Changing Mindsets

by M. Bakri Musa

[Talk given at a forum at the University of Buffalo, on November 1, 2008, themed “Alif Ba Ta, Towards the New Malay,” organized by Kelab UMNO New York-New Jersey.]

We are familiar with E H Weber’s three-bowl water experiment where if you were to put your right hand in a basin of warm water and the left in cold, and then both in a bowl of water at room temperature, the right would feel it as cold while the left, warm. The physical reality is the same yet your perception is very different, in fact the very opposite.

Dispensing with the philosophical discussion on the meaning of reality, I would modify the oft-quoted observation that “perception is reality” to “perception creates the reality.”

We view reality through our own special lens, which imparts its own hue and tint, the consequence of our experiences and expectations as shaped by, among others, our culture, language, and environment. Language especially, as it is more than just a means of communication; it is also our collective way of looking at and understanding the world, the basic thesis of Edward Sapir.

Additionally, the reality we perceive depends on how it is being framed. Framing, by definition, means highlighting certain elements and excluding others.

Fixed Versus Growth Mindset

While we cannot remove those personal lenses, we can be made aware of the consequent possible distortions and amplifications. One way would be to purposefully put on another pair of lens over it. Only then would we notice that all lenses carry their own special tinting and refracting.

Behind those lenses is our brain that processes all these signals and tries to discern the pattern. This neurological complex is our mindset, the fixed mental attitude or disposition that predetermines our responses to and interpretations of situations; our inclination or habit.

The Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck suggests that one has either a “fixed mindset” or a “growth mindset.” The first group view their talent and ability as fixed, and that their lot in life is ultimately tied up with their innate nature.

Those with the growth mindset believe that their fate is dependent on how adaptive they are in seizing opportunities, as well as how well they grow with and adapt to their experiences. They do not believe that their fate is dependent on what nature had bestowed upon them, the benevolence of some remote emperor, or what had been written in the book of life.

In medieval times those of the fixed mindset believed that their fate was set at birth. Born a peasant and you would always remain one, and so would your children and their children. This was continually reinforced by cultural beliefs and religious convictions (predetermination). In this scientific age, those with a fixed mindset attribute their success to their innate ability, which ultimately is related to their genes.

Scientific sophism aside, this biologic determinism is just as crippling as the religious pre-determinism of yore (or still is today in many Muslim societies).

The good news is that even if you are of the fixed mindset, you can change it into the growth mindset. Dweck’s book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, suggests a number of ways of recognizing whether you are of a fixed mindset, and then learning on how to change it to a growth one.

Changing mindset requires tackling the problem at two levels: individual and societal. Your being here at this conference means that you already have a growth mindset, you have the curiosity to consider contrasting viewpoints.

Your studying at an American university means that you are primed for a growth mindset. To come here you have to have learned English, which is not your native language. That also opens up your mind to looking at the world in a different way, as per Sapir’s thesis. The earlier you learn this second language the greater is the ease with which you can learn it, and the easier is it for you to appreciate that reality can be viewed from different perspectives. This confers other significant cognitive advantages.

Coming here also means living in a different culture in the formative years of your life, another growth mindset primer. To get the maximal benefit however, you must partake fully in your new environment and seize it as an opportunity to enrich your life. You would limit this opportunity were you to cocoon yourself within the familiar environment of your campus and fellow countrymen.

American universities have a unique tradition of liberal education. The best definition of a liberal education is this: It cultivates the mind and refines judgment. Few systems of higher education in the world offer this opportunity to indulge your intellectual curiosity, and explore disciplines that at this stage may seem unrelated to your ultimate career choice. I say at this stage, for as you advance in your career you will find that you will fall back on the wisdom and insights you have gleaned from those apparently unrelated disciplines.

