Limitless Mind: A book review by Bob Morris

Limitless Mind: Learn, Lead, and Live Without Barriers
Jo Boaler
HarperOne/An imprint of HarperCollins(September 2019)

“Whether you think you can or think you can’t, you’re probably right.”  Henry Ford

Ford’s observation suggests that most human limitations are self-imposed. Jo Boaler agrees: “When we give up on something and decide we cannot do it, it is rarely because of actual limits; instead, it is because we have decided we cannot do it.” Moreover, I am among those who believe that limits and constraints are essential to creative thinking. They challenge — and thereby stimulate — our imagination, forcing us to improvise and innovate in ways and to an extent that would otherwise probably not be possible. Boaler may or may not agree with that but I certainly agree with her and countless others that a fixed mindset precludes such opportunities whereas a growth mindset embraces them.

Consider these observations by Carol Dweck: “My work bridges developmental psychology, social psychology, and personality psychology, and examines the self-conceptions (or mindsets) people use to structure the self and guide their behavior. My research looks at the origins of these mindsets, their role in motivation and self-regulation, and their impact on achievement and interpersonal processes.”

Her inquiry into our beliefs is synthesized in Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. The book takes us on a journey into how our conscious and unconscious thoughts affect us and how something as simple as wording can have a powerful impact on our ability to improve.

Dweck’s work shows the power of our most basic beliefs. Whether conscious or subconscious, they strongly “affect what we want and whether we succeed in getting it. Much of what we think we understand of our personality comes from our mindset. This both propels us and prevents us from fulfilling our potential.”

This is a field of inquiry of great importance to me. That is why I am so grateful to Boaler as well as to Michael Schrage who, in The Innovator’s Hypothesis, explains how and why “simple, fast, cheap, smart, lean, and important experiments can supercharge any serious innovation process.” And as I worked my way through Boaler’s narrative, I was again reminded of this passage in Paul Schoemaker’s book, Brilliant Mistakes: “The key question companies need to address is not `[begin italics] Should [end italics] we make mistakes?’ but rather [begin italics] Which [end italics] mistakes should we make in order to test our deeply held assumptions?’” This is precisely what Anjali Sastry and Kara Penn have in mind when introducing, in Fail Better, what they characterize as a better approach to innovation: designing smart mistakes, learn from them, and thereby achieve greater success and do so sooner.

Peter Sims also has much of value to say about this strategy in Little Bets: How Breakthrough Ideas Emerge from Small Discoveries. As he explains, “At the core of this experimental approach, little bets are concrete actions taken to discover, test, and develop ideas that are achievable and affordable. They begin as creative possibilities that get iterated and refined over time, and they are particularly valuable when trying to navigate amid uncertainty, create something new, or attend to open-ended problems.”

Boaler wrote this book in order to help as many people as possible to develop “a limitless perspective,” one that celebrates their being, their essence, who they are. She shares six “learning keys” that can guide and inform as well as nourish almost anyone’s curiosity during their journey to learn, to lead others, and to live without self-imposed barriers to personal growth and professional development.

These are among the passages in Limitless Mind of greatest interest and value to me, also listed to suggest the extent of Boaler’s coverage:

o The Fixed Brain Message (Pages 19-23)
o Changing Perceptions and Brains (23-32)
o Teaching the Value of Mistakes (55-68)
o Changing Mindsets (84-89)
o What About Trailblazers? (106-108)

o When Teachers Learn — and Use — a Multidimensional Approach (116-131)
o The Effects of Stress and Anxiety (135-138)
o Conceptual Learning (147-163)
o Why Is Collaboration Important? (166-172)
o A Limitless Approach to Connections and Collaborations (185-196)

In her latest book, Jo Boaler explains how to develop a disruptive [begin italics] mindset [end italics], one that enables her reader to avoid or overcome limits imposed by what James O’Toole so aptly characterizes as “the ideology of comfort and the tyranny of custom.” This is precisely what she has in mind when observing, “So my final advice to you is to embrace struggle and fail, to take risks, and to not let people obstruct your pathways. If a barrier or roadblock is put in your way, find a way to take a different approach…Sometimes we won’t succeed, and that is okay, but we will always be helped by setting out on the journey — especially if the perspective we take on that journey is truly limitless.”

In the spirit of Tennyson’s Ulysses, “to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”

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