Blind Spots ~ Getting Past Our Fixed Mindsets

When I consider my past, I’m amazed at what I just did not see.  I wonder – what was I thinking at the time?
Experience is not only a great teacher in the moment, but it gives us a context that changes our perception going forward.  Once you know what you know – about your own behavior, a job, a friend, a leader; you simply do not see things in the same way.  While we may attempt to suppress what we knowonce we know, denial becomes a much harder emotional challenge.
But what about now?
What can’t we see – and why can’t we see it?
How can we expand our perspective – and consequently our behavioral choices if we don’t know what we don’t know?
And what do we know about – not knowing?


Let’s begin with what we learned. Very few of us learned through the gifts of self-inquiry. By self-inquiry I mean the talent to take the external world presented to us, question it and then make our own personal choice.  For most of us experience just happened to us, brought about by the events surrounding us.  Our parents moved us to another city, or got divorced.  We had a wonderful teacher who inspired or a dud who made the 7th grade miserable.  It’s not the natural progression of most children to seek out an internal life and unless we’re taught introspective methods when we’re young, we’re likely to stick with the same patterns of learning as we age.
Einstein famously said, “The important thing is to not stop questioning – curiosity has its own reason for existing.”  Although education, like most other institutions, is in transition, most of us were educated in highly passive learning systems.  Core skills like self-inquiry, self-direction and self-management were considered heretical to the norms of our antiquated educational systems.  These skills which are key factors in developing critical thought have always posed threats to norms, to the safe and the orthodox.
Early development of these critical core thinking skills lead to what Carol Dweck, author of Mindset and a professor of psychology at Columbia University calls a “growth mindset.”  Dweck’s research shows that people break down into two basic psychological mindsets: fixed and growth. Those with fixed mindsets tend to think that basic abilities and talents are fixed traits. They are less curious, less interested in learning and more reluctant to make mistakes. Those with growth mindsets, on the other hand, are more willing to take risks and learn new things.  Dweck believes they are more resilient as a result.
The fixed mindset thinker tends to rely on the tried and true – even if it’s not working.  Learning is static – a fixed thinker often sees themselves as a finished product.  The fixed mindset is usually averse to change and the emotional world is kept hidden.
According to Dweck, Mindsets frame the running account that’s taking place in people’s heads. They guide the whole interpretation process. The fixed mindset creates an internal monologue that is focused on judging.  This means, I’m a loser or I’m a better person than they are.” Dweck adds that “the person with the growth mindset is also constantly monitoring what is going on, but their internal monologue is not about judging themselves and others in this way. They’re attuned to implications for learning and constructive action. What can I learn from this? How can I improve?”
There’s a conflicting tension in Western culture between the drive for intellectual prowess and near disdain for internal inquiry.  We are, often confused about what lies beneath our surface. And often reluctant to allow others to think that we don’t know what we don’t know.   It’s one reason stagnation is commonplace in today’s professional institutions and business organizations.  We’re top heavy with fixed mindsets that are preventing us from addressing many of the serious structural problems facing society.
A study from Stanford surveyed more than 200 CEO’s, board directors and senior directors of public and private companies in North America and found that almost 66% of CEO’s get no coaching or leadership advice from outside consultants. What’s really interesting is that the same poll showed that a full 100% of bosses say they would be receptive to making changes based on feedback.
The compelling question is – what stops them? Blind spots?
In a recent Harvard Business Review article, Is Bias Fixable? Author Nilofer Merchant wrote, “Innovation isn’t an idea problem, but rather a recognition problem; a lack of noticing the good ideas already there. To see and be seen is essential to finding solutions for all of us. Now “noticing” doesn’t seem like an especially hard thing to do, but – let’s be real – it is. That’s because of bias. Bias is shaped by broader culture – something is perceived as true – and this it prevents you from neutrally seeing. Recognizing bias is simply recognizing that you are not impartial – you prescreen by seeing what you expect to see.”

