16 mindsets, backed up by cognitive neuroscience, that LGBTQIA people can use to get ahead
by JOEY SAUNDERS
Listicles are hot right now. That’s not as dirty as it sounds. Admit it, you’ve probably clicked on one recently: a list-article proclaiming 20 reasons to date older guys, 10 signs you’re an introvert and an extrovert, or the top 15 lessons for leading a happier life. If you’re like me, you like that things have been condensed into an easily-digested list form, but you’re left frustrated, wondering, “Where’s the research behind this?”
The truth is, there usually isn’t any. So, I have become skeptical when it comes to listicles. Then, some of my graduate courses at Johns Hopkins University introduced me to neuroscientific research that seemed to lend itself to the form. However, readers can rest assured that what follows is based on mountains of scientific research, particularly Carol Dweck, a renowned social psychologist with a Ph.D. from Yale, Arthur Costa, Ed. D., Bena Kallick, Ph. D., and Dr. Mariale Hardiman, co-founder of the Neuro-Education Initiative, whom I just spoke with this February in Washington, D.C.
Basically, this failed attempt at humble-bragging is my way of saying “This listicle could legitimately be really helpful because it isn’t just a bunch of clichés and personal opinions.” These are 16, as Costa and Kallick call them, “Habits of Mind” that can help you act more intelligently and effectively.
First, you should know that intelligence is not fixed. While the brain develops most rapidly when we are very young, it remains plastic throughout life. Not plastic as in Regina George in “Mean Girls,” plastic as in neuroplasticity; the brain can change, grow, and re-grow throughout life. This includes a person’s IQ as well as their practical and emotional intelligence.
While “brain-training” games, like Lumosity (currently settling a deceptive advertising lawsuit for over $2 million dollars), haven’t been proven to make any difference, something simpler has. The idea that intelligence and character traits are something we are born with and cannot change is a dangerous myth that leads to a “Fixed Mindset.” However, you can shift your mindset. Having a “Growth Mindset,” the idea that you can increase your intellectual abilities, is more psychologically powerful than any ginkgo biloba supplement or brain-training app could ever be. Like with sexuality, most people fall somewhere on a spectrum between having a total Growth or total Fixed Mindset. Still, having a strong disposition toward a Growth Mindset is vital when it comes to building a better brain.
As I write this, measure SRJ 39 has just passed with first-round approval in the Missouri Senate. The measure is an anti-gay piece of legislation thinly veiled as a push to protect religious freedom. Translation? If it passes the next round of senate votes, Missourians would now be able to refuse certain services to queer people if they cite their religious beliefs as the reason for doing so. Heroically, Missouri’s Democratic state senators filibustered the measure for almost 40 consecutive hours before Republicans forced the vote with a seldom-implemented procedural tactic.
My point is, yes, persistence seems obvious. However, it is easy to get complacent when the scales start to tip in your favor. Yes, clearly, successful people do their best to always persevere in the face of adversity, but they also strive to constantly improve even when the outlook is bright. It is undeniably exciting to live in a country where marriage equality is the law of the land and HIV/AIDS is nothing like the horrific death sentence it once was, but there is still so much work to be done. We must persist as a community to fight for anti-discriminatory laws, equal pay, and equal rights overseas.
On a more micro level, persistence is crucial because life is typically harder for queers. Growing up as an invisible minority produces psychological trauma and shame. While the world has come a long way, queers are still being bullied, beaten and killed like any other disenfranchised group. Putting in more effort and hard work is important, but it’s always important to remember that no amount of persistence will ever make anyone less queer. Whether conscious or subconscious, it is common to develop a need to constantly attain more. However, no amount of power, wealth, fame, or physical attractiveness will ever “make up for” how different you are. Be persistent toward authenticity. Don’t confuse persistence with stubbornness, though. Intelligent people are able to take a step back and re-evaluate mistakes. There is a difference between starting over and trying a new strategy and giving up.
2. Managing impulsivity
This one is a little more surprising. In America, being able to make decisions quickly is widely regarded as a valuable trait. Spontaneity is seen, by many, to be very sexy. We are conditioned to want instant gratification more than ever thanks to the modern world of iPhones, Grindr and Netflix. And, just as many LGBTQIA people may become addicted to achieving validation through material success or sculpting the perfect body, it isn’t uncommon to seek out drugs, alcohol and sex for similar reasons.
