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Fixed vs. Growth: The Two Basic Mindsets That Shape Our Lives

How to fine-tune the internal monologue that scores every aspect of our lives, from leadership to love.

“If you imagine less, less will be what you undoubtedly deserve,” Debbie Millman counseled in one of the best commencement speeches ever given, urging: “Do what you love, and don’t stop until you get what you love. Work as hard as you can, imagine immensities…” Far from Pollyanna platitude, this advice actually reflects what modern psychology knows about how belief systems about our own abilities and potential fuel our behavior and predict our success. Much of that understanding stems from the work of Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck, synthesized in her remarkably insightful Mindset: The New Psychology of Success (public library) — an inquiry into the power of our beliefs, both conscious and unconscious, and how changing even the simplest of them can have profound impact on nearly every aspect of our lives.

One of the most basic beliefs we carry about ourselves, Dweck found in her research, has to do with how we view and inhabit what we consider to be our personality. A “fixed mindset” assumes that our character, intelligence, and creative ability are static givens which we can’t change in any meaningful way, and success is the affirmation of that inherent intelligence, an assessment of how those givens measure up against an equally fixed standard; striving for success and avoiding failure at all costs become a way of maintaining the sense of being smart or skilled. A “growth mindset,” on the other hand, thrives on challenge and sees failure not as evidence of unintelligence but as a heartening springboard for growth and for stretching our existing abilities. Out of these two mindsets, which we manifest from a very early age, springs a great deal of our behavior, our relationship with success and failure in both professional and personal contexts, and ultimately our capacity for happiness.

The consequences of believing that intelligence and personality can be developed rather than being immutably engrained traits, Dweck found in her two decades of research with both children and adults, are remarkable. She writes:

For twenty years, my research has shown that the view you adopt for yourself profoundly affects the way you lead your life. It can determine whether you become the person you want to be and whether you accomplish the things you value. How does this happen? How can a simple belief have the power to transform your psychology and, as a result, your life?

Believing that your qualities are carved in stone — the fixed mindset — creates an urgency to prove yourself over and over. If you have only a certain amount of intelligence, a certain personality, and a certain moral character — well, then you’d better prove that you have a healthy dose of them. It simply wouldn’t do to look or feel deficient in these most basic characteristics.


I’ve seen so many people with this one consuming goal of proving themselves — in the classroom, in their careers, and in their relationships. Every situation calls for a confirmation of their intelligence, personality, or character. Every situation is evaluated: Will I succeed or fail? Will I look smart or dumb? Will I be accepted or rejected? Will I feel like a winner or a loser? . . .

There’s another mindset in which these traits are not simply a hand you’re dealt and have to live with, always trying to convince yourself and others that you have a royal flush when you’re secretly worried it’s a pair of tens. In this mindset, the hand you’re dealt is just the starting point for development. This growth mindset is based on the belief that your basic qualities are things you can cultivate through your efforts. Although people may differ in every which way — in their initial talents and aptitudes, interests, or temperaments — everyone can change and grow through application and experience.

Do people with this mindset believe that anyone can be anything, that anyone with proper motivation or education can become Einstein or Beethoven? No, but they believe that a person’s true potential is unknown (and unknowable); that it’s impossible to foresee what can be accomplished with years of passion, toil, and training.

At the heart of what makes the “growth mindset” so winsome, Dweck found, is that it creates a passion for learning rather than a hunger for approval. Its hallmark is the conviction that human qualities like intelligence and creativity, and even relational capacities like love and friendship, can be cultivated through effort and deliberate practice. Not only are people with this mindset not discouraged by failure, but they don’t actually see themselves as failing in those situations — they see themselves as learning. Dweck writes:

Why waste time proving over and over how great you are, when you could be getting better? Why hide deficiencies instead of overcoming them? Why look for friends or partners who will just shore up your self-esteem instead of ones who will also challenge you to grow? And why seek out the tried and true, instead of experiences that will stretch you? The passion for stretching yourself and sticking to it, even (or especially) when it’s not going well, is the hallmark of the growth mindset. This is the mindset that allows people to thrive during some of the most challenging times in their lives.

This idea, of course, isn’t new — if anything, it’s the fodder of self-help books and vacant “You can do anything!” platitudes. What makes Dweck’s work different, however, is that it is rooted in rigorous research on how the mind — especially the developing mind — works, identifying not only the core drivers of those mindsets but also how they can be reprogrammed.

