Guest Post: Step Three — How Does Your Garden Grow?

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By Janine Kovac

I was so sure we were going to beat the odds. Five months into our high-risk twin pregnancy and I was the picture of health. The twins were doing great. We’d found a doctors’ group that specialized in high-risk pregnancies and we were in good hands. Our increased effort to build our village meant lots of play dates with friends and mini-vacations to visit family. My husband and I even made time for regular date nights. This “positive thinking” thing was definitely paying off.

But then two weeks before the end of the second trimester and three days before Christmas, a routine ultrasound showed signs of premature labor. My doctor immediately admitted me to the hospital for mandatory bed rest and medication to help stop the contractions. One week later the contractions started again and the twins were born via emergency cesarean section. Matt held my hand during the surgery and then he followed the boys the Newborn Intensive Care Unit. Michael (Baby “A”) weighed 1 pound, 12 ounces at birth. His brother Wagner (Baby “B”) was born at 1 pound, 9 ounces. They were 12 inches long.

If I had looked at the goals I had set up for myself during this risky pregnancy (carry twins to 32 weeks, avoid extensive medical intervention, have fat, healthy babies), I had failed at all of them. Of course, there’s more than one way to frame failure (or success) and this is what I tried to remember as I lay in my room after surgery, waiting for Matt to come back with pictures of our babies. But really I just cycled through a list of regrets: If only I hadn’t taken that yoga class. If only I hadn’t flown on an airplane last month. If only, if only, if only. If only I’d done something differently then, we wouldn’t be in this situation now.

For the last two years I have been raving about Carol Dweck’s book Mindset , telling anyone who would listen how growth-mindset thinking rescued me from the “If Onlys.”

On its face the growth mindset may seem that it’s just about praising effort, not achievement. Dweck’s book outlines habits of successful athletes, CEOs, and teachers. She looks at the components of successful family relationships. (This is the same book Christine refers to in Chapter Three of Raising Happiness, focusing on Dweck’s work with parents and children.) On the growth-mindset side there is cooperation, empathy, social connection, focus on effort. On the fixed-mindset there is competition, fear, negative reinforcement, and a focus on results, regardless of how you get there.

Dweck’s book is marketed in terms of “success,” but it’s really about how humans look at causality. Is it fixed, written in stone? Does each life event directly cause the next one—like a train of dominoes? Or is it systemic with many possibilities for nurturance and growth—like a positive feedback loop?

Is life like a road map? Or is it a garden?

In the fixed mindset life is a road map. There’s a path to success, the road to health. There’s a right way and a wrong way, steps to take. Problems are bumps in the road to get over, move past or get behind you. We look forward to the day when we can look back on this and laugh.

A growth mindset is like a garden. We nurture, foster, protect. Minds blossom, grow. We favor a healthy environment. Here problems are integrated into the solution. We look at the heart of the issue or the root of the problem. When we find problems, we weed them out.

In the same way that metaphors helped my husband and I see each other’s point of view, Dweck’s book helped me imagine love, education, and raising children from two different metaphoric frameworks. In each chapter she emphasizes the viewpoint that is most effective: the growth mindset. The garden.

My boys spent three months in the Newborn Intensive Care Unit. We heard many road-map metaphors. There was the long road to recovery. Days and weeks of one step forward, two steps back, back when we weren’t out of the woods yet, before we could see the light at the end of the tunnel.

As best I could, I transformed the road maps into gardens. The boys’ incubators were greenhouses. I tried to picture blood transfusions as adding nutrients to soil. The antibiotics were the ladybugs that eat the aphids. And suddenly there was an analogy for every possibility. Surgery was like weeding or pruning. Specially-form-fitting pillows were like trellises. Love is like the sun. Sometimes it’s like the rain, and you need that, too. The best part about the whole metaphor is that healthy soil and rain and sun and ladybugs and a team of gardeners work together. You might even survive the frost.

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  • Caitlin

    I’m picturing the crazy garden of my life right now, full of chaos and beauty. Thank you for a whole new way of looking at things.

  • http://www.facebook.com/cindyash Cindy Brown Ash

    It’s interesting to consider how much more prevalent the road-map metaphors are than the garden metaphors.  Sometimes I wonder if this is because of the human relationship to story and the idea that when we read or hear one we’re always working to get to the end.  Is there a way to satisfy that story-telling urge in our day-to-day lives without losing the garden mindset?  After all, even seasons turn, and I can, for example, look back in the fall and count up how many tomatoes I was able to harvest over the summer. 

    • http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/raising_happiness/category/photo/ Janine Kovac

      You bring up some excellent points, Cindy. There is a whole host of “Life is a Journey” metaphors where success is framed as reaching a destination and failure is framed as not going anywhere at all. (“he’s really going places” vs. “He’s going nowhere with his life.” “Reach the top” vs. “spinning your wheels.”)

  • Phoebe Bode

    What is so great about your steps is that anyone can use them as a form of encouragement.  They apply to all ages, all events (even if one is not pregnant).  And I don’t have to wait until I learn all your steps.  I can change my mindset right now.

  • AMeier

    LOVE this analogy! This garden idea brings reward to those of us struggling no matter how we are seen by others. Growth, renewal, cycles, organic action – inspiring stuff!