I recently read an article about “fixed” versus “growth” mindsets, and it has me thinking about museums and COVID-19. A fixed mindset, according to Stanford University psychologist Carol S. Dweck, Ph.D., believes that abilities are fixed, but a growth mindset believes that abilities can be developed. I realized after reading the article, that the way that people and organizations are dealing with COVID-19 seems similar to the attributes to those mindsets.
I was so surprised when businesses and bars near where I live in Northern Michigan seemed to be unprepared for the Governor’s announcement that they could reopen this spring. The announcement came just a few days before the restrictions were lifted, and there was much scrambling to learn about and address reopening guidelines. I assumed that everyone had been spending the shutdown getting ready for when it was over but clearly at least some were not.
I made this assumption because of my experiences with Michigan museums last spring. Even before museums were closed I was getting phone calls from people asking what colleagues were thinking about in terms of dealing with COVID-19. The first time I heard a museum person bring up “reopening strategies” was literally the day after we were shut down, and the number of people planning for reopening grew each week. By the time museums were allowed to open, many Michigan museums knew just what they were going to do.
So clearly, there were different ways that businesses and organizations approached dealing with the shut down. It made me wonder if there was something in particular about museums that made their leadership and staff more likely to jump into preparing for reopening in a way that others didn’t. And then I read the mindset article and I had an “ah ha” moment. I think the difference between the museums I was hearing from and the businesses in Northern Michigan were about mindset.
The original definitions of the two mindsets related to abilities but I think it can also apply to how a person or organization functions. People and organizations with a fixed mindset seem to focus on how things “are” or “have always been” and those with a growth mindset tend to see “what is possible”. When COVID-19 hit, those with a fixed mindset waited to respond, maybe thinking they would hold out until everything went back to the way it was. People and organizations with a growth mindset, on the other hand, seemed to respond by thinking about what was possible despite all the changes.
I know that not all museums began preparing for reopening even when a date was in sight. It may just be that those organizations and staff with a growth mindset were the ones that sought information and opportunities to connect with others. But I also think that the museum community tends to attract people with a growth mindset, perhaps because the museum community attracts people who tend to be outliers in one way or another. Perhaps the field gathers those who look beyond what is set and stable, and push into other territory.
I remember when I started working in museums that I felt like I had found my people. All of my non-museum friends thought my interests in history and food stories were quirky. But with museum people, I found many who shared those interests and more. The MMA Member Happy Hour last month reminded me of that, when social conversation amongst my museum colleagues revealed much more in common than our work. So perhaps the experience of forging our own paths on a personal level has given many in our field the experience of looking past what is obvious to seek new experiences and people who are a better fit.
Or, as does tend to happen, I could just be biased. It wouldn’t be the first time I took attributes that I find positive in many museum people I know and apply them to the whole museum community incorrectly. As I type this I can think of so many ways that museums and museum people represent a resistance to change or a commitment to the status quo. I will admit that one of the things that made me want to work in museums was a perceived sense of consistency and stability in the field. But maybe mindset and comfort with change are not the same thing? Maybe people who are resistant to change still embrace it when it is part of a growth mindset.
I regularly encounter museum people who are so determined and focused on their purpose or mission that they persist beyond what most others would do. I see this in small museums with very little funding that take on bigger projects expecting that it will work out (and it often does). I see this in museums with a very narrow scope or collection that find a way to use that to address bigger ideas (and they do it well). And I see this in organizations that are trying to better represent and connect with people of color and despite not having success, they keep trying (as we all should be).
Maybe I am just showing a “tad” of a bias toward museums when I claim a growth mindset for the whole community. But I don’t think I’m wrong in thinking that many museums and their staff have been proactive in addressing the many trials of COVID-19. Maybe this is because museum people tend to have more of a growth mindset because we are “quirky” and need to think differently to find our people. Maybe museum people tend to have more of a growth mindset because we have more experiences seeing roadblocks as opportunity, rather than barriers. I obviously need to do more than read one article to really understand how fixed and growth mindsets work, and whether there is a tendency to one or the other in the museum community. But it is definitely something to think about, and makes me feel hopeful.
As we approach the fall and another set of new challenges related to the pandemic as it seems to drag on endlessly, I am feeling more discouraged. It’s harder to push past bad news and stay focused on the part where we get to the other side of this. But I know that growth mindset is what will help us all get through, field-wide or not. There are a lot of “cannots” right now and I think a few more to come. But staying focused on the “can” or at least “how to find the can” will get us farther that just stopping a waiting for the “cannots” to go away. Hang in there!
Lisa Craig Brisson