Dweck and her team found that people with the fixed mindset see risk and effort as potential giveaways of their inadequacies, revealing that they come up short in some way. But the relationship between mindset and effort is a two-way street:

It’s not just that some people happen to recognize the value of challenging themselves and the importance of effort. Our research has shown that this comes directly from the growth mindset. When we teach people the growth mindset, with its focus on development, these ideas about challenge and effort follow. . . .

As you begin to understand the fixed and growth mindsets, you will see exactly how one thing leads to another—how a belief that your qualities are carved in stone leads to a host of thoughts and actions, and how a belief that your qualities can be cultivated leads to a host of different thoughts and actions, taking you down an entirely different road.


The mindsets change what people strive for and what they see as success. . . they change the definition, significance, and impact of failure. . . they change the deepest meaning of effort.

Dweck cites a poll of 143 creativity researchers, who concurred that the number-one trait underpinning creative achievement is precisely the kind of resilience and fail-forward perseverance attributed to the growth mindset. She writes:

When you enter a mindset, you enter a new world. In one world — the world of fixed traits — success is about proving you’re smart or talented. Validating yourself. In the other — the world of changing qualities — it’s about stretching yourself to learn something new. Developing yourself.

In one world, failure is about having a setback. Getting a bad grade. Losing a tournament. Getting fired. Getting rejected. It means you’re not smart or talented. In the other world, failure is about not growing. Not reaching for the things you value. It means you’re not fulfilling your potential.

In one world, 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 other world, effort is what makes you smart or talented.

But her most remarkable research, which has informed present theories of why presence is more important than praise in teaching children to cultivate a healthy relationship with achievement, explores how these mindsets are born — they form, it turns out, very early in life. In one seminal study, Dweck and her colleagues offered four-year-olds a choice: They could either redo an easy jigsaw puzzle, or try a harder one. Even these young children conformed to the characteristics of one of the two mindsets — those with “fixed” mentality stayed on the safe side, choosing the easier puzzles that would affirm their existing ability, articulating to the researchers their belief that smart kids don’t make mistakes; those with the “growth” mindset thought it an odd choice to begin with, perplexed why anyone would want to do the same puzzle over and over if they aren’t learning anything new. In other words, the fixed-mindset kids wanted to make sure they succeeded in order to seem smart, whereas the growth-mindset ones wanted to stretch themselves, for their definition of success was about becoming smarter.

Dweck quotes one seventh-grade girl, who captured the difference beautifully:

I think intelligence is something you have to work for … it isn’t just given to you.… Most kids, if they’re not sure of an answer, will not raise their hand to answer the question. But what I usually do is raise my hand, because if I’m wrong, then my mistake will be corrected. Or I will raise my hand and say, ‘How would this be solved?’ or ‘I don’t get this. Can you help me?’ Just by doing that I’m increasing my intelligence.

Things got even more interesting when Dweck brought people into Columbia’s brain-wave lab to study how their brains behaved as they answered difficult questions and received feedback. What she found was that those with a fixed mindset were only interested in hearing feedback that reflected directly on their present ability, but tuned out information that could help them learn and improve. They even showed no interest in hearing the right answer when they had gotten a question wrong, because they had already filed it away in the failure category. Those with a growth mindset, on the other hand, were keenly attentive to information that could help them expand their existing knowledge and skill, regardless of whether they’d gotten the question right or wrong — in other words, their priority was learning, not the binary trap of success and failure.

These findings are especially important in education and how we, as a culture, assess intelligence. In another study of hundreds of students, mostly adolescents, Dweck and her colleagues gave each ten fairly challenging problems from a nonverbal IQ test, then praised the student for his or her performance — most had done pretty well. But they offered two types of praise: Some students were told “Wow, you got [X many] right. That’s a really good score. You must be smart at this,” while others, “Wow, you got [X many] right. That’s a really good score. You must have worked really hard.” In other words, some were praised for ability and others for effort. The findings, at this point, are unsurprising yet jarring:

The ability praise pushed students right into the fixed mindset, and they showed all the signs of it, too: When we gave them a choice, they rejected a challenging new task that they could learn from. They didn’t want to do anything that could expose their flaws and call into question their talent.


In contrast, when students were praised for effort, 90 percent of them wanted the challenging new task that they could learn from.

