As a product of the human brain, writing is particularly influenced by emotions, moods, and worldviews. This post is about creating an internal environment conducive to writing.
The term mindset refers to a set of acting assumptions and attitudes that affect behavior; more broadly, a mindset is a filter through which we view the world.
Culture, surroundings, and upbringing each influence our perspectives significantly. Yet we can alter or adjust our mindset, as a photographer changes the filter on a lens.
There are two mental settings that are particularly relevant for writers:
- Fixed or growth mindset
- Abundance or scarcity mindset
These binary, A/B choices oversimplify reality. Mindsets are fleeting, changeable states. Neither setting is inherently right or wrong. We might approach a financial negotiation in one way and family relationships in another. Each decision could be appropriate for the context.
Fixed vs. Growth Mindset
How do you respond when asked to do a task that you haven’t tried before, such as creating a full-length book or a script for a video? Would you attempt it? If the result needs major reworking, how would you feel about the effort as a whole?
Your response to challenges and setbacks depends, in part, on your sense of yourself when considering the work, and whether you inhabit a fixed or growth mindset.
Carol Dweck, a professor of psychology at Stanford University, describes these alternatives in her book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. Put in basic terms, people with a fixed mindset tend to consider their talents or abilities as set, inherent parts of their beings. Those with a growth mindset believe that they can develop abilities through learning and work.
While it sounds simple, mindset can be subtler than it seems. Of course, you understand that you can learn and improve. But when faced with a challenge, you may suddenly hear the voice of the fixed mindset whispering that you are not “good at” the task and are likely to fail. Listening to this belief limits your willingness to take on challenges.
Without faith in your ability to grow, you become risk-averse. For people caught in a fixed mindset, failure damages the sense of self.
A fixed mindset is particularly dangerous when writing, as it inhibits your ability to learn from constructive feedback. You bristle at corrections or suggestions; criticism feels personal.
With a growth mindset, setbacks and criticism become learning opportunities—painful, perhaps, but necessary. You’re more likely to have a healthy relationship with editors, remaining open to feedback without seeing it as a sign of weakness.
Mindset also affects creativity. The fixed mindset shuts down exploration and discovery. You won’t want to start an outline until you have all the answers at hand; for some people, that means that the work never gets done. The risks inherent in creative leaps become too great if they endanger your sense of self.
A growth mindset leaves room for creativity. For many fiction authors, the details of a plot only develop as the story appears on paper. Stephen King describes his general approach in his excellent memoir On Writing: “I have never demanded of a set of characters that they do things my way. On the contrary, I want them to do things their way.” He discovers where the characters take the plot.
Authors with a growth mindset start researching and outlining without planning everything in advance. They learn as they proceed. They take risks, and are resilient when their efforts don’t pan out. Nonfiction authors consider the act of writing as a path to learning, deepening their understanding of a subject rather than simply reporting what they already know.
In her essay “Why I Write,” Joan Didion confesses, “I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means.” She clearly approaches her art with a growth mindset.
When you engage with the subject before you have all the answers, you may find unsuspected connections, uncover different facets of the topic, and even change the direction or structure of the piece. Although these diversions may consume more time, the resulting work is often better, and the process of writing more fulfilling.
A growth mindset transforms writing into a journey of discovery.
As a reader, I can often sense if an author is exploring the topic or simply reporting what they know. When I feel that the author’s understanding has deepened in the course of writing, I enjoy reading even more, no matter what the subject. Traveling the path together is more interesting for everyone.
Here’s the good news: while you might have a natural inclination to adopt a fixed mindset, you can change it. It isn’t hard-wired.
Abundance vs. Scarcity
The preschoolers in Walter Mischel’s study on self-control inhabited a world of marshmallow scarcity. They could not access an unlimited number of sweets, and made decisions based on the concept that the treats were a finite and precious resource. They operated with a scarcity mindset in this situation.
As adults, we can buy as many marshmallows as we can afford, subject only to limitations of money and sugar tolerance.
Basic economic theory is built on the premise of fixed resources. Businesses compete for a limited set of customers; products vie for our money or attention.
This approach can spill over into other parts of our lives, often with problematic effects. Researchers have found that merely thinking about money changes our behavior in subtle ways, making us less likely to spend time helping others, even with simple tasks.