These advantages would be for naught if you have a fixed mindset. Indeed that would only reinforce your preexisting perceptions and prejudices, what social scientists refer to as “confirmation bias,” the tendency to search for or interpret new information in a way that confirms your preconceptions and avoid those that do not. If you believe that the West is inherently decadent, then when visiting Washington, D.C., all you would see only are the porn shops, street potholes, and the homeless pandering. You would certainly miss Georgetown University, Library of Congress, and the National Institutes of Health.

The writer Anis Sabirin, a former Fulbright scholar and who spent decades living in Los Angeles, related in her memoir Dua Dunia (Two Worlds) her experience driving across America and visiting the Library of Congress. She was treated with the utmost courtesy and given all the help she needed, in contrast to her miserable experience at the University of Malaya library where she was a former faculty member!

Anis Sabirin is a Claremont PhD in economics; she is the beneficiary of America’s tradition of liberal education. Even though she is passionate about her love for Malaysia as reflected in her stirring syairs, yet she has an open attitude to discern these differences. That is the essence of having a growth mindset.

These two activities – traveling and reading (as reflected by visiting libraries) – are the best ways to enhance a growth mindset, as long as you keep an open mind and be aware of the dangers of confirmation bias. Restrictions on travel, standard in China, Russia and other repressive societies, together with book banning and burning, are the crudest expression of this fixed mindset.

While all of you here are primed for a growth mindset, the opportunities for those back home are much more restricted if not non-existent. Even if they were so inclined to be curious and explore new vistas, the environment is far from conducive, in fact it is downright repressive.

Personal Merdeka

Tradition has it that when an Orang Asli young man comes of age, he would be given his axe and then told to leave the tribal home to fend for himself in the jungle. That is one quick and sure way to learn your way in this world! This ritual “leaving home” symbolizes liberation, a personal merdeka of sorts. The axe represents the appropriate tool for surviving the jungle. That is what we should be doing with our young; liberate them and equip them with the necessary tool, which in the current world would mean knowledge.

We can nurture a growth mindset in our young through enlightened educational policies. One way would be to develop the child’s full spectrum of talent, from learning a second language early to exposing them to the performing and fine arts as well as sports. Only through this wide exposure would we ensure not missing the child’s hidden talent. Further, studies have shown that when a child excels in one area, that transfers on to other areas.

Our universities should emphasize liberal education, with students exposed to the humanities as well as the social and natural sciences regardless of their ultimate career choices. Professional qualifications like law and medicine should be graduate degrees after having obtained a solid liberal education.

As for culture, its tendency is inherently conservative, towards maintaining the status quo. Culture nurtures the fixed mindset, especially so in traditional societies. Malay culture is definitely that, with its emphasis on titles, honorifics, and social hierarchy.

This deference is reinforced by our religion, or rather the way we teach it. We emphasize taqlid, the following of edicts of earlier scholars. It is interesting that the word taqlîd is derived from the root qallada, meaning, “to place a collar (qilâdah) around the neck,” thus leading someone “by the collar.”

We should pay due deference to precedents so as to maintain stability, but we should not be trapped by it. To me that is what taqlid means, not blindly following those before you but being guided by them.

Fear of Failure

One crucial cultural attribute to enhancing the growth mindset is the healthy attitude towards failure. In Silicon Valley, a failed entrepreneur would recoup and then try again. He or she considers his failure as a badge of honor, at least on becoming successful. Failure is viewed as a learning experience. In Malay culture we berate those who have bravely tried but failed, instead of offering help and encouragement. Worse, he or she would forever be tagged as a failure and be looked upon as reflecting all the inadequacies of his race.

This fear of and stigma associated with failure are destructive. As Hamka wisely observed, “Takut gaggal adalah gagal sejati!” (The fear of failure is the real failure).

Mistakes and failures are part of life. Physicians have a pragmatic approach to mistakes. In making clinical decisions, all things being equal, we would pursue a path where should we make a mistake it would be more readily corrected than one where our mistakes would be more difficult to remedy.