The most interesting part, however, is what happened next: Dweck and her colleagues gave the students a subsequent set of harder problems, on which the students didn’t do so well. Suddenly, the ability-praised kids thought they weren’t so smart or gifted after all. Dweck puts it poignantly:

If success had meant they were intelligent, then less-than-success meant they were deficient.

But for the effort-praised kids, the difficulty was simply an indication that they had to put in more effort, not a sign of failure or a reflection of their poor intellect. Perhaps most importantly, the two mindsets also impacted the kids’ level of enjoyment — everyone enjoyed the first round of easier questions, which most kids got right, but as soon as the questions got more challenging, the ability-praised kids no longer had any fun, while the effort-praised ones not only still enjoyed the problems but even said that the more challenging, the more fun. The latter also had significant improvements in their performance as the problems got harder, while the former kept getting worse and worse, as if discouraged by their own success-or-failure mindset.

It gets better — or worse, depending on how we look at it: The most unsettling finding came after the IQ questions were completed, when the researchers asked the kids to write private letters to their peers relaying the experience, including a space for reporting their scores on the problems. To Dweck’s devastation, the most toxic byproduct of the fixed mindset turned out to be dishonesty: Forty percent of the ability-praised kids lied about their scores, inflating them to look more successful. She laments:

In the fixed mindset, imperfections are shameful — especially if you’re talented — so they lied them away. What’s so alarming is that we took ordinary children and made them into liars, simply by telling them they were smart.

This illustrates the key difference between the two mindsets — for those with a growth one, “personal success is when you work your hardest to become your best,” whereas for those with a fixed one, “success is about establishing their superiority, pure and simple. Being that somebody who is worthier than the nobodies.” For the latter, setbacks are a sentence and a label. For the former, they’re motivating, informative input — a wakeup call.

But one of the most profound applications of this insight has to do not with business or education but with love. Dweck found that people exhibited the same dichotomy of dispositions in their personal relationships: Those with a fixed mindset believed their ideal mate would put them on a pedestal and make them feel perfect, like “the god of a one-person religion,” whereas those with the growth mindset preferred a partner who would recognize their faults and lovingly help improve them, someone who would encourage them to learn new things and became a better person. The fixed mindset, it turns out, is at the root of many of our most toxic cultural myths about “true love.” Dweck writes:

The growth mindset says all of these things can be developed. All — you, your partner, and the relationship — are capable of growth and change.

In the fixed mindset, the ideal is instant, perfect, and perpetual compatibility. Like it was meant to be. Like riding off into the sunset. Like “they lived happily ever after.”


One problem is that people with the fixed mindset expect everything good to happen automatically. It’s not that the partners will work to help each other solve their problems or gain skills. It’s that this will magically occur through their love, sort of the way it happened to Sleeping Beauty, whose coma was cured by her prince’s kiss, or to Cinderella, whose miserable life was suddenly transformed by her prince.

This also applies to the myth of mind-reading, where the fixed mindset believes that an ideal couple should be able to read each other’s minds and finish each other’s sentences. She cites a study that invited people to talk about their relationships:

Those with the fixed mindset felt threatened and hostile after talking about even minor discrepancies in how they and their partner saw their relationship. Even a minor discrepancy threatened their belief that they shared all of each other’s views.

But most destructive of all relationship myths is the belief that if it requires work, something is terribly wrong and that any discrepancy of opinions or preferences is indicative of character flaws on behalf of one’s partner. Dweck offers a reality check:

Just as there are no great achievements without setbacks, there are no great relationships without conflicts and problems along the way.

When people with a fixed mindset talk about their conflicts, they assign blame. Sometimes they blame themselves, but often they blame their partner. And they assign blame to a trait — a character flaw.

But it doesn’t end there. When people blame their partner’s personality for the problem, they feel anger and disgust toward them.

And it barrels on: Since the problem comes from fixed traits, it can’t be solved. So once people with the fixed mindset see flaws in their partners, they become contemptuous of them and dissatisfied with the whole relationship.

