Mindset, Flow, and Feedback

This is part four in a four-part blog series about the psychology of self-directed learning that underpins the ZTC strategy.

Self-Doubt #3: Self-Image

Problem: “I can’t do this / I wish I could do this / I’m not that type of person.”

Solution: Understand the connection between intrinsic motivation & deliberate practice. Change your beliefs and your language.

Go-to books: Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi & Mindset by Carol Dweck.

We find the final self-doubt—self-image—at the intersection of the first two: self-motivation and talent.

Intrinsic motivation and deliberate practice are the keys to self-directing your higher education. But they can only work their magic if you believe that you’re the right “type of person.” And if you went through twelve years of public schools (as I did), I don’t think that I convinced you of that yet.

To overcome this negative self-image, I still need to show you that:

  • you’ll put in the hard work associated with deliberate practice,
  • deliberate practice is worth the effort,
  • and you’re fundamentally capable of self-directing your education.

To answer these concerns, we’ll cite three areas of research:

  • the cross-over between intrinsic motivation and deliberate practice,
  • Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s “Flow” studies, and
  • Carol Dweck’s “Mindset” studies.

First: What makes people put in the hard work associated with deliberate practice? Being inherently unpleasant, doesn’t doing DP contradict intrinsic motivation? Why on earth would you do endless violin scales or computer programming tasks or writing drills?

To be clear, I never said that doing ZTC means doing only deliberate practice. As we saw above, most people can only do 4-5 hours of DP per day before they’re wiped out. But more importantly, there’s no reason that you have to strive for world-class achievement in everything you do. There are many slower and more pleasurable ways to pursue your interests. To become fluent in the classics, for example, you could find a literature buff and ask him to give you reading and writing assignments, mini-tests, and constant feedback (the DP route). Or you could kick up your feet in a sunny field and flip through The Odyssey. Sure, you won’t be gaining proficiency nearly as quickly as you could with DP, but if your interest is casual, then that’s okay.

With that caveat aside, the answer to the “why do DP if it’s hard?” question is: DP actually builds intrinsic motivation.

Remember that intrinsic motivation requires three ingredients: autonomy, mastery, and purpose. “Mastery” is the chance to build deep competency. And DP, of course, builds deep competency. Therefore, deliberate practice and intrinsic motivation form a virtuous circle.

You can rely on yourself to put in the hard work that DP demands because, in the end, it will stoke your intrinsic motivation. Studies linking creative achievement to intrinsic motivation confirm this, as does the personal experience of anyone who felt the motivational boost that follows a successful DP activity.

Doing DP can stoke your autonomy as well. When you build competency rapidly, you move closer to a state of self-reliance, i.e. autonomy. Think of the motorcycle mechanic who apprentices himself to a more experienced mechanic (a classic DP situation) and gains a brand new technique for dissembling an engine. Not only does he reap the reward of greater mastery, but he’s now one step closer to working with motorcycles autonomously—by starting his own business, for example. (Conversely, increasing the mechanic’s autonomy would not increase his competency.) In this way, DP provides a double-whammy in intrinsic motivation gains, and this newfound motivation inspires you to continue putting in the hard work and long hours.

We’re edging into the next question: Why is DP worth the effort? Is increased skill and self-motivation all that we have to gain?

A deeper answer comes from Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the pioneer of “flow” theory and a central figure in positive psychology.

Csikszentmihalyi started his life as a painter in Hungary, fleeing to the U.S. at age 22 when Soviet tanks started rolling into the country. Now fascinated by the question of why humans oppress each other, he entered graduate school in psychology and wrote a thesis on how artists create art. As Csikszentmihalyi reported:

I was struck by how deeply [the artists] were involved in work, forgetting everything else. That state seemed so intriguing that I started also looking for it in chess players, in rock climbers, in dancers and in musicians. I expected to find substantial differences in all their activities, but people reported very similar accounts of how they felt. Then, I started looking at professions like surgery and found the same elements there—a challenge which provides clear, high goals and immediate feedback.

And thus began his study into the “flow” state, culminating in the 1993 book “Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience.”

Flow is a state of energized focus and single-minded immersion in an activity. Similar to deliberate practice, flow requires clear goals, high concentration, and immediate feedback. But unlike DP—which is hard and painful—flow feels effortless. As  Csikszentmihalyi discovered, people in flow report:

  • A loss of the feeling of self-consciousness.
  • A distorted sense of time.
  • Direct and immediate feedback (successes and failures are apparent).
  • A high sense of personal control over the situation or activity.
  • A lack of awareness of bodily needs (one can reach a point of great hunger or fatigue without realizing it).

Csikszentmihalyi discovered that, also like DP, flow requires a matching of challenge level to skill level. But flow won’t occur in a low-challenge/low-skill environment—like walking down an uneven sidewalk. This challenge might match your skill (as a walker), demand your focus, and provide immediate feedback (i.e. not falling), but it won’t put you into flow. Flow always requires high challenge and high skills.

Flow, you might say, is the ultimate intrinsic reward.