Walls of Protection

While there are many forces that coalesce to form a fixed or flexible mindset, beliefs are at the core.  Think of beliefs as Walls of Protection. Constructed mostly from early experiences and reinforced by culture and habit over time, they are the bedrock of all mindsets.
We adopt most beliefs from our parents and caregivers that harden into a world view. Our perceptions are filtered through these beliefs.  Beliefs are formed and reinforced in the service of our needs – the need for love, safety and affiliation being the foundation upon which other beliefs are built.  These walls of protection can only offer superficial relief.  They can never satisfy the real need beneath so in a sense we become prisoners of our beliefs.  Blind spots are covers for those unmet needs.
Physicist Leonard Mlodinow, author of  Subliminal: How Your Unconscious Mind Rules Your Behavior writes, All of our social perceptions that seem real are made of data from our past experiences, beliefs, expectations and even desires.  They are not a direct result of what we experience but rather are constructed by our minds.”

Exploring Blind Spots

So how can we see what we can’t see?  If we wait till experience happens to us, we may never recognize or understand how blind spots are shaping our lives.
We’ve got to actively seek where the blind spots are and how they work.  If they’re “blind” it’s safe to assume they are serving to keep us away old wounds or unexplored fears.
Here are some places to look:

  • Over-reliance on rationality. First we have to clearly define what we mean by being “rational.” Emotional intelligence is a balance of drawing upon our intellectual and emotional wisdom for guidance.
  • Stuck in the mind-body split. We don’t understand the difference between the mind and the brain and still try to compartmentalize rather than integrate parts of our experience.
  • Short-term fixations.  Work, money, relationships, instant gratification – they come in many forms and often mask deeper unmet needs
  • Chronic gap between intention and action. Has the words – avoidance – written all over it.  Look for blind spots here.
  • Need to control. It doesn’t matter what it is. It could simply be the need to control a conversation. The need to control is a sign of a fixed mindset trying to hold on to power that is, of course, an illusion.
  • Weak relational skills.  This blind spot often reflects a more self-serving nature or fears associated with dealing with others.  Social neuroscience is called that precisely because our brains are social.  We don’t live in isolation and some of us spend little time learning to develop our so-called “people skills.”
  • Over-reliance on the past.  The past is a rich resource for learning about our experience, but too many of us chart our course solely based on what we did in the past.
  • Lack of vision for the future – it’s been said that we spend most of our time thinking about the past or the future, but I am often surprised at how little visioning people do of the future they would like.  While a clear and positive vision of the future must be tempered by the realities of change and uncertainty, we often get “pushed by pain rather than pulled by vision” in moving forward.
  • Intolerance of the unknown. Another reason we keep ourselves in the shadows of our blind spots is an inability to tolerate uncertainty.  Some of us are very reluctant to admit there is a LOT we don’t know.  Many people have a bias towards knowing. They can’t imagine practicing what the Buddhists call a “beginner’s” or “don’t know” mind.  Maybe because admission of not-knowing appears weak or stupid – or vulnerable – and most important – out of control.  There’s great freedom is adopting a “beginner’s mind.” Suzuki Roshi said, “A beginner’s mind is wide open and questioning. An expert’s mind is closed.” Don’t know mind” gives us a vibrancy and flexibility to the world we live in.  In many ways, the beginner’s mind is the ultimate growth mindset because it is always ready, willing and eager to see the world afresh.

Our blind spots can have a deep negative impact on the quality of our lives. Every part of life is touched by them.  The more that we uncover our blind spots, the richer our experience becomes.  We grow more confident, resilient and patient – especially with ourselves. Our relationships get more balanced. Our organizations get healthier. And our cultures have more equanimity.
Dissolving blind spots isn’t easy. It takes commitment.  You’ll move out of the shadows and into the light and find yourself saying less of “what was I thinking.”
Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment, subscribe, share, like and tweet this article. It’s appreciated.
Louise Altman, Partner, Intentional Communication Consultants
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Related Articles: Question the Answers: Using Critical Thinking to Change Workplace Dynamics. The Voice Inside Your Head: What’s Your Work Narrative? Anxiety and the Quest for Certainty

photo credit:  I.Gouss  flickr

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