Those with the growth mindset, on the other hand, can acknowledge their partners’ imperfections, without assigning blame, and still feel that they have a fulfilling relationship. They see conflicts as problems of communication, not of personality or character. This dynamic holds true as much in romantic partnerships as in friendship and even in people’s relationships with their parents. Dweck summarizes her findings:

When people embark on a relationship, they encounter a partner who is different from them, and they haven’t learned how to deal with the differences. In a good relationship, people develop these skills and, as they do, both partners grow and the relationship deepens. But for this to happen, people need to feel they’re on the same side. . . . As an atmosphere of trust developed, they [become] vitally interested in each other’s development.

What it all comes down to is that a mindset is an interpretative process that tells us what is going on around us. In the fixed mindset, that process is scored by an internal monologue of constant judging and evaluation, using every piece of information as evidence either for or against such assessments as whether you’re a good person, whether your partner is selfish, or whether you are better than the person next to you. In a growth mindset, on the other hand, the internal monologue is not one of judgment but one of voracious appetite for learning, constantly seeking out the kind of input that you can metabolize into learning and constructive action.

In the rest of Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, Dweck goes on to explore how these fundamental mindsets form, what their defining characteristics are in different contexts of life, and how we can rewire our cognitive habits to adopt the much more fruitful and nourishing growth mindset.

Public domain photographs via Flickr Commons


Norman Mailer on the Rat Race of Success and What True Growth Means

“Growth is a greater mystery than death. All of us can understand failure … but not even the successful man can begin to describe the impalpable elations and apprehensions of growth.”

Norman Mailer (January 31, 1923–November 10, 2007) is among those rare luminaries who managed to be at once revered and reviled, widely celebrated and frequently criticized — such is the blessing and the curse of those who dare to be both highly prolific and highly opinionated. A novelist, journalist, essayist, playwright, filmmaker, and actor, Mailer is perhaps best-remembered as a godfather of creative nonfiction, in the same milieu as Hunter S. Thompson and Gay Talese. His most timeless meditations on literature and life appear in Advertisements for Myself (public library) — a 1959 “collection of pieces and parts, of advertisements, short stories, articles, short novels, fragments of novels, poems and part of a play,” which originally appeared in publications like The Harvard Advocate, The Independent, The Village Voice, and Esquire.

One of Mailer’s finest reflections, titled “First Advertisement for Myself,” considers the modern rat race of success and the toxic failure of priorities that puts the pursuit of prestige above the pursuit of purpose:

To be just one of the big men in town is tiring, much too tiring, you inspire hatred, and what is worse than hatred, a wave of cross-talk in everyone around you. You are considered important by some and put down by others, and every time you meet a new man, the battle is on: the latest guest has to decide if you are

a) stronger than he, and
b) smarter than he, and
c) less queer.

And if you pass on all three counts, if you win the arm-wrestle, culture derby, and short-hair count, well then if he is a decent sort he usually feels you should run for President. But all this has happened in the first place because your reputation is uncertain, your name is locked in the elevators of publicity and public fashion, and so your meetings with every man and woman around become charged and overcharged.

There is a time when an ambitious type should fight his way through the jungle and up the mountain—it is the time when experience is rich and you can learn more than you ever will again, but if it goes on too long, you wither from the high tension, you drop away drunk or a burned-out brain, you learn what it is to lose seriously in love, or how it goes when your best friend and you are no longer speaking; it is inevitable that a bad fall comes to the strong-willed man who is not strong enough to reach his own peak.

He then approaches the subject from an autobiographical angle:

I had the luck to have a large talent and to use some of it, and if I know how very much more I could have done if new luck had come my way, well — that is not my story, but everyone’s story, every last one of us could have done more, a creation or two more than we have done, and while it is our own fault, it is not all our own fault, and so I still feel rage at the cowardice of our time which has ground down all of us into the mediocre compromises of what had been once our light-filled passion to stand erect and be original.

And yet even Mailer, patron saint of the curmudgeonly essay, finds in himself an antidote to this glib vision of humanity, an almost Alan Wattsian ray of hope for the dissolution of separateness:

It may be time to say that the Republic is in real peril, and we are the cowards who must defend courage, sex, consciousness, the beauty of the body, the search for love, and the capture of what may be, after all, an heroic destiny. But to say these words is to show how sad we are, for those of us who believe the most have spent our years writing of fear, impotence, stupidity, ugliness, self-love, and apathy, and yet it has been our act of faith, our attempt to see — to see and to see hard, to smell, even to touch, yes to capture that nerve of Being which may include all of us, that Reality whose existence may depend on the honest life of our work, the honor of ourselves which permits us to say no better than we have seen.

