The glitch in the matrix

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When did you first notice the matrix? Do you remember the first time you noticed the ways that the constructed culture around you was affecting you?

Experiencing our everyday cultures is a bit like being a fish swimming in water: you don’t notice it—until you do.

For me, it was when I was 17 and the college decisions started coming in. 

Growing up in San Antonio, Texas, in a bicultural, working-class family meant navigating between my Mexican heritage from my mom’s side and the Irish Catholic and German background of my dad’s family.

It’s my senior year of high school, and I receive a letter informing me that I’ve been admitted to Stanford. It’s beyond my wildest dreams. I called my Dad and all of a sudden, we’re just crying together—happy tears—we’re so excited, everything’s falling into place.

A week later, I get another letter. This time, it’s from The University of Texas at Austin and I’m admitted with a full ride.

What do I do now? My dad, who’s White, and embodies more of the Western, “I can do it on my own” values wants me to go to Stanford. He thinks the challenge would be good for me. 

But my grandfather, Papo, on my mom’s side—whom I’m very close with—values our more traditional Hispanic family bonds and staying closer to home. As we’re talking about Stanford, he tells me, “Mija, it’s just too expensive and it’s too far away. Don’t you want to stay close to us?” When he says this to me, I’m thinking: “Independence is good! Challenge is good! What is he talking about? This is a huge opportunity for me!”

Against my grandfather’s wishes, I decide to go to Stanford. When I get there, I love my classes and the professors are amazing, and at the same time, I just don’t feel like I belong. If I’m honest, I’m having trouble connecting with my peers—we seem so different and it feels oddly competitive, like everyone is trying to prove they’re smart and they belong but wondering inside whether they really do. And, though I don’t want to admit it, I’m feeling pretty homesick, and I think I’ve made a terrible mistake.

I call UT Austin, and they are excited to have me, so I decide to leave Stanford and happily become a Longhorn. There, at UT, I find my people and my sense of belonging, and later, I come full circle when I decide to pursue my PhD at Stanford.

When I return to Stanford, the environment—and I—are different: my advisor and my lab are very supportive, my peers and I come from all over the world and from many different backgrounds and experiences and we develop close long-lasting friendships. Instead of creating an interpersonally competitive Culture of Genius where we vie to see who’s the smartest, we develop our own micro-Culture of Growth to get through the tough classes and high expectations of the PhD program. It becomes a place where I thrive. 

This experience taught me a valuable lesson: Our environments shape our identity and our sense of belonging. And during graduate school and for years afterward, I developed what’s now come to be known as the Cues Hypothesis, which suggests that people look to the cues in their local environments to determine how they will be seen, valued, and treated there. And these cues fundamentally shape our thoughts, feelings, and behavior.

In American society, there has been a long-standing dominant narrative rooted in our particular history that we’re all independent agents but what many of us don’t realize and what this narrative obscures is how much our local environments shape us. How much the cues around us tell us whether we’re smart or we’re dumb; whether you’re like us or you’re not like us; whether we belong or we don’t belong. 

The truth is that we all have the power to notice and shape the cues around us to be more supportive and we have to do that with intention and purpose if we’re going to build the world we all want to live in.

Over the last 12 years, as I’ve been developing the ideas of mindset culture and studying the differences between fixed-minded Cultures of Genius and development-oriented Cultures of Growth, I’m struck by how much we can tell about the mindset culture we’re in based on the cues and people who surround us. 

I’m often asked how I know if I’m in more of a Culture of Genius or Culture of Growth in any given environment. The way my team and I know is that we look at the cultural artifacts that are present: what are people saying and doing, what are the policies, practices, norms for behavior, and interactions that show what people believe and how they treat each other.

We’ll dive deep in the coming weeks about the cues that signal that we’re in more of a Culture of Genius vs. Culture of Growth and how they shape our outcomes. But you don’t have to wait to find out where your family, school, workplace, and groups exist along the mindset culture continuum. 

My team and I have created an abbreviated Mindset Culture Cues Audit that is a version of what we use in our research. You can take it now for any and all groups that are important to you and you’ll get tips for how to move towards growth no matter where your group currently sits along the continuum. 

I’d love to hear from you: when did you first realize how much the culture and cues around you were affecting you? How do they shape you today? 

Until soon my friends in growth,

P.S. My Hidden Brain episode on Multiplying the Growth Mindset for the Innovation 2.0 series has just been released. Shankar and I went deep and I told some of my most personal stories—including how the fixed and growth mindset shows up in my closest relationships. Plus, stay for the cello that Shankar convinced me to play after very few lessons! Always be a beginner, I suppose! I hope you enjoy it. You can listen in here.

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