings have a deep, intrinsic need to know the impact of their actions. If we are going to change, we need to see the purpose of the change: what will be better if the change works? We want to see why, in the future, it will be desirable to have a new behavior. To be effective, leaders need to paint a clear, salient picture of a better future so that other people can see the vision and the impact they can create.
Starting with why is how leaders create the powerful emotions of excitement and hope. Excitement is a positive, energizing emotion that is full of optimism about the future. Hope is that feeling that things can get better, even though there is not yet evidence that it will work. Hope — and not hype — is so important when it comes to change, and when it comes to resilience and stamina in the face of struggle. This is why purpose is so important — our story about why has huge effects on our behaviors and the results that we create. Both philosophy and empirical research suggest that a strong sense of why helps people stick with it when the going gets hard.
Because the path to that future is not a nice, steady march towards better. As we say with my daughter’s pull-ups, and writing with our other hand, it is not as though we just need to try it and each day things will be better than yesterday. Because when it comes to change, things get harder and less comfortable before they get easier. Things go slower, things are less predictable, behaviors feel awkward and uncomfortable.
We need to struggle with new approaches in order to make them our own.
Remember: this struggle is not you resisting the change. This is not a psychology issue, where motivation is low. This is a biology issue, where you need to build tissue. Neuroplasticity is real, but the plasticity comes from practice as you build muscle memory and comfort with a new approach.
It is not possible to forego this struggle of practice as we make the new behavior our own. At least, it is not possible for now. Maybe somehow, someday, we will invent a new approach like in The Matrix where Neo downloads the judo knowledge, and then he knows how to do it. But we are not there yet, and for now we still need to practice and learn new behaviors in order to make them our own.
But there is a bit of magic you need to know about, when it comes to change. It is not possible to skip the struggle, but it is possible to change the way you interpret the struggle. The way we interpret the struggle of change makes all the difference.
For example, let’s assume that your leader DID convince you that you were going to need to learn to write with your other hand. Not just because the organization needed that behavior, but also because your own relevance in the field would be improved if you learned to write with your other hand. I know this is not likely, but assume for a minute you were convinced.
Now, imagine if your leader said to you: “Even though we see how much better this will be once we get it, it’s not going to be easy getting it. We’ve been writing the old way for a long time. So we need to accept that it is going to take practice to become fluent with the new approach. Personally, I need to accept that it will take a while to get this right, and you are not going to be able to hit all your existing targets and KPIs as we learn the new approach. But this change is so important that it is worth it to get better.”
This brings us to step two in the change model.
2. Internalise the learning mindset
The struggle that we experience during change means we are practicing, learning, and getting stronger. These are key words in a learning mindset. Yes, it will be a struggle as we make the new approach our own. There’s no avoiding it — that’s the biology of how the brain works. And that feeling of struggle is good news, because the practice is the only way we will improve. The struggle is a sign that we are practicing and learning. It is not only acceptable, it is necessary. The discomfort means we are making progress. Just like it can be frustrating and even painful, to try to do pull-ups (or code in a new language, or talk to an audience without a written speech), it is repeated practice that builds the muscle.
If your leader approached a change situation with this learning mindset, do you think that you could learn to write with your other hand?
Sure you could. In fact, it happens every day. Terrible things happen to nice people, they lose their arm in an auto accident, or lose their hand in a wood chipping machine, or a mine explosion. All of these people will learn to write with their other hand. It probably will take about two months with steady practice. If you lost both hands, you can write with your feet. The practice is more important than the appendage.
About 30 years of solid empirical evidence make it clear that when we use a learning mindset, we are more likely to persevere as we make the new behavior our own. Thank you Carol Dweck, Professor at Stanford who developed most of these ideas around mindset. Because when we interpret the struggle as practice, we stick with it and we rehearse our way through it. It’s the only way to get our brains to do their plastic thing. Building the mental muscle is the only route to developing skill and confidence in a new behavior, a new approach.
