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I’m wary of fads or help-yourself-models that promise to change one’s life substantially. However, sometimes these self-help suggestions (or parts of them) include strategies or ideas that resonate with me as they do with most people, and it’s more about the way the suggestions are packaged (a “one size fits all” suite on offer) that is off-putting. One such eye-catching suggestion was presented in an article that I read a little while ago: that of culturing a growth mindset over a fixed mindset. The article summarized the work of Stanfords’ Dr Carol Dweck, a psychologist who is interested in the potential that our belief systems have to contribute to our success.

The reason this particular idea sparked my interest is because over the past year or so, I’ve been thinking about what learning really means in both my personal and professional capacity and have been exposed to a number of concepts that seem to point in the same direction (those who have read my other blogs will recognize the sentiment that follows): things are complex and as a result, it’s okay to admit that we don’t know everything. This position necessitates humility and constant reflection to be sure we really are learning and trying to move things forward authentically instead of manipulating our words to create narratives that suit the needs of others, be it our peers in our personal lives or some kind of auditing body (e.g. funders) in the research and development professional world. Often, we too prefer to tell ourselves a narrative that presents us in a more appealing light instead of being completely honest with ourselves about areas of our lives that need work.

The article I read led me to a few other articles on the same topic of the growth mindset, and how this concept has become somewhat of a revolution in scientific research. The idea is rather simple: let’s move away from trying to prove and present an idea of ourselves, and focus on what we are really doing. Dweck writes: I’ve seen so many people with this one consuming goal of proving themselves — in the classroom, in their careers, and in their relationships. Every situation calls for a confirmation of their intelligence, personality, or character. Every situation is evaluated: Will I succeed or fail? Will I look smart or dumb? Will I be accepted or rejected?

The fixed mindset, which seems to still dominate the world despite suggestions of the growth revolution, has been shaped by many variables, from global pressures related to development and economic growth, through to national scale policy and budget cycles, and down to organisational expectations and personal pride. We have viewed the world as a complicated space, with issues that can be solved through detailed plans and strategies that include long-term targets, and we endeavour, above all else, to achieve these targets. This attitude doesn’t provide much room for creativity and hinders the development and application of a context-specific and relevant approach to problem solving and moving forward.

To quote Maria Popova, authoress of the article that originally sparked my particular chain of thoughts on the growth mindset: At the heart of what makes the “growth mindset” so winsome, Dweck found, is that it creates a passion for learning rather than a hunger for approval. Its hallmark is the conviction that human qualities like intelligence and creativity… can be cultivated through effort and deliberate practice. Not only are people with this mindset not discouraged by failure, but they don’t actually see themselves as failing in those situations, they see themselves as learning.

I am fortunate to be working with a team of particularly humble and inquisitive people in the FRACTAL project, and the sentiments of the growth mindset have somewhat laid the foundation for our objectives. This foundation is something along the lines of: climate scientists can’t provide all the answers when dealing with the complex issue of climate-related changes, especially in a complex setting of urban development on the complex continent of Africa. Scientists need to work together with government officials and other practitioners, bringing together different types of knowledge in an honest manner to co-produce knowledge that will hopefully influence policy, decisions and resilient development in southern African cities. The questions need to be articulated at the beginning of the co-production process with all the aforementioned people, and iteratively revisited with these stakeholders to produce an answer that will contribute to solving the climate-related and development problems that we face. This iterative and humble approach is also being fostered within the FRACTAL team to be sure we reflect and honestly capture lessons learned that will positively benefit this project and others going forward.

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