One study in particular hit home for me: after looking at a picture of money, research subjects tended to spend less time savoring a piece of chocolate. Chocolate! This is serious, people.
Certain aspects of our lives obey the rules of a zero-sum game that can only have one winner. There are only twenty- four hours in a day, or eight pieces of pizza on that plate. But many things we value do not abide by the rules of scarcity. Love and laughter multiply when shared or given away. Ideas, likewise, tend to proliferate when exchanged.
Good ideas multiply when shared.
When we confuse products of abundance with scarce resources, everyone ends up with less. Empathy shrinks with the scarcity mindset.
Social media evangelist and author Guy Kawasaki sums up this dichotomy nicely: “There are two kinds of people: eaters and bakers. Eaters think the world is a zero-sum game: what someone else eats, they cannot eat. Bakers do not believe that the world is a zero-sum game because they can bake more and bigger pies. Everyone can eat more. People trust bakers and not eaters.”
Few of us are entirely one or the other; you may be a baker in one part of your life and an eater in another.
How can you recognize whether you’re an eater or a baker when it comes to writing? The scarcity mindset appears in limiting beliefs about your ideas, such as:
- All of the good concepts have already been written about.
- Someone might steal my ideas unless I keep them under wraps.
- I need to wait for the perfect time to write.
The more you write, the more you have to write. The process of working with ideas activates the inner Muse, and triggers abundance.
Tuning Your Mindset
You can learn to adjust mindset through practice. If you find yourself experiencing limiting thoughts about your own abilities (the fixed mindset) or your ideas (the scarcity mindset), use the following practices to train your brain to see the world differently.
Let your actions shift your mindset. The most powerful way to counter both the scarcity and fixed mindsets is to simply write, contradicting your belief with behavior. You’ve heard of the “fake it ’til you make it” strategy? The person you need to convince is yourself.
Don’t have any good ideas, or doubt your capabilities? Write anyway.
If you believe that you have a fixed number of good ideas and want to save the best ones for a later ideal time, ask yourself: Will this idea still have the same shimmer in the future? Will my brain be primed to work on it, and will I be as excited about it as I am now? The future is uncertain, but the present is at hand, so write.
Recognize your unique perspective. Yes, someone has probably already written about your subject. That doesn’t mean that the idea is “used up” and not worth pursuing. Shakespeare repurposed all kinds of earlier works for his plays, yet the results were unique and the world is grateful for them.
There are few original ideas left in the world. In the realm of fiction, most stories can be plotted onto a finite set of standard story lines. What matters is how you tell the story.
In nonfiction, the way that you share ideas matters as much as the concepts themselves.
Given the enormous complexity of the human brain, the universe of potential things to write about is abundant. If you wait for a perfect and original idea, you may never discover your unique contribution.
Resolve to learn. Whenever you encounter the fixed mindset, counter it with an active determination to learn. Read widely to fuel your brain’s connections.
Work with thoughtful editors and challenge yourself to draw broader lessons from their comments. Rather than simply fixing the issues an editor points out, look for larger trends. For example, if you repeat phrases or sentence patterns, challenge yourself to look for repetition in future drafts and explore different sentence structures, finding fresh approaches to the subject.
Do something uncomfortable. Try working outside your usual areas of expertise and see how that affects your perception of yourself.
After publishing my first book on subscription marketing, I was invited to speak at events, moderate panel discussions, conduct webinars, and do podcast interviews. For someone who had spent her life ghostwriting and working as part of a larger brand voice, this shift was daunting. Yet in each of these activities, I had a blast and met wonderful people. If I had succumbed to a fixed mindset, telling myself that I wasn’t a speaker, I would have missed out on those experiences. Growth comes through discomfort.
Challenge yourself to do something different. Pen a poem or craft a short story. Even if it never sees the light of day, the work stretches your abilities and defies the fixed mindset.
Share freely. When under the spell of a scarcity mindset, you may worry about people stealing your ideas. For most of us, obscurity is a larger threat than plagiarism. The best way to counteract the scarcity mindset is to witness the power of sharing and collaboration.
Ideas operate by the rules of abundance and tend to improve as you collaborate with others and broaden your perspective. Countless people have made this book better through discussions and shared insights.
As author Steven Johnson says in Where Good Ideas Come From, “We are often better served by connecting ideas than we are by protecting them.” Instead of spending mental energy guarding your thoughts, invest it in developing ideas.