Unfortunately, that is not how many leaders approach the struggle of change.
When change is needed, many leaders instead say things like: “Listen, we need to make a big change in how you’re doing things. I don’t really have time to go into all the reasons and history on this thing — this is just something we need to start doing.” (Notice: not starting with why).
He or she continues: “Now, I’d love to say we have months and months to make this change, but we don’t — this needed to happen months ago, and we’re behind the curve already. So it has to happen immediately. And you know as well as I do that these are tough, belt-tightening times. We can’t add headcount and all of our existing responsibilities are still there. This change needs to come on top of all your usual activities — you need to hit your existing KPIs that already push you to the limit.”
And then the pièce de résistance: “And, I don’t want any mistakes. We can’t afford to mess up on this — it needs to be a seamless transition. No errors! The bus is leaving the station and I don’t want any resistance with this — you’re either on the bus or off the bus.”
What are the key words and ideas here? This leader is coding the struggle as messing up, mistakes, error. This is called an achievement mindset — where the most important thing is getting it right and hitting all the existing targets on time. The struggle — which we know is necessary for learning and change – has become a problem. Struggle has become failure. And when things go slower, which is necessary for learning, then employees will miss their KPIs and be punished. They will be less like to get their bonuses, promotions, and status.
An achievement mindset sounds really good to most leaders. But it is a problem during change because when people adopt an achievement mindset they punish learning. When things don’t go perfectly and predictably — which they never will, even practicing easy changes like writing with your other hand — it is coded as mistakes and failure.
Three decades of evidence show us that an achievement mindset to change makes us more likely to revert to our old habits. This also is common sense: If you are punished for learning, then you will stop learning and just do what you know works. When the leader is not looking, people stop writing with their other hand and go back to writing the normal way. Why? Because it goes faster, looks better, feels more comfortable, and I get my bonus.
But what does reverting imply about change? It means that we stop practicing the new behavior. We don’t build the neurons that let the brain do its plasticity thing. And since the only way to be confident in the new behavior is practicing through the struggle, we never make the new behavior our own.
This is why three months after the ‘change offsite’ — just as the memories of the kick-off are fading — the change has not happened. It has not stuck. Ironically, achievement mindset leaders often misperceive practice and mislabel it as ‘employee resistance to change’, even though it was them who sabotaged the change in the first place.
The effects of a learning mindset is a true fact of biology. However, many leaders still don’t buy it. They say “Yes, that sounds really nice, but you don’t understand my business world. In my company, we really DO have to get it right. We actually CAN’T afford mistakes during our change.”
This is like trying to build an airplane but not believing in gravity. If you didn’t believe in gravity, and then designed an airplane, it probably would not fly. Because, in fact, there is gravity, your delusion would ensure that you build a shitty plane.
This is how it is with growth mindset: if you don’t believe that the brain is a muscle, and that practice strengthens muscle, then you are delusional about reality. Denial and ignorance don’t change the way the brain works. Some things are true even if you don’t want them to be. The biology of how people build new competence is the same.
Designing a change plan without a growth mindset will ensure you build a change plan that won’t fly.
3. Build a safe playground
I like to play guitar when I can make the time. It’s funny, but I intentionally try to learn hard songs. Recently I learned Girl From Ipanema: lots of difficult, irregular chords and so many chord changes! A real struggle to learn it. I say it’s funny because, when it’s a hobby, many of us seem to pursue difficulty and challenge. We chase the struggle of learning. Same thing when by daughter and I are bouldering: we intentionally choose difficult climbing routes that we know we probably can’t do. In hobbies, we push ourselves to get better. Trying and almost succeeding is what creates the excitement. This is the growth mindset in action. The struggle of learning and getting better is exciting and interesting. It’s no fun to keep doing what you already can do well.
