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The Pen, the Throw, and the Mindset

Hello,


In August of 2005, my husband, Howard, accidentally left a ballpoint pen in his pocket and it went through the wash. I didn’t notice this happened until I took the wash out of the dryer and there was ink all over the clothes and the machine. Though Howard is a chemist and probably could have suggested solvents to remove ink, he was at the YMCA playing basketball. My next best option was to rush to our computer with its dial-up internet to find out how to remove the ink. After all, I couldn’t do any more laundry until the dryer was cleaned lest I risk getting the ink over more clothes.


Anyone who has tried removing ink from anything knows it is incredibly difficult. Nevertheless, I tried hair spray, nail polish remover, and rubbing alcohol–just to name three. With my head immersed in the drum of the dryer, the smell of these chemicals was powerful and I thought about how Howard and I were trying to have a baby and I might be pregnant. In addition to breathing in these fumes which were probably not just harmful to me, but to our possibly unborn child, I was fuming. This was Howard’s fault. He left the pen in his pants. He should be home helping me. So, I called the YMCA and asked them to find Howard and send him home.


When he arrived, I was beside myself with anger. Most of the clothes in the load were mine and they were ruined. The pen was a cheap pen he didn’t need that he pocketed when he got his oil changed. After explaining what happened, I reminded him “And I might be pregnant and shouldn’t be breathing all of this in.”


He replied, “You’re probably not pregnant.”


That was it. The straw that broke the camel’s back. So, in a moment of utter frustration, I threw the pen.


I will never forget this interaction for two key reasons. First, as I found out a couple of weeks later, I was pregnant. Second, it was the most anticlimactic throw of all time. I do not know how to throw and didn’t release the pen when I should have so rather than flying across the room, it landed at my own feet. Epic fail.


 

This is not a story about laundry, removing ink, or marriage. This is a story about that throw and what I believe relative to nature versus nurture.


Here’s some background about how I saw myself as a child regarding physical activities. From the time I can remember until about eleven, I wanted to be a ballerina. My mom enrolled me in ballet classes starting at two or three and when I became an adolescent, I did not want to be in a leotard in front of people. I am the person who faked an asthma attack to get out of running the mile in the President’s Physical Fitness Test. I am the person who joined the volleyball team her junior and senior years so I could have a more well-rounded college application (please note–I went to such a small school that no one was ever cut from the team so the fact that I made the team did not mean I was worthy of the team). You get the gist. I am someone who was not athletic.


My husband, however, still plays organized sports. He has always seen himself as an athlete. Accordingly, with our kids, he has always played catch with them, signed them up for teams, etc. Our kids were exposed to a sports culture from the time they were born. At a conference my daughter and I attended this past summer, we were asked to share information about ourselves and Lilia spoke about being an athlete. This is not just what she does, this is a part of her identity. In fact, one of my favorite photos of Lilia is a picture of her playing catch with Howard–except in the photo, Lilia is sitting on an overturned bucket because she broke her ankle and couldn’t play catch standing up. No one needed to ask her to play catch, she wanted to. This is because of Howard. Without him, I would not have, on my own, exposed my kids to sports.



Howard sits on the sidelines at their sporting events and analyzes and critiques what everyone is doing. I sit on the sidelines at my kids’ events and marvel at their abilities. They go to a large school where kids are routinely cut from tryouts. Even so, this year I had an eighth grader who, in his second year of wrestling, was on the varsity team. I have a senior, who despite only being on the high school track team for one year (last year) is predicted to break the school’s record for the 400 hurdles. I have a daughter whose current batting average for travel softball is over .500 and she’s already had three home runs this season. I’m not bragging (okay, maybe I am just a little); I’m telling you they have skills that I do not have.



