Struggle-Play You’ve not got much to report when you get home, besides a desultory slideshow that might have well have been Xeroxed from your thinly used copy of Lonely Planet Paris

Today’s story is the statement of the bleeding obvious.

Stuff is hard.

Anything worth doing is a struggle.

We know this.

To pick up on last week’s story (co-written, in a way, by Mohammed Salah): the struggle is the process, the only way to do anything worth doing.

The struggle is where the value is at. So why does the struggle have to feel like such a struggle?

Well, it doesn’t.

It’s A Mindset Thing

As I’ve written before, we have two mindsets and we jump between them like monkeys between the trees of a forest.

Our fixed mindset:

  • Skills aren’t learnt; they’re natural talents
  • You can’t teach an old dog new tricks
  • This should be easy; if it’s not easy, it’s impossible
  • Better to avoid completion than to risk exposing ourselves as frauds
  • Deal with problems and setbacks as we’d wish them to be
  • Results above all

Our growth mindset:

  • All skills are learned (some are just learned so young that we’ve forgotten how)
  • If anything, old dogs have an advantage, building new tricks on old foundations
  • Value patience, persistence, perspiration and process over defeatist ‘shoulds’ or impossible ‘can’ts’.
  • Better to admit our ignorance and learn by asking for help
  • Deal with problems and setbacks as they truly are
  • Process above all

It’s not that our brains are all either 100 percent fixed or growth, by the way — if you think that, then you’ve got a fixed mindset about mindsets.

You will access both mindsets at different times in your life, in different domains. Maybe you’re a creative in the kitchen, but a despot at your desktop.

That should be enough to show that you can choose between them.

Anything worth doing quite often shows up first as a fixed mindset struggle: an obnoxious obstacle to be effortlessly overcome by our natural genius.

In this case, only success can be a success.

But we can also frame it as a growth mindset struggle: a roll in the hay, a game to play.

In this case, taking part — stepping into the arena and grappling with what’s before us — that is the only success.

Alternate Realities

Our two mindsets make such a difference to our lived experience that switching between the two feels like switching between alternate realities.

Imagine travelling to Paris for the first time in your life with a fixed mindset:

  • You can’t learn a word of French because your language ability is fixed at zero. Alternatively, you feel you ought to be good at French because you got an A at GCSE, but you don’t risk crashtesting any actual conversation because you might get something wrong.
  • You’re suspicious that every Parisian waiter is out to destroy you because you once read a Guardian article on the topic. As a result, you don’t stray beyond familiar transglobal eateries like Subway and McDonalds.
  • You’ve not got much to report when you get home, besides a desultory slideshow that might have well have been Xeroxed from your thinly used copy of Lonely Planet Paris.

An otherwise identical traveller with a growth mindset might as well be in another universe:

  • You don’t know a word of French, but that doesn’t stop you trying and failing repeatedly, slowly improving over the weekend, but never really getting beyond good-humoured willingness.
  • Some Parisians visibly wince when you say ‘Bon-jaw’, but others laugh kindly and help you translate the menu of the irresistibly crowded brasserie that you stumbled across on your late night ramble across town.
  • Your new friends show you a secret tunnel that leads down into the catacombs and, when you get home, everyone’s badgering you to tell that story again about your night dancing to a Brazilian funk band in the bunker underneath Saint Lazare station or the grisly tale of what you found in The Room Of Cats.

A Game We Never Want To End

Our fixed mindset is quite often based in a false world of apriori paradigms, often learnt by rote in childhood: a world of imagined shoulds and oughts.

Only if you think you can, will you. If you think you can’t, well, you won’t.

By contrast, our growth mindset is rooted in the real world of a posteriori experimentation: a world of constant trial and error.

Whether you think you can or you think you can’t yet, you will try and try again.

The difference between the two realities of the fixed and growth travellers is the difference between (our worst possible definition of) work and (our best possible definition of) play.

The best games make us curious, experimental, vulnerable and willing to learn.

They make us willing to play again, over and over, building on and testing our skills, enjoying the pleasure of the flow more than the endgame of victory or defeat.

The very best games we never want to end at all.

From inside a growth mindset, life itself feels like a game we never want to end.

The Only Winning Move Is Not To Play?

And now: a warning against pointlessness.

It’s an astonishing fact that almost every time we do anything, we probably could have got away with doing nothing at all.

In some cases, we would have been better off doing nothing at all.

Sometimes, when I publish this newsletter, I end up with fewer subscribers than I had before I sent it.

Was it worth my while putting hours of work into writing the damn thing?

As Jason Kottke noticed back in 2018, this better-doing-nothing conundrum also features in the work of newspaper proprietors, baseball superstars and most business entrepreneurs.

Kottke quotes from a remarkable-sounding book called Disclosing New Worlds: Entrepreneurship, Democratic Action, and the Cultivation of Solidarity by Charles Spinosa, Fernando Flores and Hubert Dreyfus:

Business owners do not normally work for money either. They work for the enjoyment of their competitive skill, in the context of a life where competing skilfully makes sense. The money they earn supports this way of life. […]

Saying that the point of business is to produce profit is like saying that the whole point of playing basketball is to make as many baskets as possible. One could make many more baskets by having no opponent.

What this means is that the value of almost everything we do comes down which mindset we apply: are we focussed on fixed results or growth process?

So the motivation of my writing this story cannot be found in what value it might hypothetically bring for an unknown number of readers, sometime in the future.

That would be a fixed mindset idea of value.

The motivation — and immediate value — is found in what the process of writing does for me, at this very moment.

That sets the growth mindset in play. The pressure’s off. I can enjoy myself, experiment and be curious about what I learn next.

I don’t need you to love every word, but, all the same, I hope you found something to take away with you today.

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David Charles is co-writer of BBC radio sitcom Foiled. He also writes for The Bike Project, Thighs of Steel, and the Elevate Festival. He blogs at

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