In low-risk settings, learning seems fun. This is called intrinsic motivation – we want to get better and learn, not for a raise or a bonus, but because it is exciting and we’re curious to see if we can do it. Intrinsic motivation is really powerful during change, in part because it makes us resilient and in part because it unleashes our creativity. Why is it different with organizational change? We push ourselves to learn with our hobbies because we are not risking punishment — a poor performance evaluation, a lost promotion, a missed bonus, a lost job. This is extrinsic motivation — playing not to lose.
What if changes and learning at work felt intrinsic? What if the emotions employees felt during a change were closer to a hobby (curiosity, excitement) instead of anxiety and fear? Would play work better or worse, for the organization?
Well, nothing communicates ‘growth mindset’ better than a psychologically-safe place where people can struggle and play around with the new behaviors. Amy Edmondson, professor at Harvard Business School, defined psychological safety as the degree to which employees feel comfortable taking risks and learning. A workplace with psychological safety means that, while we are learning and practicing, the normal evaluations are taken away. We can struggle without worrying about measurements, KPIs, punishment, and rewards.
According to neuroscientists Jason Wright and Jaak Panksepp, experimental safe zones activate the ‘seeking system’ part of our brains. As I describe in Alive at Work, the seeking system is what urges us to experiment, explore, and play. It uses the neurotransmitter dopamine to make us curious, excited, and enthusiastic. Play promotes the ‘emotional resilience’ that is needed to persevere through the struggle of change. To get people to change their mindsets and their behaviors, you need to diminish their negative emotions. To learn new behaviors, we need to experiment with something new.
Unfortunately, when it comes to change lots of leaders endorse ‘burning platforms’ — which essentially refers to creating anxiety and scaring employees. Many leaders ‘manufacture crisis’ to make the status quo seem even scarier than the changes. I guess the idea is that this helps overcome employee resistance to change. For many leaders, anxiety and fear are go-to emotions when trying to get employees to accept change.
Biologically, that’s not how our brains work. The positive emotions that emerge from the seeking system — excitement, curiosity, enthusiasm — don’t just feel good, they help us adapt and learn. Decades of empirical evidence show that positive emotions facilitate innovation and creative problem solving. When employees experience excitement, they are more able to organize ideas in different ways, and try on alternative cognitive perspectives. An anxious workforce isn’t good for anyone, when learning is needed. When people frame a task as a performance situation, it triggers anxiety and they become more risk averse. They become less willing to persist than people who frame the same task as a learning situation, and trigger curiosity.
So after people (1) believe in the purpose of the change, and (2) have adopted a growth mindset to frame the change, the third step in the model is to build a playground where people can play, experiment, practice, and learn without fear of punishment. Of course, you don’t need to call it a playground if you don’t like that image — call it a simulation center, or role play, or a sandbox, or a pilot. The important thing is to create a safe place by removing the evaluation, so that people can familiarize themselves and play around with the new approach.
I can remember when I taught my other daughter to ride her bike. We didn’t start on a highway, with cars zooming by at 40 or 50 miles per hour. That obviously would be crazy, because of course she’s going to crash. She’s not going to magically know how to ride a bike by seeing a PowerPoint about pedalling and strategizing about balance. Just like an employee is not going to know about agile programming by hearing about it at an offsite. We have to fall down and figure it out, and make it our own. So, my daughter started in a safe place: a grassy field with a gentle downward slope.
We know this instinctively, when it comes to helping kids ride a bike. We know things don’t go perfect the first time we try them. We expect practice as part of learning. But sometimes I think when we become leaders, we get lobotomized with short-termism. Because as leaders we are responsible for quarterly or weekly results and targets, we think that somehow changes the biology of learning. We think that people should know how to do it right away, because we showed them a PowerPoint deck and financial projections.
