The Axiom of Awesomeness

Everything is a skill.
Is intelligence something we are born with? Or, can we become more intelligent with hard work?  The answer is certainly a bit of both but a critical variable is our personal opinion on the matter: if you don't think you can get smarter, you won't.

In classroom settings, if students think intelligence is malleable, they are more motivated, exert greater effort, and outperform students who think intelligence is fixed trait (I'm not compensated for that link, BTW).

Unfortunately, I think the broad implications of these observations are not always appreciated.  Often, the message is that a growth mindset - an attitude that self-improvement is possible - is critical for performance by kids and in school.  However, a growth mindset is really about performance by anyone doing anything.  The real take-home message from studies like these is that a general growth mindset is a critical first step before we can become better at life.

To counter this poor messaging, I propose the following Axiom of Awesomeness.  The Axiom outlines a philosophy of growth that we must accept before we can improve.  I'll enumerate the axiom first and then will expand on each tenet.

The Axiom of Awesomeness

1. Everything we do is a skill.  
2. Every skill can be improved by deliberate practice.
3. Skill improvement through deliberate practice takes time and effort.
4. Every moment is an opportunity to practice a life skill.

OK, so that's the Axiom. Hopefully I will be able to convince you that the axiom is on-target and that it's an important cognitive framework to support becoming a rockstar.

1. Everything we do is a skill.  

While most research studying a growth mindset were focused on school performance, school performance is only one part of life.  As I've discussed before, being good at life goes way beyond an SAT score.  However, everything else we do can be considered as much a skill as test taking.  For example, staying focused on a task is a skill.  Controlling our emotions during stress is a skill.  Managing relationships is a skill.  Speaking is a skill.  Writing is a skill (one I'm struggling with right now).   Skills aren't only limited to those things we traditionally might consider skills, like playing the guitar, drawing, or taking tests.

2. Every skill can be improved by deliberate practice.

No one is born playing the guitar or knowing math or being a great public speaker or being a leader.  Even the masters in fields like these spent countless hours focused on getting better: they practiced (for an in depth analysis of this, check out Mastery by Robert Greene).  Dedicated, focused practice is essential for improvement and success.  For more on the focused part of this tenet, see this article by Cal Newport.

However, let's keep in mind the first tenet of the Axiom: everything we do is a skill.  For example, let's say I'm bad at following through on projects (something most people struggle with, I'm sure).  Well, following-through-on-projects is a skill.  That's the first tenet of the Axiom.  The second tenet of the axiom is that practice improves skills.  Thus, I need to come up with some way to practice this skill.  In my example of "following through on projects", I might select one, small project as a "fail at no cost" test-case which will allow me to work on my issue without getting discouraged.  Once I succeed at the test-case, I can set my sights on something more challenging.

3. Skill improvement through practice takes time and effort.

Ahh, but here is the tricky part: getting better takes real work!  Sorry, I know we all want someone to tell us the secret to being amazing (like this book claims).  But that's not reality and we all know it.  Improvement takes focused effort over long periods of time.  Until one has practiced something for decades one can't assume it's an impossible task.  My homunculus likes to say to me: "Stop whining like a little baby, put your big boy pants on, and get to work".

4. Every moment is an opportunity to practice a life skill.

The good news is that getting smarter, more intelligent, or better at life can happen at any moment.  We don't need to concoct some arbitrary self-improvement program that goes on our calendar.  Every moment of living is a practice opportunity.  Why?  Because life isn't easy and we aren't perfect which is a guarantee that we will always screw something up.  With the Axiom of Awesomeness in mind, these challenges morph from "this sucks and I suck" to chances to get better at life.

Here is a perfect example: preparing for a presentation.  Making and giving a presentation is an opportunity to resist the urge to procrastinate (a skill), focus on a single task (a skill), manage our anxiety (a skill), communicate to a group (a skill), and bounce back if it doesn't go well (a skill).  Every step of preparing for this presentation is a practice opportunity.  My favorites in the list are: managing our anxiety and bouncing back if it doesn't go well.  These are skills that most often trip us up because they are so hard to define and aren't viewed as skills at all.  Frequently, these skills are chalked up to "that's just the way I am."  Wrong.  We must remember the first tenet: everything is a skill.  Next time can be better but we have to keep practicing.

In Summary

Perhaps this is obvious, but a belief that improvement is possible will determine if we improve.  However, a growth mindset is only part of the equation.  As I argue with the above Axiom, a growth mindset must be supplemented by three additional elements: 1) a broad definition of skill to include anything humans do, 2) a willingness to put focused effort into improvement, and 3) an attitude that life's challenges are opportunities to get better at living.  In combination, these four assumptions will not only permit improvement but will also be motivating during periods of difficulty when our resolve is tested.

Stay happy!

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