As a human race we’ve been seriously challenged by a tiny speck of virus that scientists classify as neither organic nor inorganic that has managed to create mayhem and have us re-evaluate our inherent need to socially connect.
So, when I read about one more international traveller who thumbed their nose at the 14-day hotel isolation by casually skipping out of hotel lockdown, this time in the community-transmission COVID-free zone of Perth, it struck me that this person was no different to those in the US who thumbed their nose at the science, at the advice to wear masks and at the lack of evidence that the recent Presidential election was rigged. My immediate thought was they are all victims of a phenomenon that plays havoc with us all at times … one of ‘mindset’.
A lens or frame of mind which enables us to observe and simplify, at any point in time,
a plethora of potential interpretations.
Mindset exists because our brains have an intrinsic ability to take shortcuts – we construct an unconscious dialogue that influences the interpretations of events and information around us. Our mindset provides the framework for these interpretations and can dictate whether we agree or disagree with these interpretations, often leading us to mistake fact from fiction – even in the face of logic and indisputable evidence.
Mindset in action
Our mindsets create our reality. It’s that dialogue in our heads that subconsciously tells us things like:
“I’m good at this” or “I’m not good at this”. Ever heard of the ‘imposter’ syndrome where even highly accomplished CEO’s think that one day someone will find out they’re flawed?
“There’s no point going on that diet because I always fail”. Actually, many don’t fail at losing the weight – they simply fail at consistency.
“We’ve already polluted our world so bad that whatever I do won’t make a difference”. Actually, we can – and everyone needs to convince just one more person.
“I can’t change things I don’t like because that’s who I am, was and always will be”. Gill Kenny’s break-up with alcohol tells me this isn’t true.
“If I conform to the rules it proves I’m no different to anyone else”. Perhaps this is how quarantine-skipping interlopers and other COVID non-conformists prove their hollow self-worth.
But my own mindset restricts me whilst I’m researching this topic and I’m not even aware of it until much later. I was fixated on finding a concise, easy to understand guide on what a mindset is, how we develop one and how it leads us to behave in certain ways.
I thought this would be easy – I’ve pumped out 2000-word lab reports as part of my science degree without too much hassle before – how hard could it be? It seems my mindset has let me down, according to a researcher in Washington State University who found a link between fixed mindsets and overconfidence. Guilty as charged, your honour. The results implied that those with a growth mindset focus more on the challenging aspects of the problem at hand and therefore are more successful.
I knew I had to change my mindset if I were to understand how Mindset actually works.
So I ploughed through a plethora of scientific studies, a dozen or so TED talks and copious opinion pieces written on Mindset in the last 10 years, barely scratching the surface on my hopeful path to success.
An enlightening TEDtalk by Dr Allia Crum Change your mindset, change the game shared the results of how the placebo effect can shift our mindset and reduce or enhance the perception of post-operative pain depending on whether morphine was administered spontaneously via IV or physically injected by medical personnel. The Yorkshire Ripper murder investigators excluded compelling evidence by having a fixed mindset and effectively enabled additional murders in the late 1970’s.
So if I had a fixed mindset, can there be other mindsets to consider that might transform my thinking on Mindset? Or change other aspects of my life? Indeed there are, according to Google….
The Relationships Mindset – in love (or not)
The Social Mindset – you seek company (or not)
The Entrepreneurial Mindset – do you have the traits to grow your company (or not)?
The Follower Mindset – do you allow others to set your life course?
The Diet Mindset - and do you need to ditch it?
And dozens more besides…
But the overwhelming majority of information I found suggests that only two simple mindsets have gained real traction in the scientific community – Growth and Fixed. “THANK YOU”, screamed my Fixed Mindset.
First proposed by prominent Stanford University professor of psychology, Carol Dweckin her 2006 book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, a fixed mindset suggests our abilities are innate and unable to be improved. A growth mindset enables success even without the skills or experience.
This is all very well if you have a Growth Mindset in the first place. Or think you do.
But what if you think yours is fixed? Surely this is a blessing and a curse - it’s a miracle if you get to maintain all the innate positives. But a raw deal if it means having to retain all the negatives you’d like to change about yourself, but don’t think you actually CAN.
What makes it more complicated is that we unconsciously seek information that strengthens existing beliefs and reinforces the dialogue we’re familiar with. These confirmation biases therefore serve to maintain our pre-existing mindsets. So a fixed mindset is likely to end in an outright rejection of information that questions our internal dialogue. If our internal dialogue continually whispers that alcohol or a chocolate bar has always made us feel better whenever we’re a bit stressed, it’s no surprise that we fall off the wagon.
Getting our Groove On
And this makes me question the whole fixed -v- growth mindset thing. If we are destined to have one or the other, is the playlist in our brain therefore on continuous loop, driving an ever-deeper groove we can’t climb out of? Are we able to EVER change our behaviour and resist toxic substances such as alcohol or diabetes-inducing chocolate bars? Yet we have solid evidence that we CAN change our behaviour. We DO change behaviour and create a new, healthier groove … as Gill Kenny has demonstrated with over 600 days sober.
