“Did you carry her up here?” the people on the summit wanted to know, when Pia, my six-pound dog, emerged on the rocky top of Mt. Moriah this weekend. “No, she made it on her own.” I replied.
People are always incredulous when they see Pia on the trail. Incredulous, and often delighted. That something so tiny is hiking so far and scrambling up such big rocks all on her own. Pia has been on numerous hikes, a few backpacking trips, and even some fairly long runs. When I told my vet I was running with Pia, he said, “Oh that’s great. A dog her size can probably do a half mile or a mile.” “How about six?” I’d said. His eyebrows shot up.
In the first season of the Invisibilia Podcast, the episode “How to Become Batman” explored the impact that people’s expectations have on influencing outcomes. In the show they reference Carol Dweck, a Stanford psychologist who has focused her research on growth mindset. Her studies have highlighted the importance of process praise vs. innate ability praise. Instead of telling a child that he/she is intelligent (innate ability), you praise the effort (process) they put into solving a problem. She has found that praising a child’s intelligence can in fact make him/her reticent to challenge themselves, lest they fail, and lose claim to their “intelligent” label—whereas children who are praised for their effort are in fact inspired to try new, harder challenges. They are more resilient to failure, and thus riper for growth.
The episode explores the outer limits of just how much expectations can shift a person’s reality. Daniel Kish is at the center of this story. Kish lost both eyes (literally) to cancer before he was 13 months old. A Smithsonian article describes how “he developed his own method of generating vocal clicks and using their echoes to identify his surroundings and move about.”
On how he learned to do this Kish says: “My parents really valued my freedom. They didn’t get hung up about the blindness, they were just more concerned about me growing up to be a relatively normal kid, to then emerge into becoming a relatively normal adult, which is to say someone who is able to enjoy the same freedoms and responsibilities as others. I was encouraged to get on with being a child, and being a boy of any given age was much more important to them than the fact that I was blind at any given time. Kids adapt to their conditions very quickly, and the more supported they are in that adaptation, the quicker it will happen. I taught myself to use flash sonar in much the same way that you taught yourself how to see.”
And it’s not just the expectations we say out loud that can influence outcomes. The episode looks at how our internal musings shift our body language in such a way that our expectations get silently communicated to those around us. Our so called private thoughts, are perhaps not so contained after all.
So much of my work centers around trying to help people get unstuck from old patterns or habits or beliefs that no longer serve them (or maybe never did). Often the expectations that are the most ensnaring are the ones they hold about themselves. The critical voice inside their head saying, “You can’t change. You can’t do this. You are stuck.” That voice is tenacious. I know it well, because it is part of my own internal clamoring. I imagine it’s part of the internal clamoring for most of us.
If what we expect of others shifts their outcome, it stands to reason that what we expect of ourselves has an enormous influence over our own outcome. Carol Dweck preaches the importance of the “not yet” mantra for growth mindset. I haven’t gotten my budget in check, yet. I haven’t lost the weight, yet. I haven’t mastered the piano, yet. “Not yet lets you understand that you are on a learning curve,” she says, “It gives you a path into the future.”
There are times when I think hopefulness and optimism and lofty expectations are unhelpful—maybe even harmful—because they can seem to brush aside the suffering a person is experiencing in the moment. For this reason, the Pollyanna, “chin up” response to hardship makes me furious, so I’m in no way suggesting that we all just think positive thoughts and sail off into the sunset.
What I wonder is how I can acknowledge for myself, and for the people I work with, the heartache of the moment AND the possibility (expectation?) of moving towards a place of greater freedom.
Meanwhile, as I puzzle over that, Pia will continue to spread the good news that small dogs are not just made for pillow perching, but are indeed great, wild beasts ready to take on the mountain.