Trying Things That Scare You

Melissa Dalgleish explores why academics tend to keep doing what they're good at -- and why that can be a trap.

November 25, 2019 Domatov

I’m learning how to sew. It’s something I’ve been dying to do, but for a very long time, I was too afraid to start out of fear that I’d fail.

I blame that fear on being a former academic.

Like many academics and alt-academics, I have had to fight against having a fixed mind-set about my intelligence and abilities. You may also have that mind-set, which can hold you back from doing things that scare you -- like exploring new careers or taking professional or personal risks -- that might transform your professional (and your personal) life.

This idea comes from researcher Carol Dweck, whose book Mindset is a great introduction to the concept. It’s not a new book, and its basic points (or a corrupted version of them) have sunk into the popular consciousness, so you probably know about it even if you haven’t read it.

Dweck argues that people bring two basic mind-sets to the things they do, and often a combination of the two. The first is a growth mind-set, one that says that talent and skill are built over time and we can get better and smarter with practice. The second is a fixed mind-set, one that says that intelligence and skill are innate and cannot be changed or improved with effort.

Many, many academics have a fixed mind-set about their intelligence and their work. (I certainly do, at least some of the time.) We’ve tied our identities to being smart, to being good at our jobs. For many of us, that’s what drew us to graduate school in the first place.

And while that identity can be a powerfully positive thing for many of us, it can also be a trap. Instead of trying new things, and risking being bad at something, this mind-set keeps us doing what we know we can do well. Like, oh, I don’t know, doing research or teaching, even if we could do well -- and find rewarding -- all kind of other things.

Why do we keep doing the same old things that we know we’re good at? Because if I think that my intelligence and skill are fixed, I’m going to be more concerned about protecting my identity as a smart person (i.e., doing easy things that make me look smart) than doing new things that are going to help me grow (i.e., the hard things that I’m going to be bad at to start and might make me look less competent or skilled).

But while I might not like being bad at things, I like the person I am when I let myself be. And a growth mind-set has served me well in my career, and it certainly did in my career exploration when I was trying to figure out what to do after I got my Ph.D.

My first post-Ph.D. job was one long string of growth mind-set moments. It was my first full-time job in many years (I worked for a year between obtaining my master’s and beginning my Ph.D.), and it was a completely new role for me. I messed up. I made decisions I wouldn’t make now. I sent emails I regretted. And I just kept going.

While a fixed mind-set -- I am smart and good at things because I was born smart and good at things, and my smartness and abilities are fixed qualities -- is comfortable and safe, it’s boring. And, I know, false. I’ve gotten better at a lot of things at over time, things I value a lot, like cooking, and writing, and friendship, and antiracism, and feminism and being a good career development professional.

I’ve been doing this job for long enough that it isn’t satisfying my growth mind-set the same way anymore, and I wanted to once again challenge myself to embrace the suckitude of doing something new, to learn to get comfortable with being a beginner. To take pleasure in the process and not the product.

So, I threw myself into learning how to sew.

I took a class. I got some books out from the library. I bought fabric at thrift stores that I don’t mind mucking up, and I downloaded all kinds of free patterns. I practice every day, even if it’s just sewing a single seam.

And from the outset, I told myself that I wasn’t allowed to beat myself up if I screwed up, or wrecked something or made something that looked terrible. Yes, it's awesome when I get a finished piece of clothing that I like at the end. But it’s also great when I get something I really don’t like but have learned a bunch of new techniques -- or can feel my hands developing muscle memory.

And you know what else has happened? Developing my growth mind-set through sewing has given me the reminder I needed of the value of doing things that scare me. So I went up for a promotion at work -- and got it.

What might you accomplish in your quest for a fulfilling post-graduate school career if you’re willing to do things that scare you?


Melissa Dalgleish is a program coordinator in the Research Training Centre at the SickKids Research Institute in Toronto, the president-elect of the Graduate and Postdoctoral Development Network, and a member of the Graduate Career Consortium -- an organization providing an international voice for graduate-level career and professional development leaders.


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