Think of the playground as your investment in learning and change. For example, in Alive at Work I describe an Italian white goods facility needed to reduce defects by moving toward lean manufacturing, they shut down one of the three production lines for a month. Consultants spent several days teaching the assembly workers four basic elements of lean. For each element, employees spent time building Lego cars the old way (for example, push-not-pull) and then the new way (pull-not-push). Mistakes didn’t matter because workers practiced with Lego cars, not cooktops that needed to ship. After a week, the workers developed and proposed a plan for how the Lean elements would affect their own work. They then played around with actual production using the new approach for a week, still without evaluations, rewards, or punishments.
4. Celebrate early wins
The fourth step in the change model is easy to understand but can be hard to do. The idea is to catch people as they are starting to make some progress, and are getting some traction through the struggle. Catching people making early progress means that you need to be on the lookout. This means you should have a sense of how long people should have to struggle and explore before it start paying off.
Ideally you would start using new measures of the desired effect or outcomes of the new approach. These new measures can not only help capture early wins, they can help focus employees on the outcomes. This can be difficult, because now more than ever leaders often don’t know what the right approach is. Leaders often have to rely on employees going through the change in order to find the best methods and solve problems. So, it can be hard for leaders to know when these ‘early wins’ might occur, or even what they might be.
Sometimes celebrating the early wins are easy. For example, back when social media was starting to get big, KLM Royal Dutch Airlines tried a three-week experiment. Leaders created a small budget for experimenting, and a small group of employees volunteered to try and make an impact using social media. They decided to buy personal gifts for passengers who tweeted about KLM or checked in using Four Square. Their experiment went viral: KLM’s Twitter feed was viewed more than one million times in three weeks (these were, after all, social media savvy customers they gave gifts to). KLM celebrated these employees and even created a film about them making their magic with passengers. The employees who volunteered were felt like heroes for investing their time, which not only made them feel good but got many other employees interested in joining the movement.
Why is it so important to celebrate early progress? Because learning can feel like failure in the middle of the struggle. Feelings of uncertainty can easily slip into negativity as we struggle with a new approach or skill. For example, back to teaching my daughter to ride her bike. When we took the training wheels off, I held the back of the seat as she pedaled. At first, it felt like I was holding up most of her weight. I could feel her weight flopping from side to side. That’s because the concept of balance, like many ideas, is ‘tacit’ — you can talk about it and think about it, but you can’t really understand it until you try it yourself. After we practiced that way for a while, I could tell she was starting to get the hang of it. So I said keep pedalling, and I let her go. She pedalled once around, and then twice, and then crashed. And when she crashed, her negative emotions flared. She lashed out at me: “I told you it doesn’t work!” She kicked the bike. The negative emotions have a way of blazing up and dominating when learning feels like failure.
This is a pivotal moment for leaders. It’s critical to help people remember the learning journey: “Nobody ever rode a bike without crashing a few times. You didn’t walked before you fell a bunch of times.”
And it’s important to point to the early wins: “But look where you are right now, and look where I am! You’re the whole way over there, and I didn’t help you. You did that! You rode your bike, now we just need to get you riding farther.” Embarrassment and anger can dissolve into pride when you can look at the early wins.
Consider a sales organization that moved from product-based sales to consultative sales. When trying the new approach, award-winning salespeople were walking out of clients’ offices without sales that they could have nailed just a month ago using the old approach. They feel wrongfooted by the new approach to sales, because it led to the client asked them questions they didn’t have answers to. They felt unprepared and unprofessional. At that moment of their struggle, they have evidence that the new approach is not working. It is messing them up. It’s a critical moment. It is powerful to remind the salespeople about the playground: how this learning comes at no risk to them personally. And it’s powerful to help the employee see how the clients’ question revealed a hole in the company’s offerings. The hole could now be addressed, and then they could go back with not only an answer, but a custom solution to the clients’ problem. The client’s question showed a way to a two-way dialogue that in the past has been one-way pitch.
