Moving Forward with Deliberate Delusion

As you can tell from my last post, I am fascinated by the “growth mind-set” and it’s partner in crime deliberate delusionIn addition to helping kiddos get better grades, it’s useful for self-growth, cultivating self-confidence and working with our self-talk and beliefs to tap into our incredible potential as dynamic humans.

Paul Tough’s writing about a “growth mind-set” helped me realize that my values for personal growth are anchored in a fundamental belief that we are absolutely capable of growing and changing.  I might even go so far as to say that I believe that dynamism is part and parcel to what it means to be human.

This is a value and deep-seeded belief for me, but don’t take my word for it. There’s plenty of evidence to back this up in neuroscience. [Check out this wiki on Neuroplasticity.] Brains (and their owners) change and we can directly influence this change. Deliberate delusion helps and so does a “growth mind-set.”

Deliberate delusion is a useful concept, because we often believe that we aren’t capable of changing something because of our past experiences or because of what others have told us.

Neuroscience, blah blah blah. C’mon man, you don’t understand how ingrained my (addiction, habit, belief I’m genetically wired & permanently X) is.

Some folks don’t believe change is possible for them because they have absolutely no evidence from their past of being/acting any other way and no support in their current environment. They are perpetually looking through the rearview mirror.

A simple example from my own life: I’m a sugar addict.

As a child I pried off already-been-chewed gum from the bottoms of tables and popped it into my mouth to eek out that last bit of sweetness. (I know it’s gross. I promise I haven’t done it in years.)

I also ate things like chapstick and ketchup packets in addition to gobbling down normal desserts like icecream (still my favorite) and pastries.

Being a sugar fiend has become part of my identity. “Do you want dessert?” is a rhetorical question for me. And going out for sweet treats is trademark Mary, and my friends & family know they can rely on me to indulge with them.

Beyond being a habit and an addiction, I have a long love affair with sugar and no memories of feeling in control of my sugar habit. Zero.

Based on this, I’d have to be crazy (read: delusional) to believe that I could never eat sugary treats again or–let’s be realistic–just eat them once a week and be a happy person. It’s very, very difficult for me to get my brain around having a different relationship with sugar.

But, thanks to neuroscience and a host of past experiences which propelled profound change and self-growth, I know deluding myself to get started on the path to change will be helpful. In fact, it’s the only real way to start.

You don’t have to see it to believe, you have to believe it to see it (watch the video on that link; it’s a paradigm shifter).

What are you deliberately deluding yourself about in service of making an important change in your life?


Deliberately Delusional: using denial for self-growth

student by elizabeth albert

I just finished reading Paul Tough’s “How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character.”

One of the many thought-provoking concepts in the book is the “growth mind-set,” which means having beliefs that support our ability to grow and change. The framework of the book is the education system, so his writing about the “growth mind-set” centers around students, their beliefs about intelligence and their subsequent academic performance.

Tough writes:

“…the question of the malleability of intelligence is actually hotly debated by psychologists and neuroscientists. Although scores on achievement tests like the SAT can certainly be affected by training of different kinds, the purest kind of intelligence is not very malleable at all. But a psychologist at Stanford named Carol Dweck has discovered a remarkable thing: Regardless of the facts on the malleability of intelligence, students do much better academically if they believe intelligence is malleable. Dweck divides people into two types: those who have a fixed mindset, who believe that intelligence and other skills are essentially static and inborn, and those who have a growth mindset, who believe that intelligence can be improved. She has shown that students’ mindsets predict their academic trajectories: those who believe that people can improve their intelligence actually do improve their grades. “*

Believing something despite evidence to the contrary— like believing your intelligence can be improved despite evidence that intelligence is not a malleable thing—is sort of, well, delusional.

But it is a kind of delusion that serves us in our efforts to grow and improve. So I’d like to introduce the newest member of the deliberate family: deliberate delusion.

Deliberate delusion means intentionally ignoring evidence that supports a fixed view of the self insofar as it doesn’t serve us in our efforts to grow and change.

For the students in Tough’s book, that fixed view might look like, “I’d like to make better grades, but I’m just not very smart.”

They are making this judgment based in large part on past performance, behavior and what they’ve been told by folks in their home and school—a prime example of rearview mirror syndrome.

Deliberate delusion allows us to look forward through the windshield and see where there is space for growth and improvement. It helps us get unstuck, calling up confidence in our ability to change rather than settling for a defeated acceptance of who we are.

This looks more like, “I’d like to make better grades. I’ve never done that well in school in the past and I’m not known as a ‘smart kid’, but I wonder what would happen if I strove for more. How much am I capable of?”

Deliberate delusion serves us because despite being biologically predisposed and socially shaped to exhibit certain traits, the expression of those traits can be seen on a spectrum from muted to full. This is what I see Tough and Dweck getting at with their example of intelligence and grades.

Remember that old nature versus nurture debate?

Though we may be born with a certain level of intelligence (or any other trait), our environment and our mindset have the ability to influence how muted or full our expression of that intelligence is.

