01.25.2018

Growth mindset gone astray: How can we save ourselves from ourselves?

This is a story about why “coming out” is such a terrible misnomer, and also a story about stories, game theory, changing minds, and how we humans might unravel the mess we’ve made.

Here in Silicon Valley, people live and die by the “growth mindset.” For the unacquainted, growth mindset is the belief that you can become better at anything with enough hard work and effort. (This is in contrast to “fixed mindset,” which implies that your abilities are innate and static). Growth mindset often escapes critical examination because it feels self-evident to its cheerleaders. When I began to think more about it, I discovered a can of worms that has quite literally made me question the nature of my reality. Let’s open it up and explore.

Coming out & breaking through

It’s obvious that certain things cannot be changed via growth mindset. Height. Eye color. Your inability to fly.

But what about sexual orientation? Can a queer person decide to be straight if they simply try hard enough? Your answer to this question likely depends on your values. If you believe that gay people are sinful, you probably also think that they should try their darnedest to become straight. If you believe that gay people are fabulous, you’d never suggest that they should change.

And what if you’re a straight person who believes in growth mindset? Do you think of your sexual preferences as a flaw that needs fixing? Does your sexual orientation even register on the radar of Things That You Could Improve? It seems that most straight people don’t think of their sexual orientation as core to who they are. It has no more bearing on their identity than the fact that they have ten toes. This is because heterosexuality is the cultural default—the norm. In our world, everyone is straight until proven otherwise.

This little thought experiment reveals something important about growth mindset. There’s always an underlying value system—often hidden—that determines what we think is worth changing, and in what direction. Growth mindset optimizes for change, but not necessarily improvement. And it’s entirely constrained by your particular paradigm: the lens through which you view the world, your set of beliefs, assumptions, and metaphors about the way things (should) work. Your paradigm determines what you see—and what you don’t.

So what’s it like to “come out,” and what can we learn from that process about how to change people’s minds? The process of coming out is a “paradigm shift” that is so much more earth-shattering than a mere discovery of who you’re attracted to. It’s extremely humbling because it makes you realize that you were once blind to something that seems obvious to you now, and that other blind people were imposing a totally false reality on you. The process of coming out severely damages your overall confidence in the stability of your reality because you can’t help but wonder what else you’re missing. It makes you realize that there are probably other truths out there that you’re not yet in a position to discover.

People often wonder how you could’ve missed the “clues” about your sexual orientation. The reality is that your previous way of seeing—your previous paradigm—totally shielded you from the very concept of a clue. How can you go looking for a clue if you don’t know that you’re part of an investigation? In order to come out, you first have to know what a closet is, so to speak, and that you’re inside of one. Only then can you come out of it. And when you think about it this way, “coming out” is actually sort of a misnomer. It feels a lot more like “breaking through” to the other side.

Size matters

Paradigm shifts come in many different sizes. Consider a smaller shift: the moment when you realized your parents are not omniscient gods who descended from the sky at age 40, but mere mortals who are just like you. Your new paradigm (i.e. “My parents are human too”) allows you to see details about your old reality in a new light. Maybe you feel bad about how angsty you were as a teenager, and you wonder how you could’ve ever been such a brat. Maybe your parents’ approach to rule-setting suddenly makes a ton of sense. Hypothetically speaking, of course.

Paradigm shifts are like earthquakes in that they vary widely in magnitude. If coming out of the closet is a 7.0, then perhaps “My parents are human too” is more like a 2.0. (I’m pulling these numbers out of thin air, but I can imagine outlining a system for ranking the intensity of paradigm shifts. How many beliefs did you need to dismantle in order to arrive inside of your new paradigm? How deeply rooted are those beliefs in the culture that you occupy? To what extent does this new paradigm challenge your old model of self? To what extent does it change the way you present yourself to others? To what extent does it change your outlook on the future? And so on.)

Your perception of the size of this paradigm scale is determined entirely by the type of shifts you’ve experienced in the past. And your first paradigm shift is the hardest to navigate because you’ve neither internalized nor generalized the idea that you don’t know what you don’t know. Generalizing is key: You might realize that you don’t know everything there is to know about ornithology. But you have to also acknowledge that you don’t know everything there is to know about the things that you think you know a lot about.

Your first paradigm shift unlocks the idea that there might be other paradigms out there. And so, you’re more likely to have a second paradigm shift after you’ve had a first. (It’s no coincidence that queer people are more radical, in general, because they’ve already had to break through some very sturdy systems).