Later, in one of his Village Voice columns, he revisits the subject — that immutable concern for the fate of the human spirit — in even more poetic terms:

[We must] be aware, if only once in a while, that beyond the mechanical communication of all of society’s obvious and subtle networks, there remains the sense of life, the sense of creative spirit (we are all creative if it is for no less than to create new life itself) and therefore the sense no matter how dimly felt of some expanding and not necessarily ignoble human growth.

Indeed, Mailer intuited what today’s psychologists know — that a “growth” mindset is the key to success and satisfaction — and he returns to the subject of human growth in another Village Voice column, exploring it with even greater conviction:

I would argue most seriously that growth is a greater mystery than death. All of us can understand failure, we all contain failure and death within us, but not even the successful man can begin to describe the impalpable elations and apprehensions of growth. When we can all agree, including odd dialectical idealists like myself, that history is not foreseeable and the future is unknown, we must also agree that although society is a machine, it does not determine man’s fate, but merely processes nine-tenths of his possibilities on the basis of what society has learned from the past.

Mailer echoes Hunter S. Thompson’s assertion that “it is not necessary to accept the choices handed down to you by life as you know it” and continues:

Since we are all in the process of changing, since we are already in the privacy of our minds far ahead of the life we see around us (for civilized man has always been outraged by what he sees, or else there would be no civilization) — since we are all advanced in our dreams beyond the practical social possibilities open to our immediate time, that present living time which is all but strangled by the slow mechanical determinations of society, we know and feel that whatever happens to us will happen as the reaction between our urgent desires to express ourselves, to discover the passionate attachment of our lives , and the resistant mechanical network of past social ideas, platitudes, and lies.

Advertisements for Myself is a spectacular read, brimming with Mailer’s often poignant, frequently provocative, always pointed opinions on writing as a craft and a culture — a fine addition to the collected wisdom of literary greats.


Physicist David Bohm on Creativity

“No really creative transformation can possibly be effected by human beings … unless they are in the creative state of mind that is generally sensitive to the differences that always exist between the observed fact and any preconceived ideas, however noble, beautiful, and magnificent they may seem to be.”

Physicist David Bohm on Creativity

“The most regretful people on earth,” Mary Oliver wrote in her exquisite meditation on the central commitment of the creative life, “are those who felt the call to creative work, who felt their own creative power restive and uprising, and gave to it neither power nor time.” The past century has sprouted a great many theories of how creativity works and what it takes to master it, and yet its innermost nature remains so nebulous and elusive that the call of creative work may be as difficult to hear as it is to answer.

What to listen for and how to tune the listening ear is what the trailblazing physicist David Bohm (December 20, 1917–October 27, 1992) explores in the 1968 title essay in On Creativity (public library) — his previously unpublished writings on art, science, and originality, edited by Lee Nichol.


Bohm, who maintained a lively affinity for the arts in his forty-five years as a theoretical physicist, argues that the creative impulse in both art and science aims at “a certain oneness and totality, or wholeness, constituting a kind of harmony that is felt to be beautiful.” He writes:

The scientist emphasizes the aspect of discovering oneness and totality in nature. For this reason, the fact that his work can also be creative is often overlooked. But in order to discover oneness and totality, the scientist has to create the new overall structures of ideas which are needed to express the harmony and beauty that can be found in nature.


The artist, the musical composer, the architect, the scientist all feel a fundamental need to discover and create something new that is whole and total, harmonious and beautiful. Few ever get a chance to try to do this, and even fewer actually manage to do it. Yet, deep down, it is probably what very large numbers of people in all walks of life are seeking when they attempt to escape the daily humdrum routine by engaging in every kind of entertainment, excitement, stimulation, change of occupation, and so forth, through which they ineffectively try to compensate for the unsatisfying narrowness and mechanicalness of their lives.

Illustration from What Can I Be?, a vintage concept book about how creativity works

Creativity, Bohm notes, isn’t a matter of mere talent, for “there are a tremendous number of highly talented people who remain mediocre.” (A century earlier, Schopenhauer made his famous distinction between talent and genius.) With an eye to Einstein — a scientist whose uncommonly creative vision is revolutionizing science a century later — Bohm points out that he possessed something greater than mere talent, for he had many contemporaries who knew more about physics and were better skilled at mathematics than him; what Einstein possessed was a certain quality of originality. Half a millennium after Galileo’s elegant admonition against the peril of clinging to one’s preconceptions, Bohm considers a central demand of originality:

One prerequisite for originality is clearly that a person shall not be inclined to impose his preconceptions on the fact as he sees it. Rather, he must be able to learn something new, even if this means that the ideas and notions that are comfortable or dear to him may be overturned.

