Deborah Hill Cone
Deborah Hill Cone is a Herald columnist

Deborah Hill Cone: Mindset over matter trumps all

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We are not brains-on-sticks, and a simple idea could revolutionise the way we unlock our potential.
Donald Trump is the very essence of our current age of entitlement excreted into human form. Photo / AP
Donald Trump is the very essence of our current age of entitlement excreted into human form. Photo / AP

I wonder if Donald Trump is a "Brony"?

Bronies are grown men who are obsessed with My Little Pony. I know, right? Me neither.

Anywayyyyy.

When asked about his inspiration the "short-fingered vulgarian" Trump has repeatedly referred to something equally day-glo, the writings of his friend Norman Vincent Peale, author of self-help classic The Power of Positive Thinking.

Vincent Peale's advice in a nutshell: "Formulate and stamp indelibly in your mind a mental picture of yourself as succeeding. Never permit it to fade."

This book, published in 1952, spent three years on the New York Times bestseller list. It also ushered in the current age of entitlement, narcissism and psychotic ambition, which excreted the capitalist monstrosity which is Trump.

There are many things to not-like about Trump, aside from his ignorance, bigotry and stumpy digits, but here's another one. Psychologically speaking, he is behind the times. Positive thinking, as a theory, has been discredited.

Granted, I'm no expert but I just counted: I have read 58 psychology books on my Kindle since the school holidays started. That doesn't count hard copy books or library books. I've read books on PTSD, EMDR, BPD, HSPs and DBT. I've read just-released books on polyvagal theory, embodied cognition, emotional dysregulation, psychopathology, neurosculpting and how not to be a dick. I made that one up - but would like to.

The one common theme in all these mostly scholarly works was an increasing awareness that just telling ourselves positive messages does not work. Change and sustained success comes from somewhere deeper and (sorry to be bearer of bad news) it requires we embrace pain and failure.

There are many things to not-like about Trump, aside from his ignorance, bigotry and stumpy digits, but here's another one. Positive thinking, as a theory, has been discredited.

Most of the new work in neuroscience acknowledges we are not brains-on-sticks. Our bodies and minds are a two-way interaction. Our rational brain can utter positive slogans - "I'm a success" - but our bodies also communicate back to our brain and they may be telling us something else entirely - "I'm unworthy", "I'm unloveable". This happens through a network called the Vagus nerve; in hotness it's the kale-man-bun of neuroscience right now.

I'm paraphrasing here, but basically if we want to change, we need to bring to our conscious knowledge our frozen feelings, and acknowledge and process them.

This means learning to tolerate uncomfortable feelings. In Constructive Wallowing, Tina Gilbertson concedes that sometimes it is appropriate to put on a happy face, but if we do it all the time and ignore our real feelings, it is dangerous and will lead to self-sabotage. And both palms facing at you, I do realise Trump is about as likely to care about new age enlightenment as a snake is to play the violin. But this is not just woo-woo.

Stanford professor Carol Dweck, a favourite of the sort of Fortune 500 companies Trump admires, in decades of research on achievement and success has discovered a simple idea that may revolutionise the way we unlock our potential - and it is quite the opposite of talking yourself up.

Dweck identified two mindsets. In a fixed mindset, people believe their basic qualities, such as intelligence or talent, are fixed traits. These people are told they are amazing, and tell themselves they are amazing. Sound like anyone you know? They are terrified of failure, because in a fixed mindset if you fail, there is nothing much that can be done about it; ability is innate. Failure says you are not as amazing as you thought and is a cause for shame. So these people choose not to take on risks where they might fail.

The other kind of mindset is a growth mindset.

These people don't believe they are innately clever. They believe their most basic qualities, such as intelligence, can be developed through dedication and hard work. People with a growth mindset don't mind taking risks because they know they can learn from failure. After a setback, those with a growth mindset are inspired to work twice as hard. Whereas effort is not a cause for pride for someone with a fixed mindset; having to make an effort casts doubt on your talent.

I believe in time, as it becomes more widely known, Dweck's work could change the way we love and work. ("Zu lieben und zu arbeiten"; the two things that make us happy; one of the things Freud got right).

Of course, one couldn't expect Trump to understand any of this precisely because he said the following. "My IQ is one of the highest - and you all know it! Please don't feel so stupid or insecure; it's not your fault."

- NZ Herald

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