For example, surgeons will opt to operate on a suspected acute appendicitis and find out that it is normal (that is, a “mistake”) rather than risk missing an inflamed appendix that would later rupture and put the patient’s life in jeopardy.

Geography also plays a role in shaping our mindset. Throughout the world coastal areas and others exposed to large body of water are more cosmopolitan than inland. In China, it is Shanghai; Malaysia, Malacca; and India, Goa. With the traditional mode of transportation being over water, areas easily accessible to water would be open to new visitors (traditionally mainly traders). Their residents are thus used to the infusion of new people, cultures, and ideas.

I end my discussion on changing mindset by referring to that delightful feature animation movie, Happy Feet. Even if we are all singers, we should still respect those who cannot sing, for they may well be great dancers. Their rhythmic dancing may complement our fine singing. That film captures the essence of what I am trying to convey here about having an open mind and a growth mindset.

  1. #1 by taiking on Monday, 10 November 2008 - 9:43 am

    Of lenses and other looking glasses – they are themselves imperfect and are very different one from the other. Its obvious. Its equally obvious that they form neither an original part of our anatomy nor of our soul. They are put on by us on purpose or for a purpose, sometimes voluntarily and other times under pressure. The point is they can be removed easily whether their use in the first place was a result of force or otherwise.

    So why not remove them? That is the issue. That is an issue of politics – politicians have a way of commanding people. In general, they will start with persuasion, then compulsion and finally, fear.

    Mr Musa seems to have made an assumption: i.e. that people lived in isolation and so they would continue to view the world from their own narrow angle perspectives. People live in a community and the community in which they live comes with all its differences and diversities. “Thats red” one may observe. “No its actually dark red” another may immediately comment. And the forum in which he spoke – wasnt it is designed to break down narrow and individualistic perspectives.

    So we are back to this: Why cant we change our perspectives? That is the politics of umno. Some of you may say this is my perspective. It may bloody well be. Its a perspective that builds itself up over a period of several decades. Yes you may well be correct to say that its all a matter of perspective. Like I am not homo, not human, not alien, not non-pendatang/penumpang. That sort of thing.

  2. #2 by One4All4One on Monday, 10 November 2008 - 12:28 pm

    I guess it all boils down to calling a spade a spade and not beating about the bush if one chooses to be correct and objective, although it may seem a harsh path to take.

    Reality hurts. Reality pricks. Reality doesn’t lie. If one is prepared to call a spade a spade, half the battle is won whenever perception is being disputed.

    Though culture and tradition are important ingredients to one background and way of life, and have a strong bearing on one’s perception on reality around us, they should not cloud our consideration and thinking when making a conclusive and fair decision.

    When universal values and facts are applied, no matter where or when, one can be guarded against prejudice or discrimination in whatever settings or situations.

    Being open minded means taking a reasonable and flexible stand depending on the situation and condition. It also means being practical and pragmatic and ready to give and take, although it may eat into ones territory. The final desirable outcome counts.

    Sense and sensibility should always prevail. And the desire to move forward and not falling back into past mistakes and errors should be inculcated into everyone of us.

  3. #3 by cemerlang on Monday, 10 November 2008 - 10:25 pm

    For you who believe that there is another dimension to life; you can call it unseen energy, a spiritual realm or whatever you want to call for the thing that cannot be seen; how you want to call it with your scientific mind, how you want to call it with your religious mind, this another dimension or ” thing ” is also holding people back. That is why you can be the most rational human being, the most wise person, the most intelligent person, the most convincing person and yet you cannot get through to the people. Stubborn as it may seems but there is this ” thing ” that acts as a barrier and that bounces off all that you have to say. You can call it a glass wall, a glass ceiling. Somehow it just does not get through. The Berlin wall stood proud from 1961 to 1989. It was the ordinary Germans who decided enough is enough and they crushed it down with their bare hands.

  4. #4 by ktteokt on Sunday, 16 November 2008 - 10:19 am

    To the bumis, the tempurung is their world! How to change????

You must be logged in to post a comment.