Elizabeth Gilbert has a rather poetic term for this orientation of mind: “a state of uninterrupted marvel.” Bohm argues that we are born with it — a child, for instance, learns to walk by “trying something out and seeing what happens, then modifying what he does (or thinks) in accordance with what has actually happened.” But as we grow older, we become indoctrinated in the standard way of doing things and our originality is gradually blunted as we relinquish the willingness to see alternative ways. Bohm considers what is needed for the conservation of creativity:

The action of learning is the essence of real perception, in the sense that without it a person is unable to see, in any new situation, what is a fact and what is not… But real perception that is capable of seeing something new and unfamiliar requires that one be attentive, alert, aware, and sensitive.

Long before pioneering psychologist Carol Dweck demonstrated this empirically in her trailblazing work on fixed vs. growth mindsets, Bohm articulates a key difference between the creatively fertile and the creatively withered mind:

One thing that prevents us from thus giving primary emphasis to the perception of what is new and different is that we are afraid to make mistakes… If one will not try anything until he is assured that he will not make a mistake in whatever he does, he will never be able to learn anything new at all. And this is more or less the state in which most people are. Such a fear of making a mistake is added to one’s habits of mechanical perception in terms of preconceived ideas and learning only for specific utilitarian purposes. All of these combine to make a person who cannot perceive what is new and who is therefore mediocre rather than original.

In a sentiment which John Cleese would come to echo a quarter century later in his famous assertion that creativity is not a talent but a way of operating, Bohm adds:

The ability to learn something new is based on the general state of mind of a human being. It does not depend on special talents, nor does it operate only in special fields, such as science, art, music or architecture. But when it does operate, there is an undivided and total interest in what one is doing. Recall, for example, the kind of interest that a young child shows when he is learning to walk. If you watch him, you will see that he is putting his whole being into it. Only this kind of whole-hearted interest will give the mind the energy needed to see what is new and different, especially when the latter seems to threaten what is familiar, precious, secure, or otherwise dear to us.

It is clear that all the great scientists and artists had such a feeling for their work.

Illustration by Vladimir Radunsky for On a Beam of Light: A Story of Albert Einstein by Jennifer Berne

In a point of importance which cannot be understated, Bohm asserts that because the nature of originality requires a lively attentiveness to the new and different, pioneers often end up creating entire fields that didn’t previously exist, often at great personal expense. (The history of creative work is strewn with examples, from Van Gogh, who took enormous creative risks only redeemed posthumously, to gravitational astronomy pioneer Joe Weber, who died a tragic hero of science but opened up the brand new field that eventually furnished one of the most significant discoveries in the entire history of science.) A decade after artist Ben Shahn’s exquisite case for why nonconformists are society’s engine of growth and greatness, Bohm writes:

Such an opportunity arises in many fields which may at first show little promise, especially because (at least at first) society is not in the habit of recognizing them to be potentially creative. Indeed, real originality and creativity imply that one does not work only in fields that are recognized in this way, but that one is ready in each case to inquire for oneself as to whether there is or is not a fundamentally significant difference between the actual fact and one’s preconceived notions that opens up the possibility for creative and original work… Creativity of some kind may be possible in almost any conceivable field… It is always founded on the sensitive perception of what is new and different from what is inferred from previous knowledge.

From these prerequisites Bohm extrapolates the central orientation of the creative mind in any field:

The creative state of mind … is, first of all, one whose interest in what is being done is wholehearted and total, like that of a young child. With this spirit, it is always open to learning what is new, to perceiving new differences and new similarities, leading to new orders and structures, rather than always tending to impose familiar orders and structures in the field of what is seen.


Echoing Annie Dillard’s warm wisdom on why a generosity of spirit is the greatest animating force of creative work, Bohm adds:

This kind of action of the creative state of mind is impossible if one is limited by narrow and petty aims, such as security, furthering of personal ambition, glorification of the individual or the state… Although such motives may permit occasional flashes of penetrating insight, they evidently tend to hold the mind a prisoner of its old and familiar structure of thought and perception. Indeed, merely to inquire into what is unknown must inevitably lead one into a situation in which all that is done may well constitute a threat to the successful achievement of those narrow and limited goals. A genuinely new and untried step may either fail altogether or else, even if it succeeds, lead to ideas that are not recognized until after one is dead.

