Some people are simply a joy to be around. The conversation flows effortlessly. You laugh. You feel genuinely interested. You find yourself looking forward to seeing them, and you leave them feeling like their company was a valuable use of your time.
Obviously, this connection has something to do with how much you have in common, but I think there’s more to it than just that. I think they have a secret ingredient.
Understanding your mindset
According to psychologist Carol Dweck, a person’s mindset can come in two flavours: fixed and growth. I believe that by understanding this difference, we can shed light on how some people are better than others at showing us a good time.
In a nutshell, someone with a fixed mindset believes that we are what we are, and that things don’t really change. This applies to both ourselves and other people; and it applies to personality traits, capabilities, self-beliefs… the works. So, with a fixed mindset, if I’m bad at maths I’ll always be bad at maths. There’s really no point in trying. If I think of myself as an unfunny person, then that’s my destiny… etc.
The growth mindset individual, on the other hand, believes in constant evolution. I am what I am now, but that’s different from what I was before and what I will be in the future. If I’m bad at maths now, I can work at it and potentially become a maths genius (given the motivation). If I’m not very funny now, I can practice my joke telling skills and have them rolling in the aisles one day. It’s just a matter of effort.
Some people tend towards a fixed mindset, and others towards growth, but of course it’s not entirely binary. Many of us will shift between the two outlooks depending on our situation.
The way we evaluate our sense of worth, success and ability differs depending on our mindset. The fixed mindset person judges himself against others. In order to feel good at something, he has to be better than everyone else around him (or at least somewhere near the top). When this is the case, fear of failure ramps right up. He’ll be likely to shy away from challenge, even (in fact especially) in the things he considers himself good at. This is because failure threatens to jeopardise his ‘talented’ status. One slip up and he’s not the genius he thought he was. Better not risk it.
Furthermore, this mindset breeds arrogance because from his fiercely protected spot at the top, a fixed person genuinely feels superior to the people he surrounds himself with. He needs to think in this way in order to feel OK about himself.
The growth mindset individual though, she’ll feel successful, worthy, purposeful (or whatever) when she’s learning. What this essentially means is that there is no failure because the harder something is, the more she stands to grow as a result of doing it. With a growth mindset, we welcome challenge because it doesn’t matter if we’re not an instant success.
Needless to say, in the long run growth minded people will tend to go furthest.
[N.B. My choice of male and female examples here is not intended to imply that either sex has the monopoly on growth mindedness (or fixed mindedness). I have mixed the references purely in the interest of writing in a way which feels inclusive to everyone]
So how does this apply to being great company?
Some fixed minded people can make us feel small and they seem to relish it. They’re the ones who’ll smirk when we slip up. The ones we wouldn’t want to show an unfinished piece of work to, or see us in tracksuit trousers and a battered t-shirt first thing on a Sunday morning. They’re the ones we wouldn’t want to say anything stupid in front of, and the ones we feel the need to justify ourselves to if we do.
If someone slips into a fixed mindset, then everything and everyone around them begins to function like a mirror. They’re forced into a perpetual state of self-referencing. They ask: “how does this friend/topic/job/choice of music (or whatever) make me look?” and it’s contagious. Like a bitchy, competitive group of school children, everyone around can end up falling into an uncomfortable pattern of one-up-manship… And that gets ugly.
So a fixed mindset friend can be an uncomfortable person to hang out with because their fixedness is catching. They handicap our growth. The anticipation of judgement causes us to take a defensive stance, and because we’re in a state of protection, we hold ourselves back. We can’t take risks when we’re under threat. We can’t stretch ourselves when we’re fearfully clinging to a sense of worth which seems to be under fire, so we feel that can’t learn around these people.
The really good times happen with those who make us feel comfortable to explore. When we’re with them, we’re present. A freedom to engage develops out of a liberation from any need to check in on ourselves. If someone is in a growth mindset, we can sense their abandonment of the concept of failure, and so we can be infinitely more comfortable in making our own mistakes.
Additionally, because growth people don’t have to look in those mirrors all day, they’re able to connect with people in a much more authentic way. In the company of a person like this it’s easier to feel understood. And when we feel accepted, we can let go of our own need to self-reference. Suddenly, the space between two people becomes the focus, and that gets filled with conversation or activity or whatever else it might be that we can learn from at that time.
With competition off the table, these people can feel genuinely happy for our successes, and we can feel unconditionally proud of theirs too. These are the people whose good moods lift us up, and whose bad moods seem rare. They’re the ones who will ‘like’ your stuff on Facebook without feeling like they’re handing over some of their power.
Some of my oldest and greatest friends are exactly like this, but it’s not a quality that’s reserved for people we know inside and out. We can sense it in a person the moment we meet them. And it’s not just because they pander to us either. It’s not necessarily only the people who wouldn’t criticise our work in progress, or laugh at the stupid thing we just said. But rather, when that stuff happens, we don’t feel as if they’re mentally removing chips from our worthiness stack.
For people living in the developed world (at least those of us for whom basic survival isn’t an enormous challenge), our deepest worries seem to spring from a question regarding our adequacy; our good-enoughness. But good enough for what? When you really ask yourself that question, it usually boils down to other people in one way or another. At the root, our greatest fears concern our likeableness. Our lovability. And it’s those fears that can freeze us into a fixed mentality.
So there’s a sad irony to all this. Although fixed people can come across as arrogant and superior, it’s probably a deep (and sometimes unconscious) insecurity about themselves which forces them to behave in that way. What this means is that the people who compete with others are usually doing so out of a desire to feel worthy of those same people’s admiration, love or attention. But of course, by striving for connection in this way, they’re far more likely to achieve the opposite.
So you can be truly great to hang around with when you’re OK with yourself as an evolving entity. Be comfortable with the fact that you’re growing, not grown. What I’m not saying is that you have to be 100% self-assured to be fun to know. That would be a big ask, and overconfidence is usually a trait that belongs to the fixed category anyway. It’s more to do with being comfortable with your vulnerability. It’s about being able to let your guard down because you know that your weaknesses don’t define you.
If mindsets are contagious, then there’s no real way to know who first caught the fixed bug in any relationship. It could have been them who started it, but it could also have been you. Awareness of this in yourself means that you have the potential to share out the antidote instead. By adopting a growth mindset, you can put a stop to the epidemic and inspire others to grow with you.
So take yourself less seriously because your imperfections are the things that people really connect with. Learn to laugh at yourself and enjoy the fact that others can do the same. Be the student, not the teacher. Ask questions when you don’t know something, and don’t worry so much about f*cking things up. In the end it means that not only you, but also anyone you spend time with stands a better chance of enjoying life.