Friday, November 23, 2012

THE school playground is the breeding ground for so many things in life that we may not realise the most important thing it fosters in children: Their mindset.

Think of it this way: Every year in every class there are smart kids, slow kids, fast kids, fat kids, small kids, messers, nerds, jokers… the list is endless. But what do these labels mean and what do they tell us about the way that we look at the world? Who decides what group you fit into it? And how do you escape the narrow parameters of those stereotypes?

If you’re schooled to believe that you were smart, did you find that the further you went the harder it was to accept failure? Did you find it harder to try new things?

And what if you were schooled to believe that you were slow – did you think that was a label that would survive eternally? Regardless of what you did or where you went, did that thought stick to your brain like Velcro?

Negative thoughts breed more negative thoughts so that when, for example, you spill a drink or drop a plate, your mind tells you it’s a crisis and you’re a failure. Praising children for their abilities, their talents and their skills are actually detrimental because, inadvertently, it tells them that those traits are fixed and cannot be altered. They do no make the leap from working hard to making progress. In those minds, effort is a sign of failure rather than a necessary tool to further yourself.

According to Carol Dweck, the author of Mindset, there are two ways of looking at the world. Those with a fixed mindset believe things are finite – if you’re smart, you’re smart and if you’re not you’re not. There’s nothing you can do about it.

But those with the growth mindset believe the complete opposite. That working hard and making mistakes are all part of the learning curve – you’re never limited by your own limitations when you look at the world in that way.

The reason all this came to mind was the story of Jason Tompkins from Athy. As he reveals in an interview in this week’s paper (page 80), he has grown up without knowing his mother – who died when he was just five – and he buried his father when he was 19.

Not alone has he had to cope with the loss of both parents at a very young age but a rare, lung condition forced him to quit his job as a labourer. His condition – which the doctors have not been able to name or explain fully – has caused him incredible pain. Four times his lung has collapsed, necessitating major surgery while even the thought of the remedies would make you wince. Once he had a medical glue injected into his lung through a jumbo-sized needle and for half an hour he felt like he was drowning as he rocked back and forth trying to spread the glue-like substance around his lung.

He says, without doubt: “It was the worst experience of my life.”

Most times his treatment involves a tube going into the side of his stomach to reinflate his lung. The only problem is that the tube is bigger than the gap between his ribs, which it has to pass through to reach his lung. For four or five days he feels his bone being pushed by this invasive plastic as it punches through muscle to repair the damage to his lung.

In his 27 years in the world, Jason Tompkins has endured the kind of suffering that makes life seem unfair but you won’t hear any bitterness in his voice. He is a man who has learned to survive and from adversity, he has prospered beyond his wildest dreams.

Eight years ago he began to play poker beyond the social remove of a Friday night-in with friends. Slowly but surely he sucked up as much information as he could, and with time on his hands because his rare condition rendered him unemployed, playing cards became a way of life. By the end of his first year he was starting to make money, and now, eight years later, he’s making a handsome living as a professional poker player.

Maybe it’s not what a parent would wish for their child but Tompkins can only guess what his father might have thought.

“I’d say he’d be pretty happy now that it worked out but I’d say at the start he’d have been like any other worried parent,” he says.

Last month, Jason Tompkins landed home from a tournament in San Remo, Italy with €171,000 in his back pocket, the prize for finishing fifth at the European Poker Tour’s second stop on its schedule for this season. In 2012, he will bank €250,000 in total winnings.

His story doesn’t tell us that we should all quit our jobs and take up poker. His story tells us that with the right mindset, anything is possible so long as you’re willing to work hard and enjoy the learning process. It has taken Tompkins eight years to get to the point where he’s banking the weekly wages of a Man City player in a calendar year but he believes that his first year – when he lost around €3,000 – was the best investment he ever made. And as he endured a brutal run of cards in his first year trying to break onto the Irish scene, he learned some invaluable lessons.

“I’m glad it (bad run) actually happened at the start, it gave me a lot of discipline. You learn from it really well, it probably made me the player I am.”

When you think of the growth mindset, think about Jason Tompkins. You’ll find some inspiration.

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