July 24, 2014

Lessons from Rural India: Human Potential is Unknowable. ~ Caley Mikesell


I live in a village in which anonymous goats wander into my home at least as often as the electricity cuts on and off.

So it’s odd that I find myself learning a life lesson from a Western sport I haven’t played in several months, but the unexpected input of rural India and tennis has revealed some unique wisdom about human potential.

When I started learning how to play tennis one of the many other issues that came and went was a sort of stutter with the backswing on my backhand.

It was a staccato mechanical error; I’d backswing half way, stop my arms before completion, finish the backswing, and then finish the stroke. The problem with a stuttering backswing is that everything in tennis happens too fast to allow for such useless indulgences in time, such superfluous movements.

And, like everything in tennis, it was a mental hitch that produced this staccato.

Too much overthinking.

I’ve often felt this issue with regards to other areas of my life—forming new relationships, playing music, speaking a new language.

A staccato sort of backswing between thought and action, a hesitation produced by the mental hitch of overthinking, self doubt, and needless worry.

After hours upon hours of practice, that stutter in my backstroke eventually went away. And the really exciting thing is, after hours upon hours of pushing myself out of my comfort zone and subjecting myself to new experiences here in India, I’m changing my mental strokes, too.

I’m streamlining my backswing so that it’s a help and not a hindrance, cutting out my fear about fixed inadequacy, what-ifs, and unnecessary worries. I’m developing less hesitation between thinking and doing, between ideas and execution.

If tennis taught me anything, it’s that developing mental habits is extremely tough, but absolutely necessary. Being on the other side of the world living in a harsh environment in a radically different culture is a ripe opportunity for grooving new strokes. Nearly every moment of every day is a new experience and thus a new opportunity for a new response.

Aside from direct experiences, the most significant help in grooving new mental strokes has been MindSet by Carol Dweck. If you were to spend a day at my NGO, SEEKHO, it’s unlikely you could avoid hearing her terms “growth mindset” and “fixed mindset.”

Our fixed or growth mindset underpins just about everything we do.

In a fixed mindset, we believe that qualities such as IQ, creativity, athleticism, artistic ability and musicality are unchangeable qualities. That we are born with a fixed set of abilities and, no matter what we do, we can’t change these qualities much.

Contrastingly, the growth mindset holds that such qualities are fluid. We may all have different starting points, but we can all also improve our IQ, athleticism or musicality through dedicated time and effort.

The implications of your mindset are pervasive. Do you live in a world where you were been born with rigid gifts and deficiencies? In which you live your life trying to prove to yourself and others that you fall into the gifted and not the deficient categories? In a world of natural hierarchy?

Or do you live in a world in which change and positive development are possible for everyone? In which every child can learn and improve? In which human potential is unknowable?

I’ve never lived in a world strictly framed by the fixed mindset. Yet the process of rewriting a handful of those habits out of my mental dialogue has been extremely difficult, but absolutely necessary to my learning to thrive here amongst the rogue goats and Typhoid outbreaks.

We need not trek to the other side of the world and immerse ourselves in a different culture to change our mental habits. It might be easier in a new environment, but nearly every moment of every day is a new experience and thus a new opportunity for a new response.

Like every human being on this Earth, your potential is unknowable. Use that knowledge as license to honestly dedicate time and effort to developing something in yourself that you care about. Maybe you’ll surprise yourself as much as I have.



Love elephant and want to go steady?

Sign up for our (curated) daily and weekly newsletters!



Apprentice Editor: Guenevere Neufeld / Editor: Travis May

Photo: via author

Leave a Thoughtful Comment

Read 0 comments and reply

Top Contributors Latest

Caley Mikesell