Besides, such aims are not compatible with the harmony, beauty, and totality that is characteristic of real creation.

Above all, Bohm argues, creativity demands the willingness to relinquish even our most dearly held ideas if they are contradicted by experiment and experience:

No really creative transformation can possibly be effected by human beings, either in nature or in society, unless they are in the creative state of mind that is generally sensitive to the differences that always exist between the observed fact and any preconceived ideas, however noble, beautiful, and magnificent they may seem to be.

In a sentiment of especial poignancy today, in a cultural climate dominated by reaction rather than creative response, Bohm emphasizes that creativity is predicated on rising above our mechanical reactions, which are conditioned by society and by habitual forms of thought, and which render us in “a painful and unpleasant state of dissatisfaction and conflict, covered up by self-sustaining confusion.” He considers the ennobling alternative:

For as long as the individual cannot learn from what he does and sees, whenever such learning requires that he go outside the framework of his basic preconceptions, then his action will ultimately be directed by some idea that does not correspond to the fact as it is. Such action is worse than useless, and evidently cannot possibly give rise to a genuine solution of the problems of the individual and of society.


If one is serious about being original and creative, it is necessary for him first to be original and creative about reactions that are making him mediocre and mechanical. Then eventually the natural creative action of the mind may fully awaken, so that it will start to operate in a basically new order that is no longer determined mainly by the mechanical aspects of thought… Just as the health of the body demands that we breathe properly, so, whether we like it or not, the health of the mind requires that we be creative.


But, of course, to awaken the creative state of mind is not at all easy. On the contrary, it is one of the most difficult things that could possibly be attempted. Nevertheless, for the reasons that I have given, I feel that it is for each of us individually and for society as a whole the most important thing to be done in the circumstances in which humanity now finds itself.

The orientations of mind and spirit most conducive to doing that — in science, in art, and in all domains of human life — is what Bohm goes on to examine in the remainder of the thoroughly awakening On Creativity. Complement it with pioneering psychologist Jerome Bruner on the six pillars of creativity and Leonard Cohen on its mystique, then revisit Bohm on what is keeping us from listening to one another, how our perceptions shape our reality, and his magnificent conversation with the Indian philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti about intelligence and love.


The Science of What Makes You You and How Old Your Body Really Is

A biological Ship-of-Theseus exploration of how quickly your body replaces itself, from your nails to your neurons.

The Science of What Makes You You and How Old Your Body Really Is

“Life is mostly an exercise in being something other than what we used to be while remaining fundamentally — and sometimes maddeningly — who we are,” Meghan Daum wrote in her unforgettable meditation on what makes us who we are.

I thought of this recently when I returned to my alma mater to deliver the 2016 commencement address. The evening before the ceremony, I wandered through campus — the alleys I had once walked daily, the library unchanged by the lapse of a decade, the tree under which I gave up reading Ulysses. I found myself puzzling once again over the paradoxical continuity of personal identity — what is it that makes the me of today the same person as the young woman who walked those passageways a decade ago? I look different, I value different things, my life is entirely different and unlike anything she could have possibly imagined, my body has healed. Even my hair has changed color and texture by its own accord.

What, then, makes us ourselves?

That question, or at least the biological aspect of it, is what Lulu Miller, co-host of NPR’s ceaselessly excellent Invisibilia, posed to NPR’s Adam Cole. His fascinating answer presents a kind of bodily Ship of Theseus, exploring the rate at which your body — the amalgamation of organs, tissues, and other structures comprising the physical you — renews itself:

In a fantastic related episode, Invisbilia explores the psychological counterpart to this biological perplexity and examines the myth of fixed personality, reaching the same conclusion that Anaïs Nin did many decades earlier in her magnificent defense of the fluid self.

Complement with Grace Paley on the art of growing older, psychologist Carol Dweck’s pioneering work on fixed vs. growth mindset, and the trailblazing Harvard psychologist Jerome Bruner, whose body recently ceased renewing at the age of 100, on how storytelling shapes our sense of personhood.


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