So what?

Why does any of this matter? If you’re familiar with climate change, you know that we’re currently hurtling down a path that will make this planet very inhospitable for humans. We’re stuck inside a growth-at-all-costs paradigm that might ultimately lead to our undoing. We’re like the angsty teenage kids who don’t even know how much they’ll regret being bratty. We’re like the not-yet-queer people who can’t see clues about their sexual orientation because they’re not even looking. Americans don’t think of “growth is good” as a belief system because it’s a principle that we take for granted. We’re blinded by its supposed obviousness. Meanwhile, companies are trudging full steam ahead—maximizing profits without regards to the long-term negative consequences. Once you start to see this system from the outside, our collective obsession with growth looks absurd because it is so short-sighted and self-undermining. What good is growth if it can’t be maintained? We’re rearranging deck chairs on our planetary Titanic.

Fair warning: the gatekeepers of our current system have an incentive to create the illusion of a paradigm shift inside of their larger paradigm. Exhibit A—corporations are currently co-opting the ideas of mindfulness and self-awareness in order to encourage employee productivity and fuel further economic growth. This illusory paradigm shift is like a vaccine—a small dose that prevents virality.

Our ultimate goal should be to expose and dismantle the paradigm that eventually leads to self-destruction, but we’ve got to start small. We know that people are more likely to experience a second paradigm shift after experiencing a first. My theory is that even the tiniest paradigm shift might one day lead to the most important one (i.e. the notion that we’re racing towards our collective extinction). How do you induce a paradigm shift in people who don’t yet contain the concept of paradigms? How do you expose people to paradigms early in life, before they’re too set in their ways? When you think back on your own paradigm shifts, how did they unfold? What sparked them? How did you chart a course through your old paradigm and into the new?

These shifts can be psychologically intense. They’re deeply uncomfortable because they make you question everything. What if there were a way to soften the blow? What if there were a way to create a paradigm shift inside of a safe simulation?

I discovered a little game that just might do the trick.

How it works

The narrative. Avalon is a board game that pits the forces of Good against Evil in a battle to control the future of civilization. The good team must win three of five missions to defeat their opponents. Here’s the rub: somewhere amongst the good players are some evil spies. Their goal is to make sure the missions fail.

The game mechanics. Ten people sit in a circle. At the start of the game, everyone is dealt either a red card or a blue card by a third-party moderator. There are 4 red cards and 6 blue cards. All players who receive blue cards are good. All players who receive red cards are evil spies. The dealer instructs everyone to close their eyes. She then asks the spies to open their eyes and acknowledge one another. The spies close their eyes once more and then everyone opens their eyes.

At this point, the bad people know who each other are. The good people know nothing except that there are 4 evil people somewhere in the group. The goal of the good people is to find out who the other good people are so that they can win 3 out of 5 missions.

Here’s how missions work. During each round of the game, one person is the team leader. The leader selects a certain number of players to send out on a mission. (The leader can choose to include or exclude themselves). The number of people required for each mission increases as the game progresses. When the team leader has proposed a set of players for the mission, all of the players discuss the leader’s choices. When discussion concludes, the leader counts to 3 and all players vote on whether to allow the mission to proceed (i.e. whether they support the team that the leader chose). The vote is a public thumbs up or down. If a majority of players vote YES on the mission, the selected players then “go” on the mission.

To “go” on a mission, each selected player is given a success card and a fail card. The good player(s) must anonymously submit a success card. The evil player(s) can submit either a success card or or a fail card. When all cards have been submitted, they are shuffled and revealed. If all cards show success, the good people win 1 point. If even one card shows fail, the bad people have sabotaged the mission and earn 1 point. The game continues until one team accumulates 3 points.

Playing as an evil spy

You have all the information, and you know who else has all the information. You can use this to your advantage in many ways.

You can bluff and play a success card to convince others that you’re good (so that they’ll send you on future missions). You can attempt to throw your opponents under the bus by coming up with false theories about their voting behavior. You can purposefully accuse other bad people of being bad in order to make yourself look better. You can stoke incorrect theories that are proposed by other people. You can start faux alliances with good people. You can try to subtly incept ideas into the minds of good people. You can play dumb and pretend that you have no idea what’s going on, when in fact you are executing a well thought-out plan. Or, you can play like The Joker and attempt to cause utter chaos by casting doubt on all theories (including your own), or by acting irrationally on purpose. But you must always deliberate the way a good person would, so as to not reveal that you have all the information.