For many, flow is a spiritual experience. And this explains why DP is worth your effort: it opens the door to the flow experience. Every time you do DP you have the chance to breaking out of the grey clouds of painful effort and bask in the warm light of effortless achievement. But you can’t achieve this state without the hard, painful effort first.

So now you have two good reasons to DP: it reinforces self-motivation and it opens the door to flow. But the question remains: Are you capable of change? Now that you know the benefits of deliberate practice, will you actually do it?

As Colvin concluded in Talent is Overrated, the question of why some people put in the hard hours  of DP boils down to belief:

Do you believe that you have a choice in this matter? Do you believe that if you do the work, properly designed, with intense focus for hours a day and years on end, your performance will grow dramatically better and eventually reach the highest levels? If you believe that, then there’s at least a chance you will do the work and achieve great performance.

But if you believe that your performance is forever limited by your lack of a specific innate gift, or by a lack of general abilities at a level that you think must be necessary, then there’s no chance at all that you will do the work.

So what do you believe? Are you with me and Colvin in the belief that “great performance is not reserved for a preordained few,” or are you forever limited by your lack of an innate gift for self-motivation, talented work, IQ, or something else?

Carol Dweck of Stanford University has researched this belief extensively, concluding that individuals can either have a “growth mindset” or “fixed mindset.” (Her book, Mindset, documents her experiments extensively.)

Simply put, fixed mindset people put more stock in nature while growth mindset people put more stock in nurture. In the fixed mindset, Dweck explains, “effort is a bad thing. It, like failure, means you’re not smart or talented. If you were, you wouldn’t need effort.” In the growth mindset, however, “effort is what makes you smart or talented.”

Dweck continues to explain that “people with the growth mindset thrive when they’re stretching themselves” while people with the fixed mindset thrive when “things are safely within their grasp. If things get too challenging—when they’re not feeling smart or talented—they lose interest.”

Obviously, the growth mindset is what you need to tackle the challenge of deliberate practice. But the fixed mindset is an insidious little bug that  probably took residency in your brain years ago. So how you do you switch to a growth mindset?

Dweck suggests goal-setting, brainstorming,  and simply changing your perspective as ways to build a growth mindset.

But she hints at a more effective intervention in an experiment on feedback.

Dweck gave a few hundred early adolescent students a set of challenging problems from an IQ test. After the test, Dweck’s team gave the students two types of feedback: one praising ability (“Wow, eight out of ten, you must be really smart!”) and the other praising effort (“Wow, eight out of ten, you must have worked really hard!”). As you would guess, the team was trying to instill the fixed mindset in the first group and the growth mindset in the second group.

The results appeared immediately. When presented with a new, more difficult problem set, the ability-praised group didn’t want to participate. Why would they expose themselves to a challenge that might strip them of their “smart” label? The effort-praised group, on the other hand, welcomed the new challenge. Failure and effort can coexist, after all.

The effort-praised group also did better on the IQ test. The ability-praised group did poorly on subsequent tests, even when they went back to the easier problems. “Since this was a kind of IQ test,” Dweck observed, “you might say that praising ability lowered the students’ IQs. And that praising their effort raised them.”

If you want to build a growth mindset, it appears that surrounding yourself with a specific type of feedback is key.

Remember what we learned from Edward Deci: external motivators like bribes and threats reduce a person’s intrinsic motivation. Guess what’s also in this category? Feedback. That’s because much of the day-to-day feedback that humans give to each other focuses on labels and faults. When your boss says “you’re a dumbass,” he doesn’t help your self-motivation. This is the quintessential “ability praise” that Dweck proved futile.

But there’s an exception to this rule: positive,  constructive, and effort-focused feedback. Research shows that this kind of feedback, unlike its rude stepbrother, actually increases creativity and intrinsic motivation.

Unsurprisingly, this is also the type of feedback used by deliberate practice.

I was lucky enough to learn how to give this type of feedback as a windsurfing and climbing instructor at a wilderness summer camp. At the beginning of the summer, the camp director told me that I was only allowed to give two types of feedback to my struggling students. I could tell them:

  • What specific actions they were doing well
  • What specific actions they should try next time

That sounded simple enough. But the hard part, I quickly discovered was avoiding all the other, unhelpful feedback that I habitually gave.

I couldn’t tell campers what they did wrong (“Don’t put your hand there!”). I couldn’t give fluffy feedback (“Great effort!”). I had to deeply understand my discipline (otherwise I wouldn’t be able to give them specific advice). And I couldn’t use labels (“You’re so talented!”). Only effort, action, and details were on the table.

The feedback worked incredibly well. I had 11-year-old campers tell me that they chose to suffer through the high winds and cold waters of windsurfing class, day after day, because of my feedback. Because were learning in leaps and bounds. Only later did I realize that these kids were experience deliberate practice and flow. And my feedback was helping them push themselves.

To build a growth mindset, you can learn to give—and ask for—positive, constructive, and effort-focused feedback. You can start giving it to yourself. And you can banish (from thought and speech) its opposite: negative, unhelpful, and label-focused feedback. Doing these things is the key to unlocking the power of intrinsic motivation, deliberate practice, and flow.


Sources for this article include:

Talent is Overrated by Geoff Colvin.

Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

Mindset by Carol Dweck.



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