Is your brain to blame if you’re all filled up without room to grow?

by | Apr 9, 2022 | Blog | 0 comments

“Wow, it’s obvious you’re not working for the Chamber of Commerce,” one of my local realtor friends exclaimed when she heard about the “What it’s like to live and work in Charleston” workshops I conduct for employers.

You’re right, I responded. My purpose is to help expats and other professionals new to town understand the local culture and figure out how they can best navigate it. Employers recruited these individuals to serve as change champions. It’s in everyone’s interest for the employees to acclimate to enjoy living here and do well at work.

Also consider the employees’ perspective, I continued. When you decide to pack up your family and your belongings to move thousands or even just hundreds of miles here, you deserve a realistic preview of the city and work culture, not something that’s sugarcoated.

Sugar is a necessary ingredient for all the desserts we love to eat here, but not for your new job. As you digest your new situation, you want to figure out what to do – especially if you’ve traded working in a major business hub for the lifestyle city of Charleston.

As one of the oldest US cities, Charleston is known for its natural beauty, significant architecture and history, mouthwatering food, wine, and beer, and world-class entertainment. Only 10 years ago did the area start to attract global businesses when Boeing opened its plant here. Other large companies have followed. The city has been growing so quickly that now “Charleston full” bumper stickers are showing up on vehicles.

This “Charleston full” sentiment shapes an observable difference between many locals and the recent transplants: two mindsets that orient thinking about learning and intelligence. Growth mindset is about believing you can “improve” yourself. (You’re a work in progress focused on learning and growing.) Fixed is about believing you need to “prove” yourself. (You’re proud of what you know, a la your brain is full.)

Expats, corporate executives, and knowledge workers who come to Charleston tend to have a growth mindset. It may not be an explicit job requirement, but it’s certainly a prerequisite to being open to new experiences, new people, and new ideas as a change agent. These individuals often have diverse life and work experiences, and are also diverse in their demographics, thinking skills and often skill sets.

By contrast, those who’ve lived in Charleston longer are often more focused on protecting and preserving their way of life. They tend to go with the flow to support friends and families, especially those who share their backgrounds, experiences, and lifestyles. For individuals with more of a fixed mindset, it can be harder to change and easier to get stuck, especially when feeling fearful or uncertain.

Dr. Carol Dweck, the researcher who discovered mindsets, cautions that there are no pure mindsets. Instead, we operate on a spectrum with a preference that we can change if we try.

At work, these strong opposing preferences can create tensions. My workshop expat participants already working in Charleston are relieved to know about mindsets and eager to share the challenges they’re already experiencing. The most common? During problem-solving meetings, those with a fixed mindset look for people and situations to blame or they stay quiet while those with a growth mindset lean forward and and suggest ideas.

Opposing mindsets also notice friction around empathy, imagination, and echo chambers, as I recently experienced.

My story. On a cold rainy January evening, my husband and I went to a members-only event to see an exhibit at an established museum in Charleston. The artwork was amazing, but everything else about the night was unnerving.

After leaving the exhibit to collect our coats from the unattended coat rack near the lobby, I discovered my distinctive long black reversible raincoat with hood was missing. Among the remaining coats on the rack was a smaller, shorter coat with a big collar but no hood.

The museum’s executive director, whom we know, was standing nearby so my husband told her about my missing coat. She said another member had probably taken it by accident, and I should check in with her the next day.

Nothing like this had ever happened before, she said, and she was sorry.

We were surprised and started asking questions. Any video footage? None. Why no security procedures in place such as tickets for coats or someone watching the coat rack? Not deemed worth the cost (and still not).

I left the museum coatless shivering in the cold rain. (As a colleague with a growth mindset observed, “How hard is it put yourself in this situation? And can’t you show you at least ‘pretend care’? And couldn’t she have loaned you one of the museum umbrellas sold in the gift shop?” But that takes empathy.)

The next afternoon when I called the museum, I learned the “good news.” The raincoat most like mine was still there. What about sending out an email message to the members at the event? Yes, that was possible but the museum was understaffed because several staff members were working at home. Puzzled about this non-sequitur, I offered to draft the email for the museum.

No members responded to the message. Nor has anyone turned in my raincoat or come looking for their coat.

Since I love my unique missing raincoat, I kept suggesting sleuthing ideas, but was told “No, we can’t do that,” illustrating the lack of imagination.

About four weeks after losing my coat, I contacted the museum’s PR firm to ask if they could help, considering their responsibility to protect the museum’s reputation.

The PR firm works as an echo chamber, confirming conventional wisdom that those with a fixed mindset like to work with individuals who reinforce their thinking. The special twist here? The PR firm’s founder, who also sits on the museum’s board of directors, sent me a misdirected derogatory email message with poor punctuation.

Besides showing fixed mindsets that are unwilling to change, this experience has rocked my opinion of Southern charm, manners, and hospitality. Bless your heart!


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