Have you ever caught yourself being too critical of your abilities in a given area? Students in particular can be their own worst enemies. They don’t realize how powerful an influence mindset can be on day-to-day actions. In reality, what we think about ourselves and our abilities will determine what we can achieve, especially academically.
In fact, there’s evidence that, if you believe you aren’t good at standardized tests, or aren’t very good at math, your brain is actually looking for ways to reinforce that belief, so that it can put the belief on autopilot, and spend more of its energy figuring things out that it’s not sure of.
So, let’s talk about the power of thinking differently to improve your performance in class, standardized exams, or undergraduate and graduate institutions. We call this phenomenon the cycle of perpetual same-ness, which is a term and concept we borrowed from Dana Wilde, creator of the Mind-Aware brand. So-called facts and ideas that you think about yourself might very well be holding you back in ways that you don’t realize. Your thoughts may be reinforcing unsupported, mostly negative assumptions regarding your abilities that, paradoxically, your brain naturally wants to keep reinforcing, even though they negatively affect your performance. This occurs in a sequence of reinforcing steps over the course of months or years.
Step 1: It begins with an event in the actual world.
At some point, some specific event causes you to react and begin to believe something about yourself.
For example, in second grade, you do a math exercise in class and get it wrong. Immediately, you wonder if you’re “bad” at math. You look around and notice that all of your friends in class are smirking, and you have trouble following your teacher’s explanation of why your answer is wrong.
Step 2: This is followed by a reaction, and a conscious belief in your mind.
You consciously think about the situation, and conclude that you must not be good at math. Not only did you get the question wrong, the teacher tried to explain it to you, and still you couldn’t understand. It seemed clear that everyone else understood. It seems apparent that the other students had an easier time with the question. They are better at math than you.
Step 3: Eventually this belief enters your unconscious mind, and becomes part of the lens through which you view the world, affecting how you behave and reaffirming the belief.
That initial run-in with math may happen a few more times. Perhaps by chance, or perhaps because your confidence with math has eroded a bit. Eventually, you decide that yes, you aren’t good at math, and that belief slips into your unconscious mind. It is just part of who you are.
Being bad at math is a little frustrating, and uncomfortable to think about at first. But, you resign yourself to not being a math person. After all, you’ve been told we all have different talents, and people that are good at math may not be good at things in which you excel. After you come to believe that you’re just generally not good at math, your brain may try to fit its internal subconscious belief into the external world around you. So you’re going to find yourself automatically reaffirming your belief that you are bad at math again and again through behaving in a way that will endorse it (i.e., by not studying very hard or much, by avoiding difficult math problems that build math skills, etc.). The brain is trying to make sense of the world efficiently and effectively.
Why would the brain work like this?
Imagine the first time you rode a bike. Your mind was intently focused on every step of the process, putting your feet on the pedals, moving one foot forward, then the other, keeping your balance, grasping the handle bars. If you had to consciously go through all of that every time you rode a bike, it would get pretty overwhelming and you’d have trouble productively thinking about other things while riding that bike.
The way our brains work, we have to constantly take a lot of information and put it into our subconscious to make room to bring in new observations. That’s why you can easily ride a bike or drive somewhere you’ve been a million times without thinking about it. Your brain has already catalogued it into your subconscious so that you don’t have to actively think about it to make room for new things.
Why is this relevant to you or your child’s academic success? Let’s say, once again, you get a bad grade on that math test. We have the tendency to then say to ourselves, “I’m bad at math”, especially after witnessing other kids excelling. That opinion sticks with you until it becomes a fact. You do poorly on another test because of your already existing low confidence, and the cycle perpetuates itself. You need to break that cycle.
Just as you stop thinking about how to ride a bike after the first few times, you stop thinking about how badly you believe you are at math and it becomes a part of who you are. From now on, your brain rejects any thoughts that you would rather be good at math or the possibility that you could be a natural with numbers. Your brain rejects these ideas in an attempt to make your daily life easier and go about it with as little stress as possible. You continue believing that you are lousy at math because it’s effortless.
You form these beliefs early on in life, they influence your personality, your personality influences your behavior, and you grow old always ‘knowing’ you were never a math person. And, surprisingly, you’re completely comfortable with that because your brain automatically accepts it as fact due to your early experience and observations of others’ experiences around you. However, in reality, you can train your brain to behave differently by breaking that cycle. How can you do this?
There are a variety of ways to go about breaking this cycle.
Here are some options:
- Actively question your own assumptions about your abilities.
- Use positive “self-talk” in place of negative self-talk. If you catch yourself saying “I’m horrible at math” consciously stop yourself and just say “I have the potential to become much better at math than I currently think I am”
- Choose one academic area that you don’t consider a strength, and devote an extra hour per week to practicing in that area.
All you need to do is apply practice - the right kind of practice - to a new belief that you can improve your math skills, or English skills, or creative skills, or whatever it may be that you seem to lack natural talent in. It is up to you to decide whether you are going to be a math person or not.
It is up to each of us to decide where we place our passion and our focus and our hard work; don’t let your brain’s attempt at efficiency stop you from becoming great at something, or just getting generally better grades in school and higher scores on standardized tests.