So is mindset fixed? Apparently not, because a 2018 study published in the International Journal of Obesity observed that activating a mindset of fullness before eating generated activity in the ventral striatum, part of our brain’s reward systems. A health mindset lit up the left prefrontal cortex responsible for self-control. Researchers reported that all participants, regardless of their weight, chose smaller portions of food when primed with health-related prompts.
What does this all mean, notwithstanding that participants in a controlled study might do completely different things in the privacy of their own home?
It means that mindset, at the very least, can activate either positive or negative responses in our brain, and therefore play some part in changing our behaviour.
So what’s the key to activating a brain response and changing our mindset on something we know is holding us back, such as success in losing weight or ditching the booze? The answer lies, of course, in realisation – the moment we realise that continuing with the same behaviour equals the same result. And when the result no longer serves its purpose, we are more likely to quit our ‘bad’ behaviour and conduct a Mindset Reset.
How might we maintain a Reset? Changing our narrative from self-harm to self-care is perhaps THE most important, especially if it’s related to giving up an addictive behaviour that started early in life. I remember when I finally gave up smoking. The liberation I felt by not worrying about the next nicotine hit was exhilarating. All I did was change my mindset. No patches, no hypnosis, no affirmations, no hesitation. Just a moment of “I’m worth it”.
The Quitter’s Mindset
Yes it’s a thing, at least in my mind. Because The Quitter’s Mindset resides in every one of us who has ever binge-watched a Netflix series and murmured “It’s just getting interesting, I can’t quit now …. just one more.” We try to quit but have just one more drink, just one more chip, just one more minute in bed, just one more scroll of Facebook.
Perhaps our Quitting Mindset be flipped and harnessed for good? Could we activate a positive response in our brains and flip the narrative to just one more day of not drinking, just one more day and I’m closer my ideal weight, just one more quiet chat with a teenager who needs my guidance, just one more minute at the gym.
This simple Mindset Reset might be just one more step toward achieving healthy goals for mind and body in 2021. I hope you’ll try it … just one time.
And then just one more.
Heather Eaton lives in Australia and enjoys a portfolio career as a marketing consultant, psychology student, wife and mum. She’s repeatedly amazed at the diversity of people’s behaviour and is in awe of others who manage to stay bright and breezy most of the time whilst juggling the existence we call life. She’s most in awe of anyone who can create music because it caresses the soul like no other earthly manifestation she’s encountered… yet. She’s also in awe of her husband, David, because he’s super-dooper wise.
In the unique career situation I have stumbled into these last few years, here are some of the most common questions I am asked at my workplace, in no particular order — ‘Wait, you’re Australian?’; ‘Are your parents Irish?’; ‘What made you play this music?’.
Outside of the job, my friends, family and acquaintances have their own variations on such queries — ‘I mean that’s great, good for you, but I don’t get it’; ‘When are we gonna have a jam like the old days?’; ‘Hang on a sec, weren’t you gunning for a PhD?’. Not to forget my personal favourite, common to both groups — ‘So… you play banjo for a living?!’.
Of course, most of these people get a kick out of hearing about someone that has an interesting career, but on reflection, I understand the place where the surprise or incredulity comes from. The world that myself and my like–minded musical peers inhabit can be hard to fathom from the outside: foreign and familiar, arcane and welcoming, reverent and raucous.
So, the drift is, I’m an Australian who plays and lives traditional Irish music, and a proper explanation is overdue.
After years of waxing lyrical in rowdy pubs between sets, I’ve honed my elevator speech down to something like this: a jobbing bass guitarist, capable enough to fill in at short notice for a few gigs, more gigs arise, appreciation for the music increases, the offer of more work if a traditional instrument was learnt, appreciation skyrockets via the new vessel (the noble tenor banjo). That, however, is a story unto itself, the story of the band that took me to where I am now and where I will continue to go.
The less tangible qualities of the music’s full meaning to me are the things that fill the gaps between the gigs and general ego–reinforcement.
One Monday night a few weeks ago, after many other musicians had left a busy seisúin (more on this later), myself and a few others found ourselves gathered around an older gentleman playing the fiddle. He played tune after tune, imparting little nuggets of their particular stories between the music. He played a piece his father taught him 50 or 60 years ago that he had only remembered in the last month, and at that point the small but rapt audience exchanged a little grin of acknowledgement — this was folk music.
It’s there in so many things we listen to, be it the way that the blues and jazz evolved from African traditions, in turn shaping pop, rock and urban music from their inception to the present day, or the way new songs sprang out of re-imagined material in the American folk revival of the 50’s and 60’s, or the nationalistic movement in classical music through the late 19th and early 20th centuries, which saw great composers drawing on the historic themes of their native lands to create so many enduring masterpieces.
But it’s all a bit distant from the actual thing.