Certain programs in schools are helping the students in Tough’s book with a previously muted expression of intelligence move toward fuller expression. Maybe the kiddos in Dweck’s study will plateau in the expression of their intelligence eventually, stopping when they hit their genetic upper-end, so to speak (e.g. going from being a D-average to a stubbornly B-average student). But the “growth mind-set” paired with access to resources and support will help them get to the fullest expression of their inborn trait.

Use what your mama (and papa and ancestors) gave you…

*I use this example because it was striking and supported by many studies in Tough’s book. I want to say that I tend to subscribe more to Howard Garner’s Theory of Multiple Intelligences. By using the example of “intelligence” above, I do not mean to elevate logical-mathematical and linguistic intelligences (the ones often measured in schools and on standardized tests) above other kinds of intelligences like interpersonal, musical, or bodily-kinesthetic. To the contrary, I think our expression of any given kind of intelligence can be seen on a spectrum from muted to full and with a growth mind-set and support we can move toward a fuller expression of all intelligences.

Photo Credit: Elizabeth Albert

Fear and Deliberate Ignorance


Backpacker in Cairns

Some folks use research or “thinking it through” as a way to try to understand what they’re getting themselves into. The “pros” and “cons” folks. If you aren’t one yourself, it’s likely you know someone who is. This usually goes one of two ways. When pros and cons are balanced or in favor of the “pros” you move forward. Or, when “cons” outweigh “pros” you decided not to move forward or do so with hesitancy or fear.

The former situation looks like: What am I getting myself into? I don’t know for sure, but it seems like it’ll be okay/good.

The latter situation looks like: What am I getting myself into!? I don’t know for sure, but it seems like a bad idea.

This can be really effective, but there are hang-ups. For one, we might notice our “cons” columns are consistently longer. This could be because of our brain’s negativity bias or our general evolutionary tendency to be cautious. I think of myself as generally optimistic, but I gotta tell ya, it’s incredibly easy for me to think of all the “negative” things that might happen in any given situation.

For another thing, we can never really know what we’re getting ourselves into when we move into uncharted territory (aka life). Even when we’ve done something before—say, travel or change jobs—each time we (re)encounter a situation we ourselves have changed and any given element of the situation—the country you’re traveling to, the job market—could have changed.

This is why I’m not really a “pros and cons” kinda gal.

I’m more in the “feel the fear and do it anyway” camp. That’s what I think anyway.

When I look at what I actually do, it’s more like “feel, but don’t dwell in, fear + take swift action.”

I think of this as skillful naïveté and started calling it deliberate ignorance.

When I first wrote about deliberate living, I said:

The main reason I chose to use the word deliberate is because of what is contained within it—deLIBERATE.

Living intentionally and being choice-full about our decisions, actions, and behaviors liberates us from the status quo and from acting in accordance with amorphous but well understood societal expectations we may or may not resonate with.

Deliberate Ignorance is a tool we can use to become more conscious about the choices we make that affect our lives and happiness. It’s a powerful way to work with fear to get unstuck and move ourselves forward.

By deliberate ignorance I mean: I don’t think or look so much into a potential situation that I scare myself out of doing it. Instead, I replace thinking with feeling. Tapping into my internal guidance system, if and when I have an intuitive good sense that I’d like to do something, I make a move.

Without deliberate ignorance, I could easily be paralyzed by fear or live in perpetual purgatory, torturing myself with “what if’s?”

That being said, I wouldn’t advocate being blind to real risks and dangers. However, these are often blown out of proportion both in terms of probability and effects.

For example, last winter I traveled independently for the first time in Central America.

Did I feel fear?

Hell yes.

Did I dwell in it–consider getting a refund for my ticket or listen to folks with vague but strong cautions about the dangers despite never having traveled there themselves?


Harnessing the power of deliberate ignorance, I did just enough research to learn where in Guatemala the good language schools were concentrated (Xela and Antigua) and which volcano hikes have the best views (Lago Atitlan!). I did enough research to realize that I’d feel more comfortable as a solo female traveler if I stayed out of the biggest cities where violent crime tends to be concentrated.

In sum, I did enough research to keep me excited and informed, but disregarded all hyperbolic content (there’s a lot of this out there, not just travel-related but life-decisions-related as well).

Mostly I remembered I just needed to arrive and start going through the motions in order to prove to myself I could do it. Fear is something we face moment by moment and is best dealt with in the doing…not the pre-doing rumination that happens in our minds.

As I went along in Guatemala, some fears dissipated with each moment I saw that “the worst” hadn’t happened. (“The worst” thing varies for folks, but usually at the very worst, I think, “I’ll die.” It hasn’t happened yet.) And yet other, new fears arose as I encountered new situations.

When all was said and done, I learned a lot about myself, and I added a lot of currency to my courage & confidence banks. A little deliberate ignorance can help us go(!) a long way.

Photo Credit: jcoterhals