5. Build on momentum
When it comes to change, it is easy to declare victory and go home once you’ve made a little progress. Once a team has worked through the high-investment, high-emotion journey of the struggle, and they reach some early wins, it is tempting to ease back into old routines. Comfort zones are…well…comfortable. They have a way of luring us back into habit, especially after a period of uncertainty.
The last stage in the mindset model of change is to double down on the change, and make it even more substantial. The goal is to embed the new way of acting deeper into the way that the team works, and how the organization operates.
At KLM, for example, after celebrating the early wins with its ‘KLM rewards’ experiment, the company doubled down on its initial investment into social media. They created a full-time ‘social media team’ that found a way to allow passengers to select their seats based on who would be sitting next to them. They started scanning social media after each flight in each airport to find out if anyone left items behind (books, or iphones, or children’s teddy bears), so they could return the lost items while passengers were still in the airport. By building on momemtum, KLM’s experiments with social media became increasingly connected to tech-savvy customers. KLM now has 150 social media customer service agents who generate $25 million in annual revenue, and the company is regularly voted as the most social media-relevant airline. 34 KLM recently was recognized for its digital presence with six Webby Awards — known as the Oscars of the internet.
At the London Business School, we were most comfortable with classroom teaching. Before COVID changed everything about teaching, a few years ago we started small, focusing on digital education with short videos for our executive education clients. It may sounds easy, but simply talking to a camera, and trying multiple takes of teaching a point, are big changes for professors who are used to working with the energy and dynamics of a full classroom. And condensing hours of materials into 10-15 minutes of the most vital messages can be very frustrating. Nevertheless, a few of professors developed some short digital assets to accompany our ‘regular in-class executive teaching’. We got good early feedback from the clients— we learned that our short video clips helped remind clients of what they learned when they were in London.
So, the school created an even larger budget where some of us recorded short talks about our books in a more professional studio. These shorts included some animation and special effects. Then, we started to move digital teaching into the MBA program, experimenting with recording whole class sessions with multiple camera angles and with student interactions. We tried to bring in apps that worked alongside our videos to help students put the ideas to work immediately. To try and enlist more professors, the school asked professors who had created digital assets to talk with the wider group of faculty about what worked well, and what to avoid. Now that COVID has made these approaches into necessity, we all wish we’d gotten started a lot earlier. But we also are glad we made some early investments, and today we are scaling what we learned much more than we dreamed.
The point is that after trying something difficult, and then feeling accomplishment (‘We did it!’), it is tempting to go back to business as usual. In both the KLM and London Business School examples, we saw organizations and employees building on momentum, investing even more in a new direction. For change to stick, it needs to become increasingly embedded into ‘the way we do things around here’.
Go try it out
Because it is based on facts and science, the mindset model of change will help you embed change with your team, and your organization. But the model is much more important than that. The mindset of change goes to the core of how each of us pursue our potential; the impact we are capable of making while we are alive.
Our lives can be viewed as a series of these change cycles — from grade school to university to our first job to starting a family, to a big promotion. In each cycle, we go from being inspired by what is possible (for example, ‘I want to get a masters degree in a field I love’), to working through the struggle (‘I worry that I can’t learn fast enough.’), then after practicing and learning we observe some the early wins (‘Maybe I can do it!’). And finally we find we have embedded a new competence into our selves (‘I can’t remember why I thought it was hard.’). This cycle is what life is. If we are lucky, we get to go through about 30 of these cycles.
That may sound harsh, but the real problem is that some of us die inside after 15 of these cycles. We die inside because we stop growing. Due to an achievement orientation through life, and our increasing fear of not getting things perfect, our anxiety about ‘messing up’, stops many of us from trying new things. So we stop learning. And even worse, we teach our achievement mindset to our children. We expect perfection from our kids rather than learning. Instead, we should be modelling how the struggle of learning is the most valuable skill of all, the only relevant thing to learn in a world that changes often and fast.
The mindset model of change will help you as a leader. But it also helps us personally, as we pursue the living in life.