Simpler, more traditional origins boil underneath the multitude of forms music presents itself in, or at the very least are exploited for their ability to furnish the music with a ready-made sentimentality. The evocative power folk music has when leveraged within other styles was obvious to a certain budding composer, who swore he would engage with as many facets of musical expression as possible. Indeed, after time, this ‘resource’ seemed too powerful, and to his increasingly cynical and critical artistic sensibility, it seemed false or trite to engage in any traditional culture without irony or frivolity. Yes, my friends — I believed for a long time that I had no place in any culture, and that there was no point in making music unless its purpose was to sail gloriously into the future!
Being futuristic can be exhausting and very often disappointing. On its own, it requires a serious amount of optimistic self–belief that few people can sustain. Don’t get me wrong, the years spent in a state of tortuous wonderment were brilliant and incredibly rewarding and, as many times before, I have made a solemn vow to return to the future, at some appropriate time in the future.
So anyway, said the rambling man, sometimes we need a distraction. And sometimes the distraction becomes the thing. Before the experience with the fiddler, there were many more of its kind, and so I’ll share a few more moments in which I was superbly distracted by Irish folk music.
The first session, after an earnest few months practicing on borrowed banjos. Without being too strictly musicological, the session (seisúin) is where Irish musicians gather together informally to play instrumental music based around the different dance forms of the culture, and, if it’s the right kind of mood, sing a song or two. It blew my mind. Marvellous, intricate melodies played with bubbling ornamentations, often on instruments I’d never heard in person, all in a rhythmic feel so joyful that I felt that I knew the language right away. Of course, this is how good musicians make lesser musicians feel, especially when they encourage your participation. After six years of trying to speak this language, I know I was out of my league on that night, but it certainly kicked things off.
We’ll play some tunes, and then maybe a song. Aren’t they the same thing? Nope, jigs, reels, polkas and hornpipes are tunes. ‘The Fields of Athenry’ is a song. And then, in a different setting, the classic Irish chant at the end of a rowdy pub gig: ‘One more tune! One more tune!’ ‘What do ya wanna hear?’ ‘Fields of Athenry!’. That took a while to adjust to…
‘The Pub With No Beer’ - in Ireland. As a reluctant country Australian boy who bolted for the city and its sophistication at the first opportunity, I always thought that Slim Dusty was pretty crap (or most other Australian folk singers, for that matter). Twenty years later, during in my own personal 60’s folk revival, I heard this song sung by my new favourite singer, Ronnie Drew of The Dubliners. I thought, ‘wow, he sings that so much better that Slim, he’s a magician.’ Which he is, but it took his rendition to bring my gaze back to Australia, and to realise that in fact Slim is a bona fide magician too. I sing many more of his tunes — sorry, songs — these days, and I was undoubtedly a proud little Vegemite to perform this bittersweet lament to cheerful faces in so many Irish pubs, so far from home.
‘My dad played that song to me when I was a boy. I haven’t heard it since.’ That’s a powerful thing to hear, and in many ways could be a mission statement for the folk singer. I believe the song I’m thinking of was Rathlin Island, which was learnt at the request of someone else’s dad visiting from Scotland. To access these hidden gems through someone’s personal history, rather than a YouTube or Spotify algorithm, is incredibly special to the musician and listener alike. It adds precious layers to the story of the song, to think of the path the ballad has worn to get to you every time it springs to mind.
Back to the bush. Righto, so Slim’s a legend. Ronnie Drew’s a legend. Irish country pubs are unreal. Keeping old songs alive is great. In the back of my head there a few cracker Aussie songs that aren’t played much in pubs. Aussie country pubs are great. They like Irish music out there often enough. Kev Carmody, the great Aboriginal balladeer, well, his last name is Carmody. Sounds pretty Irish to me. There’s a ripper story in that. People love a story, if you tell it well. There’s something there, I’ll get back to ya…
The session, again: How are all of these people in the same room, doing the same thing? 15 year olds, 80 year olds, welders, doctors, mums, dads, scholars, drifters, Vivaldi fiends, what-note-is-that? freewheelers — and often, where we are, you’ll witness a mix of cultural backgrounds almost as diverse as the town itself. And they are all doing the same thing, all understanding the appeal in this way of communicating.
My admiration for Irish traditional music is satisfying on purely musical and cerebral grounds, and this is how I came to it. I listen to so much of this music that I will likely never play, because the conditions I am surrounded by are different to those that it was created in. But through the shared history of the people I play with, we create our own unique condition that surely keeps the undercurrent of a broader community’s history flowing.
Folk music – you can sample it, put it in your concerto or under your fancy hat, but in the end it’s about the folk.
Ben Christiansen is a Western Australian musician who has performed, studied, composed and taught music across a wide variety of genres for the past 20 years. Having begun his career as a self-taught electric bassist, his musical curiosity led him to study jazz at the West Australian Academy of Performing Arts, where exposure to 20th century avant-garde concert music cemented his desire to compose. In the period following, Ben worked as a professional jazz performer, co-founded the instrumental hip-hop and EDM group The Claps, and founded and directed the choral group The Choir of Chance. Ben returned to WAAPA in 2013 to study composition. He is currently taking a very long time off to study and perform Irish traditional music, regularly delighting and disappointing the good people of Perth in the folk duo, The Broken Pokers.