While it may not be as exciting, more efficacious, intelligent people succeed by thinking before they act. Taking the time to develop a vision, plan or goal is the best way to problem solve. It might seem really exciting to drop everything and fly to Mykonos on a whim, but even in that instance, you’re probably going to have a better time if you do a little research ahead of time. Being deliberate and having the foresight to build something can be sexy too.
3. Taking Calculated Risks
That being said, if you never try to succeed, you fail by default. There’s a difference between being impulsive and being adventurous. A good adventurer makes plans, but isn’t hung up on limits. You can avoid making (some) stupid mistakes, but that doesn’t mean you should always follow the status quo. Uncertainty shouldn’t frighten you; it should whet your desire for discovery.
4. Finding Humor
While minorities definitely have a duty to help educate our more privileged counterparts, we don’t constantly have to be so serious or politically correct. When Lea DeLaria, star of Orange is the New Black, recently spoke at the University of Missouri-Kansas City’s Pride Lecture, she spoke of how, while she was living in San Francisco, the AIDS crisis brought gays and lesbians together in an unprecedented way. The lesbians, she said, taught gay men to stand up and fight while the gay men taught lesbians how to laugh even in the most dire circumstances. Humor is incredibly powerful.
To laugh, or better yet, to craft humor that makes others laugh, our brain must make new connections that have astounding physiological and psychological responses. We are more prone to creation and inventiveness, higher level thinking skills are activated, our blood becomes more oxygenated and we secrete more endorphins when we laugh.
5. Listening to Others with Understanding and Empathy
This is one of the most fundamental keys to all human relationships, whether they’re queer or straight, romantic, platonic, or business. Yet, we are so solipsistic that we tend to be much more worried about what we are going to say than what we could be hearing in the moment. Why do you think that is? It’s because we all have an inherent yearning to be understood. When someone you care about is complaining to you, do yourself a favor and just listen. Then, I know it’s hard, but don’t offer them your terrible, ad-libbed advice. Don’t play devil’s advocate or criticize them. Avoid being a Monday morning quarterback.
Instead, ask them clarifying questions to help you understand the situation better, then be attuned enough to what they’re saying and their body language that you can validate their feelings and tell them that you understand. It sounds a little treacly, or like something from a Dale Carnegie handbook, but you would be surprised how much this helps.
One caveat: If you genuinely disagree with someone, ask them clarifying questions so that you have as much information as possible, so they feel heard and so you can make a more informed decision. Last year, I interviewed an “ex-gay” man who ran a religious reparative (gay conversion) therapy camp. Even though we had antipodal views, I knew I would get a better, more honest story from him if I didn’t view him as a monster and tried to dig deep into his past and his psyche to understand him. In the real world, there are no heroes and villains, just differing viewpoints. It’s okay to voice disagreements, but it’s important to know as much about the thing you disagree with as possible.
6. Thinking Flexibly
Speaking of disagreements, there’s no shame in “evolving” on a particular subject, as neoliberals like Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama will tell you. If you gather all the facts and they don’t support your hypothesis, switch sides. It doesn’t mean you’re weak; it means your brain is working. As the father of lateral thinking, Edward de Bono said, “If you never change your mind, why have one?”
This pairs well with empathic listening because flexible thinkers at high levels of intelligence are able to entertain competing thoughts. What I mean is, while ambivalence, being torn between two opposing viewpoints, may seem weak or indecisive, the truth is it is the mark of a strong mind. Flexibility also ushers in the mind’s ability to improvise as needed, think quickly on one’s feet, and develop a stronger intuition.
7. Metacognition (Thinking About Thinking)
Metacognition is just a fancy way of describing a fairly simple process that occurs in our neocortex. Effective people think about how they think- they reflect. Maybe they meditate or outline. What it really boils down to is being able to differentiate what we do know from what we don’t know, and to come up with strategies to learn what we don’t know. Then, in an ideal world, we would reflect on those strategies to figure out if there might be a better way to do things next time or, if that way of thinking and learning worked really well, we file it away and come back to it later. For some people, this is instantaneous, but for others the habit might need to be learned, particularly the self-reflection.
8. Striving for Accuracy and Precision
While perfectionism can lead to a fear of failure that, if left unchecked, can become chronic procrastination, there is no harm in always striving to do your best work. Craftsmanship and attention to detail are impressive. Don’t be afraid to seem like you care about something- people will notice and any initial twinges of jealousy usually give way to respect.
