Positive Psychology: The journey approach to change

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.