Ciara Fitzgerald – Head of Legal, Ward Solutions
When I was in primary and secondary school, I struggled with maths. I was told consistently by grown-ups in my family that this was to be expected; my whole family struggled with maths. I listened, believed this and always saw spending time on anything mathematical as a waste of energy. I steered clear of any optional subjects that involved figures while in education. I figured I just did not have the aptitude for it. It was genetic. How could I possibly fight genetics?! So I became a barrister and did my absolute best to avoid anything that required “an ability” for maths in my professional life.
In 2019/2020, I undertook a business and innovation course (a new departure for me!) and as part of the reading, we were advised to read Mindset: The Psychology of Success by Dr. Carol S. Dweck. I had never heard of the book or of the author but I am not exaggerating when I say the content of that book entirely changed my perception of my own ability and capacity and that of everyone around me. For those who have not read this book, very briefly, Dweck argues that people have, broadly, one of two mindsets – a fixed mindset or a growth mindset. Those with a fixed mindset believe that your traits and abilities are fixed and you are either born smart or talented (generally or in relation to a specific area) or not. People have no capacity to change their abilities. Those with a growth mindset, however, believe that ability is not static and can be improved with effort, through failure and learning.
Dweck suggested that fixed and growth mindsets spanned a spectrum and most people would not fall entirely within either camp across every facet of his/her life. As I listened to this book however, I realised that with respect to my professional abilities and educational abilities, I very much had a fixed mindset. I believed I was good at certain things but would not and could not succeed at other things. Again, how could I fight genetics?! When I scratched the surface of that persistent truth however, I realised I had not even thought to generate a counter argument – something lawyers should be able to do in their sleep! Fair enough, I did not like maths, but that was not the same as having no ability. In addition, when I looked at my siblings I realised that two of them run successful businesses (something that indicates to me they must be good with figures) and another is actually studying for a financial qualification. Really interestingly, Dweck suggested that failure is something that those with a fixed mindset fear and I have always hated to fail – so much so that I would just not take on challenges that I did not think I could succeed in (Ward’s Head of People and Talent wrote a fantastic piece about learning to fail through Olympic weightlifting earlier in this series!). This was certainly more pronounced during my adolescence and early twenties but I won’t deny it, I still hate to fail at something!
Since finishing the book and in both my personal and professional life, I have consciously made an effort to challenge my inclination towards a fixed mindset. I have two young daughters, one of whom recently started school, and I find myself trying to ensure that I never tell her she is has no talent (or conversely, she has bundles of talent) for any of her subjects. Rather, I try and encourage her for just trying, for failing and trying again and for putting effort in.
This is more difficult to do for myself and at work! I am the sole legal counsel in an information and cyber security company and therefore, I can be a bit a sea sometimes when some of my more technical colleagues start talking! Instead of passively listening now however and assuming that I cannot and will not ever understand what they are talking about because “I’m just not technical”, I ask them to explain or I take notes and later look up terms that were used during meetings and conversations. As a result, I have learned a huge amount (relatively speaking) about the technical sides of this business that do not necessarily impact on my specific legal function. In an earlier blog by my colleague, Alicja Quinn, she advocated for people to embrace change and become a “change champion” and I suppose, this is my quiet way of doing just that.
So what is my point? First of all, if you haven’t come across Dr. Dweck’s book, I would highly recommend it! If nothing else, it is a really interesting read. Secondly, as my growth-minded colleagues suggest, embrace failure and change in both your personal and professional life. Easier said than done perhaps, but try small changes at first. Finally, allow yourself to believe that you can be something different than what you are today or have been in the past with a little bit of effort, hard work and trial and error.