“I was in graduate school then. And I was incredibly self-conscious.  You know, you’re really worried about are you — what you — is it good?  When you go to graduate school, you kind of leave behind a lot of things that you’ve shored up a tiny bit of confidence with.” 

Visual Artist Ann Hamilton

Completing a master’s degree in conference interpreting is difficult. Before beginning, I thought it might be—as my father later termed it—a medium-sized leap. One of those necessary lies you tell yourself in order to try to do anything at all? It turns out that said leap’s proportions were much vaster than I cared to think about. And I keep falling short.

Wait. Let me rephrase that. Doing the master’s program in itself is not actually so difficult. What’s difficult for me—and most likely for others around me—is functioning with the mindset I’ve had while on this adventure: namely that there is some level of interpreter out there that can be called “good” and that I’m not it. Researcher Heidi Grant calls this the “be good mindset.”

And most of us, she says, have been living our whole lives with this mindset.

And I want to point out that there is nothing inherently wrong with this mindset. But the studies show that it’s just not very helpful when confronting challenges and setbacks. Challenges such as a six-minute simultaneous about economics in France—of which you know nothing about, but feel that you should—and you’re watching yourself sink in your leaky boat of a second language and end up there on the ocean floor wildly oscillating between “I’m not cut out for this” and “I just don’t give a damn.”

See what I mean?  Not a very helpful approach.

But what if it’s true? What if I’m not cut out for this? What if I don’t have the talent? What if I’m wasting my time on this long, embarrassing ride in which I never pull into the garage of that mythical palace with the big sign that spells out in rhinestones “welcome good and qualified interpreter, you’ve made it!” Who defines that place anyway?

Well that’s exactly it. In my long held tradition of “be good” thinking, there is a genetic lottery to be won which makes me smart, talented, or creative. And so my job is to demonstrate my skills and prove to the world that I can cut the mustard. As a consequence I have a equally long tradition of comparing myself to others. And this is inevitable within the “be good mindset” because, as Heidi points out, when one identifies as smart, intelligent, or talented; implicit in this is that we are smart-er, more intelligent, more talented than others. And so it follows, that whether we succeed or fail is a reflection on ourselves and our worth as people.

Quite paralyzing, no? The stakes are high.

Most of us, including myself until yesterday, are not entirely conscious of this mindset. Or we label it as “having high standards,” “being a realist,” “being a high achiever” and then the corresponding “good” or “bad” that we associate with said conceptions of ourselves.

But there is an alternative. The “get better” mindset. In the “get better” mindset, the goal is not to reach some level of good but rather to improve. Here I compare myself to myself. I ask, “how’s it going compared to a year ago?” Besides being much less painful, the research shows that those who engage in this mindset have much better outcomes when the going gets tough.

As anyone who has fought their way through a good dose of therapy knows, changing a mindset is not easy. But a first step is re-working our goals in order to incorporate language that triggers a “get-better” mindset. This includes terms such as improve, progress, develop, become, grow.

So instead of: “I want to be an excellent conference interpreter,” or “I want to be able to have a second language that’s good enough to work into in a conference setting” (there are so many things that don’t work for me in that last sentence—I mean, as if one can “have” a language…) How about: “I’d like to develop conference interpreting techniques” or “I’d like to improve my conference register and associated vocabulary.”

So often we hear, “You just have to believe that you can!” No. That train keeps pulling out of the station before I can jump on. But believing that I can improve on the existing? That I can do. As a card carrying member of a society that prescribes maximum achievement and excellence as the only way to heaven, it pays to take a moment to lower those standards. Or maybe re-frame them.

Let us take a cue from my Dominican friends who meet any version of the question “How’s it going?” with a concise, “Better.”

Afterword: Heidi Grant does an incredible job of explaining the research behind these two mindsets. Watch her full presentation from 99u.com below.

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