Find Your Inner Hammer Thrower: A Call to Struggle by Guest Blogger Cindy Cooper

A note from Jackie: I was delighted to host Cindy Cooper as my guest on last week’s BSR Broadcast. Cindy is the Co-founder and Director of Portland State University’s Impact Entrepreneurs program, and has so much wisdom to share about entrepreneurship for social change. I love this piece about the growth mindset (originally posted here)…read on for a jolt of inspiration:

Cindy Cooper - hammer thrower

Sometimes I get stuck on a problem. I am not sure how to proceed, and I get scared I will choose the wrong path. Sometimes, I let that uncertainty stop me, and that can feel like this: Phew.

I feel relief that I’ve saved myself the embarrassment and pain of making a mistake. I can simply focus on what I know and feel good about my past successes, rather than attempt something that makes me feel naïve or dumb.

But other times, I keep trying, turning over rocks, and puzzling through it. My proudest accomplishments have been those that did not come easily. Reading “Mindset: The New Psychology of Success” by Dr. Carol Dweck, I understand why venturing into discomfort can build confidence whereas reveling in the easy zone diminishes self-esteem.

Dr. Dweck’s research shows we have enormous capacity to grow our intelligence and abilities in every realm: art, business, sports, love and anywhere in between. A growth mindset not only builds our brains and brawn, but it also builds resilience, and who can’t use more of that.

In college, I got my fair share of good grades. I graduated a semester early, summa cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa. I also avoided classes based on difficulty. I was perfectionistic in most of my activities. Fortunately, I also tested myself. This was easier to do in areas that were less tied to my sense of self worth, such as sports. I wanted to be as good as I could be, but I had unburdened myself of the pressure of being great. So, after illness and injury, I was willing to give up being a sprinter and try my hand at hammer throwing, despite lacking all requisite talent and size to be any good. I was awful. I cried a lot after practices. I think Coach Goldhammer (yes, his real name) was teasing me when he told me to quit. His advice was, “Stop thinking!” I had no idea how to do that.

The truth is I could use my physical limitations and lack of experience as excuses, but this time my weaknesses made me lift more weights and stay out on the field long after most people had left. And at some point, something changed. I started to improve, and gosh was it ever fun! But, don’t get too excited. This isn’t a Cinderella story. I never did throw anywhere near as well as my teammates. Still, I felt self-respect and self-esteem that I didn’t get from earning As in Psychology and Spanish, which came much more easily than spinning around and pitching a hammer across a field. And that’s a key lesson in Mindset: It’s not the easy route that makes you feel good about yourself, it is the process of striving out of your reach until you get there.

At our final intercollegiate meet, the SCIAC competition, I threw a personal best. In his last note to me of the season, I received the best compliment from Coach ever: “Nice SCIAC meet! You are a come-through performer.”

With time, I’ve become braver. I have gotten better at giving myself permission to reach into uncertainty, despite not knowing how things would turn out. I have been willing to switch careers to seek more purpose in my work. I have worked with partners and teams to start businesses and programs in uncharted territories. That doesn’t mean I am reckless, or that I am not ever afraid. I am careful when my choices impact others, and pretty much all of them do. I still find myself answering questions like: “What’s the worst that can happen?” The answers are important.

I am applying similar dedication to my personal development. I pay attention to choices and behaviors. I seek out different perspectives when I am stuck. I (usually) believe that being a work in progress is a good thing. I truly believe I can be more fulfilled, purposeful and happy. I have learned I can have more positive impact by learning to be a better me.

It seems appropriate to celebrate the growth mindset by trying something new and challenging. I can’t make up for the times I’ve shied away from challenges, but I can approach the future with greater courage. I’ve never written an article like this before. I am an educator, after all, shouldn’t I have the answers? How will it look to admit publicly that I struggle with not knowing? I’m going to find out. This time, I am excited to learn from the experience. My heart is actually pounding right now, but I know that excitement and fear can both trigger this physical response. I choose: excitement.

How about you? How will you celebrate your wonderful, grow-able brain?

Cindy Cooper has launched a social business focused on international development and cross-cultural understanding; created social entrepreneurship programs at Net Impact; consulted with Nike on social innovation; contracted with Ashoka Changemakers; and launched two social entrepreneurship incubators. Today she is a university educator. At PSU, she teaches social entrepreneurship and oversees Impact Entrepreneurs’ Social Innovation Incubator.