A lot of people I know try to acquire a ‘growth mindset.’ Growth mindset is the opposite of fixed mindset: growth mindset emphasizes that your skills can grow and develop, while fixed mindset emphasizes your inborn abilities. Growth mindset is alleged to improve persistence, motivation, willingness to embrace challenges, and hard work.

I like having a growth mindset. However, I have two corollaries to add, however, which very much improved my experience of developing a growth mindset.

First of all, be careful how you frame ‘growth mindset.’ It is always possible for you to improve; it is not always possible for you to reach a specific achievement. If you are 5’2″, you are probably never going to become a member of the NBA; however, you can most certainly improve your basketball skills. If you say “I can become a member of the NBA as long as I try hard and believe in myself”, you’re lying to yourself. If you say “if I put in a lot of time and effort, I can practice basketball and become a better basketball player,” then this is quite true. There is absolutely nothing about growth mindset as conceived of in the psychological literature which requires that you believe you should be capable of literally everything, but a lot of people wind up thinking that it does, and then they waste their effort in a fruitless attempt at self-deception.

This caveat is really important for disabled people. It might be true that if you worked hard then you would improve your driving skills, but if you have certain disabilities like blindness or dyspraxia it might also be true that no matter how hard you work you’ll never be a safe driver. It’s not fixed mindset to say “given my limitations, it’s dangerous for me to be on the road, and it will be no longer how hard I work at driving.” It’s just good sense.

Second, remember that just because you can improve something doesn’t mean you should. My motor skills are terrible: I continually knock over glasses, run into furniture and drop things; my handwriting is unreadable, I spill food on myself, and don’t even ask about my ability to tie my shoes. If I wanted to, I could improve my motor skills, probably through seeking the services of an occupational therapist. But occupational therapy is time-consuming, I have a lot of things going on in my life, and I can actually get by fine by only wearing shoes without laces, never handwriting anything, and buying the extended warranty on my laptops.

It is true that with sufficient effort people can improve anything. However, it might be that the effort required is unreasonable for you right now (you might not have the spare time to go to occupational therapy). It might be that improving at a skill requires more effort for you than for most people (you might have to practice five or six times as long as another person to be equally good at throwing and catching a ball). It might be that you have limitations that other people don’t have (maybe occupational therapy is very emotionally taxing for you because of being bullied for your clumsiness as a child).

To me, it feels very empowering to say “I can improve, but I don’t want to.” I get to make decisions about my own life! I have agency! I can decide to do things! If I’m bad at something, I can decide to put effort into it without thinking “but I’m so awful at this, I shouldn’t bother”, or I can decide to skip it without thinking “but other people can do this! I should be able to too!” If I’m good at something, I can decide to put effort into it without thinking “I’m already okay at this, I should stop wasting my time trying to get better”, and I can decide to skip it without thinking “I’m wasting my potential.”

There are lots of skills I could improve in my life: spinning poi, speaking Swahili, emotion regulation, poetry recitation, fixing roofs… I only have seventy years on this earth! I have to prioritize! I can’t try to improve literally every skill I could conceivably improve! It’s okay to say “you know what, this isn’t a high priority for me. My energy can be better spent elsewhere.”

Some people will take great offense at people admitting that they don’t want to do things because it’s not worth it. They think “but you just admitted you could have readable handwriting if you worked harder, therefore there is absolutely no excuse for not putting the effort in other than SHEER LAZINESS!” This is particularly common for people who are bad at skills most people have (like handwriting) or for skills that are particularly valued by whomever’s doing the complaining (weight isn’t really a skill, but fat people get this all the time).

Of course, if you are an adult, you get to make your own tradeoffs about what you do or don’t care about. Other people may certainly get to object or even stop talking to you (if, for instance, you decide one of the things you don’t care about is their happiness). But other people’s shitty handwriting is what is technically referred to as ‘none of your fucking business.’

To people who are like this: I would propose that you consider how much better you could get at playing wastepaper basketball if you put three hours a day of practice. If you’re like “but I have things to do! I don’t want to become the world’s best player of wastebasket basketball!”, then maybe you should consider that other people have priorities too.

If you’re around a person like that, feel free to say “I can’t” whenever you mean “I have done the cost/benefit analysis and it is not worth it.” Growth mindset is an internal reframe that doesn’t have to be applied to hostile outsiders.