Positive Psychology: The journey approach to change

Positive News

Our Positive Psychology columnist Chris Johnstone explores how a growth mindset strengthens our ability to have breakthroughs and generate positive news in our lives and the world

A book title that reassures me is The Myth of Laziness. Author Mel Levine argues that when children fail at school, it’s unlikely that laziness is the cause. More often they’re bumping into a specific difficulty that blocks progress. It’s hard for any child to stay motivated if they keep failing at something. But if you can find out what their difficulty is, and attend to that, you can often help them become re-engaged. The same is true for adults.

I find this helpful when I’m struggling. For example, I’m quite prone to procrastination. When trying to write, I often find my attention wandering. A day may pass with little progress, and I can feel guilty about being lazy or undisciplined. But that doesn’t help me. More useful is to wonder about the obstacles I’m bumping into and consider ways of addressing these. If I’m not clear what to say, then I need to review my core points; if I don’t know enough, then I need to do some research. A problem-solving approach leads to ‘if… then…’ thinking. Rather than feeling blocked and then looking for distractions, I’m opening up a pathway forward.

A lesson I take from Dr Levine’s work is that our responses to failure are powerfully influenced by the story we tell ourselves about its cause. If I see my procrastination as laziness, I’ll condemn myself for not trying hard enough. If I blame it on a lack of natural ability, I might even consider giving up. But if I see my failure to make progress as related to specific conditions that I might be able to change, then I become interested in looking for ways to do that.

“If you’ve ever felt blocked by the thought ‘I could never do that’, imagine what might happen if you refused to be held back and took the first steps”

A breakthrough with my writing came when a journalist friend told me about the stage of disbelief she experiences. “When I start writing a feature,” she said, “I often feel fidgety and distracted because my task feels impossible. But I’ve learned that if I stick with it, the words eventually flow. I just need to trust the process.” When facing a big challenge it’s easy to feel that the task is beyond us. That’s the stage of disbelief, where we don’t believe we can do it. But if we see change as a process that often moves through stages of frustration, failure and disbelief, then we’re not so put off when we encounter these. I call this perspective ‘the journey approach to change’.

Positive psychologist Carol Dweck uses the term ‘growth mindset’ to refer to this sense of change as a journey, where our efforts to move in a particular direction can cause breakthroughs to occur. Her research shows that this perspective has a profound impact on the way people view themselves and live their lives.

In her book Mindset: How You Can Fulfil your Potential, Dweck writes: “A belief that your qualities can be cultivated leads to a host of different thoughts and actions, taking you down an entirely different road.”

This ‘growth mindset’ can be applied to the challenge of creating positive news – both in our lives and in the world. If you’ve ever felt blocked by the thought “I could never do that,” imagine what might happen if you refused to be held back and took the first steps. If you don’t feel ready, how could you become so, or at least move in that direction?

While the myth of laziness leads to blame, what we need instead is encouragement, support and training that cultivates our ability to get through obstacles. Perhaps if this happened we might have even more positive news to report.

Photo credit: © Flickr member hang_in_there

  • Chris Johnstone

    I’m offering a free webinar about the journey approach to change (on April 16th 2014), followed by an eight week online training in skills that help us deepen motivation and get through obstacles (starting on May 7th). For details, see http://www.resiliencehappinesschange.com


    Chris Johnstone
    Positive Psychology columnist
    Positive News

  • Mike Wheeler

    This is all good stuff, but I do wish people would stop using the word ‘myth’ to mean simply ‘something that isn’t true’. Properly understood, myths express profound truths in symbolic, non-literal form. From this point of view, a title like “The Myth of Laziness” says the exact opposite of what the author intended!

  • Grace Savannah Thomas

    I appreciate your comment Mike but the dictionary gives three definitions of the word. The third being relevant here (see below).

    Aside from that, this is an excellent and incredibly relevant article for us all as we struggle with overload and also, for me, learning and physical disabilities which led me to be constantly labelled ‘lazy’.

    myth[ mith ]
    1. a traditional or legendary story, usually concerning some being or hero or event, with or without a determinable basis of fact or a natural explanation, especially one that is concerned with deities or demigods and explains some practice, rite, or phenomenon of nature.
    2. stories or matter of this kind: realm of myth.
    3. any invented story, idea, or concept: His account of the event is pure myth.

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  • Lexi Gsell

    I found this entry very interesting, and can relate to a lot of what’s being said. As a student, I often have found myself procrastinating when I shouldn’t be, and it’s nice to know that I’m not the only one with this kind of wandering mentality. Lately I have been attempting to improve myself both physically and mentally, and have been working on my work ethic. I have found myself thinking in a more, “If…then” way as well both about my body and my grades, and find that this promotes a healthier lifestyle. I think more people need to start relating their physical health to their mental health, because I’ve found that when one begins thinking in an “if..then” fashion about both physical and mental health, it promotes improvement in both. Thank you for voicing your opinion. This is a lot of good information to put out into a universe full of procrastinators.

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