Playing as a good person

You’re flying blind. When the game begins, you have no information except for the fact that 4 people have more information than you do. It’s impossible to trust what anyone is saying.

You observe that a mission just failed with 1 fail card and 3 success cards. Does that mean there was 1 bad person on the mission and 2 were bluffing? Or that 1 was bluffing? You start seeing subtle clues, and you notice yourself looking for evidence to confirm your newfound beliefs. You hypothesize that quiet people are more likely to be good, that quiet people are more likely to be bad, that confused people are more likely to be good, but then you wonder whether that person who is acting confused is just faking it in order to manipulate your decisions, you want so badly to trust the people next to you, so you start discussing theories about who is bad and good, but then you realize that they might be conning you—trying to feed you false beliefs based on the information that they have as a bad person, and so you propose theories and ideas based on behavior, but at the end of the day this is a game of probability, and there are more unknown unknowns than you can keep track of. You start to develop strong beliefs, but you’re not sure where they come from. This can go on for hours.

•••

The game ends, and the identity of all the players is revealed. You’re in shock. You were pretty damn sure that the person sitting next to you was your ally—that you were conspiring together against the forces of evil. And you can’t believe that your friend across the way was lying to you the whole time. You thought wrong.

A deeper level to this game

This game freaks people out. I’ve seen it firsthand. Often times, the post-game debrief lasts longer than the game itself. Everyone wants to run it back play-by-play so that they can better understand how and why they were so wrong.

At its core, the game is getting at the question How do you know what you know? It’s humbling to create strong beliefs on weak evidence and discover the truth about them, all within the span of a few hours. Avalon and its aftermath mirrors the structure—if not the intensity—of a paradigm shift. It gives people a taste of what it’s like to experience one. When you discover the truth about the other players’ identities, it makes you see the game you just played in a totally different light. You realize that you were blind to clues that seem totally obvious after the reveal. You rehash all of the funny and confusing moments using your new mental model, and you come to understand people’s schemes and strategies. Suddenly, you have a benchmark—an idea of what it might be like to experience other, larger paradigm shifts. You think to yourself, If this little game made me feel this way, I can at least imagine in theory how earth-shattering it would be for my entire identity to be caught up in a paradigm shift.

Avalon successfully induces this feeling because it’s a safe, highly-controlled environment that has no real bearing on your identity outside the game. It has the potential to open the door to people’s minds and expose them to the most important idea of all: that they are inside of a paradigm that can be questioned, changed, even left behind! Of course, exposing this idea is way less than half the battle. When you first see it, all you want to do is run in the opposite direction. Towards certainty, security, guarantees, universal truths. We need a framework for helping people put the pieces back together.

This game is just one strategy for inducing paradigm shifts. Perhaps it’s not even a particularly good one. It’s fun and benign, but it doesn’t always cut that deep because—after all—it’s just a game. The goal is not to develop one perfect, silver bullet strategy for teaching people about paradigms. Instead, we’ll need a universe of tools for all types of people and contexts. Some ideas will work better than others. But hopefully all of them will help us break through to the other side. Let’s get to work!

Endnotes

  1. I’m keenly aware that this essay itself operates inside of a paradigm. Namely, that paradigms exist and that the most important problem of our time is to prevent humans from self-destructing.

  2. Paradigm shifts cannot really be taught. They can only be experienced.

  3. What would it be like to watch a group of 10-year-olds play the game? How about a group of 70-year-olds?

  4. A social movement happens when an oppressed minority tries to drag the majority into a new paradigm.

  5. The framework of paradigm shifting implies that it’s even harder to change minds than we think, and that it’s almost impossible to have a real debate if one person is incapable of admitting that they’re wrong.

  6. Other common paradigm shifts: being biracial (experiencing two different worlds enables you to view both from without); spending time in a different culture (experiencing a country with entirely different rules can make you think of your home as just one arbitrary implementation of society rather than the One True System); seeing a file of all the data that a company has about you; experiencing the death of a loved one.






Thanks to Josh Morin, Jeremy Ho, & Skylar Shibayama for contributing to this piece. The ideas here are as much theirs as they are mine. Thanks also to Anthony Nichols for editing.

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