9. Questioning and Posing Problems
Speaking of respect, make sure it’s earned. There’s a diplomacy to questioning authority; you can’t be tactless about it. Still, if you are being taught something, told something, or are reading a listicle, don’t be afraid to ask for a reliable source of evidence. Even better? Come up with your own questions. One of the best ways to truly exercise and engage your mind is to find your own problems to solve. Explore science, literature, math, languages, art, sex, food, sports, the world. Bonus points if your exploration leads to new discoveries.
10. Applying Past Knowledge to New Situations
This is how you know you’ve truly learned something. I implore you to immerse yourself in novel situations, but it would be ridiculous not to let your previous experiences inform new ventures.
11. Creating, Imagining, and Innovating
Hopefully you’ve finished imagining that horrible image and have replaced it with something more palatable. Having trouble? Maybe you just aren’t creative. Actually, more and more evidence reveals that we have mythologized inherent creativity. The idea that creativity can’t be taught is as ludicrous as it is widely-believed. While queers often gravitate toward creative fields as a means of self-expression, scientists haven’t discovered a “creativity gene.”
Instead, education experts point to environmental factors and schooling as the greatest determiners when it comes to creativity. Schools don’t tend to teach this skill and often propagate the myth that some people are born innovators, while others are not. Another factor is a person’s ability to take and utilize criticism. People who have practiced and mastered their ability to create are generally more open to criticism. It can also lead to striving toward more authentic work instead of seeking vapid rewards. Like an actor who acts to explore the human condition, not to get applause or garner riches or fame. Innovators are becoming highly sought after throughout the global market as well. In fact, in a TED talk. education guru Sir Ken Robinson posited that, “Creativity is now as important in education as literacy, and we should treat it with the same status.”
12. Responding with Wonderment and Awe
Don’t be so turned off to the world that you can’t look around and find something to be really amazed by now and again. Seek things that make you feel like a kid again, that thrill you. Whether it’s an emotive movie, an eloquent piece of writing, a masterful work of art, a striking sunset, the solution to an impossible math problem, or sex in a forest during a rainstorm atop a felled tree, let yourself be moved. Being too closed off to this particular brand of joy is an impediment to learning. It may also be a sign of depression (in which case, don’t be afraid to talk to someone, like a therapist, who can listen empathically and non-judgmentally to you).
13. Think and Communicate Clearly and Precisely
There isn’t anything wrong with “Yas, kween,” “Bye, Felicia,” “I can’t even,” “shade,” and all of the other queer vernacular phrases that the LGBTQIA community tends to absorb or churn out. However, being able to balance that with your own ability to express yourself with a clear, expansive vocabulary will earn you more respect and broaden your mind. That means making an effort to dispense with truncating sentences or words, using over-generalized terms, or falling back on your usual, vague cadre of descriptors. Our ears start to get bored, and our minds dull when all we hear or say is “literally,” “stuff,” “awesome,” “nice,” “weird,” “fierce,” etc.
14. Being Sensual
Don’t get too excited. I just mean gather data through all of your senses. All of our experiences are episodic grasps at reality. Trippy, I know, but the truth is our brain is so overstimulated that it is constantly trying to simplify and classify all of the chaotic, commingling atoms so we don’t go completely insane and can trick ourselves into thinking we’re leading a meaningful existence. Fun, right? Anyway, this need to interpret reality into something finite leads to oversimplification (like homophobia, racism, and optical illusions) so, often, it’s in our best interest to step back and experience things more holistically. We have five senses. Sometimes our brain focuses more closely on certain sensory input. With increased intelligence and effectiveness comes the ability better control your senses and to be more observant. Stop and smell the roses, then feel the thorns, notice how red the petals are, hear the cyclist coming so you can get the hell out of his way, and taste the blood droplet forming on your finger (who told you to touch the thorns, anyway?).
15. Thinking Interdependently
Whether you’re an introvert or extrovert, you are human. Humans are social beings. Research has shown us that nothing is quite as cruel and punishing to the human mind as solitary confinement. Realizing that cooperation is power can sometimes be difficult when we’ve worked so hard to promote individualism and autonomy. Still, if we are going to achieve anything, we need to learn to collaborate effectively.
LGBTQIA people have hard work to finish. Now, more than ever, we must be there for each other. How can we stand to preach inclusivity if we are divided by class or race? Gay or lesbian, cisgender or trans, we must unify to protect the momentum we have gained and to prevail ultimately and magnificently.
16. Learning Continuously
Highly effective people do not confront mysteries with fear but with a sense of wonder and as a welcome opportunity to learn.