Yet, I recently had a thought…what if I had someone in my life growing up who exposed me to sports like my husband has exposed our kids? I would bet if that had been the case, I would have developed the ability to do things that I do not currently know how to do. I cannot predict how well I would have done these skills, but I have no doubt I could have learned. This is what Carol Dweck refers to as a “growth mindset.” In a post from Harvard Business Review (HBR), Dweck summed up a growth mindset in this way:


Individuals who believe their talents can be developed (through hard work, good strategies, and input from others) have a growth mindset. They tend to achieve more than those with a more fixed mindset (those who believe their talents are innate gifts). This is because they worry less about looking smart and put more energy into learning. 

This two-minute video succinctly summarizes the differences between fixed and growth mindsets.



In other words, if I have a growth mindset about throwing I would understand that while I am not yet able to throw, I always could have learned how to throw and still can. Do my kids have some level of innate talent that is likely aiding them in their athletic pursuits? Yes. At the same time, it is not just talent alone that has created their athletic prowess–it’s the exposure to the activities and the time they have invested. This is what psychologist Don Clifton, the father of Clifton Strength Finders, wrote about in his book by the same name (which is now owned by the Gallup organization). Clifton said that everyone has 34 talents but how these present themselves varies from person to person. Further, strengths are a function of both time and talent, which he calculated in this way:


Strength=Talent x Time


Here talent and time are both on a 1-5 scale.  This means that Person A who has a low score in talent (let’s say 2 out of 5) but who invests a lot of time on that talent (let’s say 5 out of 5) would have a strength score of 10.  Person B who has a high score in the same talent (let’s say 5 out of 5) who invests little to no time on that talent (let’s say 1 out of 5) would have a strength score of 5.  In this case, though Person A, despite having lower innate talent, has a higher total strength because Person A is putting in the work.


I have no idea what my innate talent is for throwing, but I know my time invested in learning how to throw is at best a 1 (the scale only goes that low, otherwise I would have given myself a 0). At best, on a scale of 1-25, my throwing strength is currently a 1/25. With a fixed mindset, that’s all I could ever hope to achieve. With a growth mindset, however, if I put in the time to learn how to throw, my score could get up to a five (talent of 1 times time of 5). While a five may still be low, it is nevertheless, five times better than my current score!


Growth and fixed mindsets impact not just our personal lives, but also our work lives. In the same HBR post, Dweck wrote, “When entire companies embrace a growth mindset, their employees report feeling far more empowered and committed; they also receive greater organizational support for collaboration and innovation. In contrast, people at primarily fixed-mindset companies report more cheating and deception among employees, presumably to gain an advantage in the talent race.” This thought-provoking video on the impact of growth and fixed mindsets in professional organizations illustrates Dweck’s point.




 

In reflection, the incident with the pen in the laundry room might seem trivial, but it served as a poignant reminder of the complexities of human nature and the interplay between innate talents and learned skills. As I stood amidst the chaos of ink-stained clothes and chemical fumes, grappling with situational frustration and my potential pregnancy, I didn’t appreciate the impact my feeble throw would have on my thinking about learning. It was a moment that encapsulated the delicate balance between nature and nurture, a theme that has continued to resonate with me so many years later.


In the end, whether it's mastering the art of throwing a ball or navigating the complexities of professional life, embracing a growth mindset offers a pathway to continuous improvement and personal fulfillment. As I continue on this journey alongside my children, I'm inspired by the potential for growth and the resilience of the human spirit, reaffirming my belief in the transformative power of nurture and the limitless possibilities that lie ahead.


~Heather


P.S. My Catch of the Week is my Uncle Elliott who passed away on March 10th. He was a father figure to me and someone who was not just a champion of me and my family–but everyone who had the privilege of crossing his path. He loved talking with me about my writing and he is the inspiration for the next book I’m working on. When Lilia played the piano and I tried to motivate her by recording videos and posting them on YouTube, Uncle Elliott was her biggest fan. That’s the man he was. He not only lit up the room, he filled it with his energy, humor, and gift of gab. An amateur magician, Uncle Elliott’s greatest magic trick was tricking us into believing he would live forever. He was someone who loved his family with his whole heart and though his illness was both sudden and brief, his legacy will be anything but.


P.P.S. Please remember to...


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