The Challenge of Palm Tree

This month, I share a story of how a change in mindset helped me to improve my yoga practice. The reflection led me to Carol Dweck’s important work on fixed and growth mindsets. I hope you find it a refreshing read. Please let me know how I can help you or your organization explore the creative gifts we all possess.

In this post:

Story: The Challenge of Palm Tree

I want to do Palm Tree. I should be able to do Palm Tree. Doing Palm Tree would be good for me. I’m no good at Palm Tree. Now that I’ve accepted that, I’m on my way to mastering Palm Tree.

I’ve been part of a weekly yoga class for the past four years. Sarah, our instructor, often includes Palm Tree in our routines. It’s a simple pose that I find particularly challenging. Essentially, the pose is just a matter of raising your hands over head and rising up on your toes. Unfortunately, it’s easier said than done. I often find myself doing a strange dance while pitching forward or back in search of my balance.

I recognize the value of mastering Palm Tree. The pose engages many of the major muscle groups, as well as the small muscles in the feet and lower legs, particularly those affecting balance. As a downhill skier, who often finds himself on icy streets in the winter, good balance is very important to me. I also know that increased foot strength will give me improved ski control this winter.

While doing my morning exercise routine one day I found myself frustrated because I didn’t seem to be gaining proficiency through practice. Actually, what I realized was that I’m not gaining proficiency through repetition. I have been visualizing myself as having the foot strength of an accomplished ballet dancer. I saw myself high on my toes with my heels as far from the ground as they could go. In recognizing how far I was from this idealized image of myself, I could only conclude that I’m a failure. It occurred to me, while indulging in my moment of self-pity, that I may have missed a few points in the journey from a desire to do something to mastery of a set of skills. Once I recognized this I was ready to begin my journey to mastering Palm Tree.

I started by checking my posture. I then raised my arms and only slightly lifted my heels from the floor. I can do this. I’ve chosen to focus on staying on my toes for a sustained period of time rather than on how high I can lift myself up for a short period of time. So far, I can regularly hold the pose for 10 breaths. As I approach my goal of holding the pose for 15 breaths I work to rise higher on my toes. Not bad for a failure.

Lessons learned:

I didn’t really start improving on my ability to perform Palm Tree until I accepted that I was a long way from being proficient at the yoga pose. It took me a while to accept my own incompetence. Once I accepted that doing the Palm Tree pose was not going to come easily, I started moving forward. I recognized that my frustration was bound up in the gap between where I was and where I wanted to be.

The way I was looking at the gap between where I was and where I wanted to be was critical to making progress. Once I started looking at the gap as part of a journey, rather than a sign of failure, things got much better. I started to focus on the work of improvement. The work of being a failure is just that, work. The work of skill building is even harder, but far more rewarding.

The difference is described by Carol Dweck as Mindset.” According to Dweck, we can have a “fixed” or “growth” mindset. Looking through the lens of the fixed mindset leads to placing ourselves (and others) in boxes: intelligent or not, creative or not, compassionate or not, etc. The lens of the growth mindset focuses on the qualities that lead to mastery: persistence, willingness to work, resilience, etc. Persons looking through a fixed mindset don’t view growth as a likely option. A person with a growth mindset is more likely to view obstacles as just a part of the journey to mastery.

Applying the lessons

My experience with a simple yoga pose led me into a reflection on my approach to problem solving. The concept of fixed vs. growth mindset is surprisingly simple, once I give it a little thought. Three things come to mind when I think of the complexity on the other side of that simplicity:

  1. I approach problems from both a fixed and growth mindset. Gaining an understanding of when I apply one or the other seems a great opportunity for self awareness.
  2. When I interact with others, I have expectations regarding the competence of the people I interact with. Sometimes these expectations are met, sometimes not so much.
  3. When my expectations of others are not being met, I have the opportunity to decide if I’m going to participate in a growth opportunity or just move on. Sometimes, I’m open to participating in the growth of others. Sometimes, I just need my expectations to be fully met.

I am not fully aware of when I approach things with a fixed or growth mindset. I’d like to think I could approach every situation with a growth mindset; that I could master any skill set and that I’d always be open to walking with others as they grow. The fact is, I’m good at some things and not so good with others. I’m OK with that. When I had heart by-pass surgery a few years ago, I specifically confirmed that the surgeon I had been referred to, not a student, would be performing the procedure. The surgery was necessary due to a rare birth defect. I was open to students observing the procedure but opposed to being anyone’s practice dummy. My biggest take-a-ways from this reflection are:

  • I’d prefer to view challenges with a growth mindset.
  • I am aware that it often only takes a moment to participate in encouraging a growth mindset in others.
  • I don’t need to always embrace a growth mindset. The important thing is to be intentional in my choices.

Food for thought

  • What is your default mindset: fixed or growth?
  • We make choices every day about when to do things for ourselves or have someone else do things for us. How does fixed/growth mindset fit into your decision making?
  • We regularly encounter people who are learning or new on the job. How do you decide when to be supportive or not?
  • How do you encourage others to cultivate persistence; a willingness to work; and/or resilience in the face challenges?


Carol Dweck: A Summary of The Two Mindsets

Tadasana – The Palm Tree Pose

Tadasana – The Palm Tree Pose

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Dan Lococo, PhD
, Barrier Knocker Downer
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