Life Is Messy

I don't like things messy. I'm sure my Mother will beg to differ on this as when I was a kid she used to compare me to Oscar the Grouch. However, I think that maybe had more to do with my pack-rat tendencies as I liked to keep just about everything.

But as an adult, mess stresses me out. I've found one thing that helps me when I'm procrastinating is to clean up – my work area, my house, a specific room. I think that's because mess makes me feel overwhelmed, like there's just too much to do. A veritable mountain to climb. If I have more space, my head feels clearer and I can get on with things.

That's all great, but there's more to this fear of messiness, I'm afraid.

I hate admitting to being a perfectionist because the perfectionist in me is afraid that people will think: She's a perfectionist? But she's no where near perfect!

But I am a perfectionist and it's not a helpful trait. It encourages procrastination and frustration. When things get really hard there's a yucky lump that suddenly appears in my throat, reminding me of how I always felt like crying when I couldn't quite understand my math homework.

There's a very good book on perfectionism, written by Tal Ben-Shahar, Ph.D., who taught one of the most popular classes at Harvard on happiness, called The Pursuit of Perfect. He discusses research done by Carol Dweck, a social psychologist and professor at Stanford University, on fixed versus growth mindsets.

A fixed mindset is the belief that our capabilities are largely set in stone and cannot be changed. For this type of person (in his definition, a perfectionist) hard work is threatening as it means that these abilities are limited. "After all, if she were gifted and talented, then she wouldn't need to work. Not wanting to appear deficient, and given her belief that nothing can be done to remedy a deficiency, she constantly feels the pressure to prove to herself and to others how smart, competent, and perfect she already is," Ben-Shahar explains.

This contrasts with a growth mindset. Instead of believing that abilities are fixed and unchangeable, a person with a growth mindset believes that we are born with certain abilities but that these are only starting points – success requires application and a great deal of effort.

Dweck did research on this concept dividing fifth graders into two groups and giving them a test of 10 fairly difficult questions. Both groups did well but were praised in different ways – the first were told something along of the lines of 'they must be really smart', but the second were told that 'they must have worked really hard'.

Then, in the second round of the study, they were asked to choose between taking a second test that was difficult, from which they would learn, and an easy test, quite similar to the one they had just taken. Ninety percent of the students who were praised for their effort chose the more difficult test, while the majority of those praised for their intelligence chose the easier one.

It gets better. In the third round, both groups were given a test that was too hard for them to solve. Those who had been told they were 'smart' found this miserable while the students who were praised for their effort actually enjoyed themselves – and performed 30% better than they had before, while the other group performed about 20% worse than in the first round.

I found this absolutely shocking. The difference that mindset can make is mind boggling (and a very good thing to know if I'm ever a parent). I'm not blaming anyone for this, but I was always told I was smart. And to this day, I have a good deal of this fixed mindset lingering around. I have this fear of being found out – the 'imposter' syndrome, I believe it's called. If I'm actually not smart like people have said to me, then what value do I have?

I do work hard, and sometimes it's for the right reasons and sometimes the wrong ones. As Ben-Shahar says, "there are, of course, people with a fixed mindset who work hard, but they are usually driven by the need to prove to themselves and to others how smart they are. It is a heavy burden to carry."

The trouble with life is that anything worth having is messy. Achievement doesn't come in a straight, linear path. Getting better from my posture/muscular imbalance problems was a lot of two-steps-forward, one-step-back. Or sometimes many steps back.

Such is true with most things in life. But hard work doesn't have to be horrible. If you view it as a journey, a process to enjoy, in which learning and developing are the main goals, it means you can have a totally different experience of it.

I still have a lot to learn and a lot of messiness to get used to.

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