In the summer of 1952, cinemas, bars, swimming pools, and bowling alleys in Texas were shut. Church services were suspended. It was the height of the polio epidemic.
Six-year-old Paul Alexander came in from playing outside in the rain that July. He wasn’t feeling well. His mother knew right away that he had polio. With the hospitals already crowded, he was advised to stay at home.
Paul spent the first day in bed hastily filling in Roy Rogers's coloring books as if it might be his last chance. In the following days, his condition worsened. His fever soared, and his limbs ached. Within five days, he could no longer hold a crayon, cough, speak, or swallow. His parents hurriedly drove him to the hospital.
The doctor took one look at Paul lying on a gurney and said nothing could be done for him. He was left in a hallway, barely breathing. A second doctor found him lying there, wheeled him into an operating room, and performed an emergency tracheotomy.
Three days later, Paul woke up in a metal and glass tube. He couldn’t speak. He couldn’t cough. He couldn’t even move his body, only his head. The tube was breathing for him because his lungs had stopped working. He thought he was dead. “I kept asking myself: Is this what death is?” he said. “Is this a coffin? Or have I gone to some undesirable place?”
In the coming years, Paul taught himself to write by clenching a plastic wand between his teeth. He learned how to breathe on his own using a technique he called “frog breathing.” By the end of his first year living with polio, he could breathe outside the tube that had become his permanent home for three minutes.
Paul was home-schooled, one of the first in Texas. After finishing high school, he attended the University of Texas while still living in his so-called “iron lung.” He memorized lectures. He couldn’t take notes and graduated second in his class, earning only one B because he could not dissect a rat. (He’s still mad about it.)
He earned a law degree, became a trial lawyer, and tried cases from his wheelchair. “And I was a damn good one, too,” he says. He devoted eight painstaking years to writing his memoir, one tap of the wand at a time. At 76, he’s currently writing a second book.
Paul’s story offers a fascinating perspective on the mindset needed to overcome tragedy.
In 1952 alone, about 60,000 children were infected with the polio virus, killing more than 3,000 and paralyzing thousands more. It is hard to imagine a situation that would strike fear into the hearts of parents and children more than a child being diagnosed with polio. And yet Paul Alexander has been facing his daily fears and challenges for seventy years. “I decided I was going to fight this,” Paul said. “I was going to have a life.”
Why is it that some people, like Paul, can create a meaningful life from extreme circumstances while most of us have difficulty just getting to the gym? How do we accept and adapt to change rather than resist? Is there a mindset we could develop that would allow us to adjust to life’s changing circumstances rather than fighting against them?
Philosophers have been attempting to answer this question for millennia. While there is still much to discover about the human mind, one of the most consistent realizations is that having a “soft and flexible mind,” as Zen Master Dōgen put it, is most effective for dealing with change.
A mindset is a deeply held belief, position, or attitude.
It is a way of thinking, an approach to life. Mindsets help simplify complexity while keeping us psychologically safe. They are borne from experiences. From our experiences, we make distinctions and see patterns. From these patterns, we form beliefs about the world. When we say, “I’ve made up my mind,” we create a mindset.
Once mindsets are formed, they have far-reaching consequences for our everyday experience of life—whether we are consciously aware of them or not.
They direct our attention and guide how we spend our time and with whom. They shape how we perceive other people, situations, and events. They impact what we think and say, our decisions and our actions. They reflect who we believe ourselves to be, what we stand for, and what we are capable of. They influence how we think we should function and behave in society and how we treat others and ourselves.
Mindsets are self-reinforcing, causing us to behave in ways that bolster our beliefs and values while rejecting ideas that do not support our views. Together, they form the foundation for our broader paradigms and mental models. Mindsets create our shared reality. What is inside of us—our beliefs, attitudes, and assumptions—manifests externally out into the world.
Mindsets are not reality—because they are mental formations, they are incomplete and imperfect.
“Most people are bad drivers.” (I’m a good driver)
“I tried meditating, but my mind was too busy.” (I must be built differently)
“I’m a good listener.” (People trust me)
“Republicans/Democrats are idiots.” (My party is right)
“Some people are natural born salespeople.” (I could never do sales)
“I’m good with numbers” (most people aren’t)
“I’ve tried dieting, but none of them worked.” (It’s my genes)
“I’m terrible with names.” (I’m flawed)
As you can see, your mindsets can work for or against you.
A helpful mindset allows you to see the best in yourself and others and helps you build lasting relationships and overcome challenges. A harmful attitude causes you to see yourself and the world negatively, creating conflict and making it difficult to make meaningful progress. People with negative attitudes are more likely to engage in destructive behaviors like eating unhealthy foods, not exercising, ruminating about the past, or worrying about the future.
Mindsets have the power to define your current life and future self.
“The pleasure we derive from journeys is perhaps dependent more on the mindset with which we travel than on the destination we travel to.” ― Alain de Botton
Any attempt to shift your mindset will be met with resistance.
Change may be the most defining characteristic of our shared humanity. Everything is continually changing, including ourselves. A flower blossoms and wilts. We buy a bowl, and it breaks. We are angry one moment and laughing the next. We are born into this world, live for a time and die. We know this, yet our typical reaction is to oppose change—the mind is inflexible, clinging to what it likes and resisting what it dislikes.
That said, simpler mindsets (e.g., “I don’t like short-haired dogs”) are easier to shift. More complex ones, where transformation is at stake (e.g., “I’m not a good leader”), are exponentially more change-resistant.
The good news is that the mind and mindsets are not fixed.
In fact, “mindsets are highly changeable,” says Dr. Jacob Towery. “and if you are willing to learn the technology of changing your mindset and defeating your distorted thoughts, you can have significantly more happiness.”
“Be formless, shapeless, like water,” said Bruce Lee. “You put water into a cup, it becomes the cup. You put water into a bottle, it becomes the bottle. You put it into a teapot, it becomes the teapot.”
1. Become aware of your mindsets. Awareness is the first step to change. Without awareness, change is impossible. Awareness is developed by observing your thoughts, emotions, beliefs, and behaviors without judgment. For example, if you tend to go into meetings believing, “Everyone is so well-spoken except for me,” just notice this belief. Observe it without judging it as good or bad, right or wrong.
2. Allow your mindsets to exist without trying to change or fix them. Once you become aware of a belief, don’t resist or try to fix it. Doing so will only serve to reinforce your view. Instead, see it for what it is and allow it to exist. Give it space and let it breathe. “To give your sheep or cow a large spacious meadow is the way to control him,” said Shunryū Suzuki. Similarly, the way to control your mind is to give it an open pasture.
3. Inquire about your mindsets to discover where they come from and how they affect you. Where is this mindset coming from? How is it serving me? Inquiring into your beliefs allows you to see them more clearly and relate to situations and people in a new and more profound way. For example, I used to think most people were terrible drivers. But this belief was making me angry, so I inquired. I discovered that only about ten percent of the drivers on the highway are driving “badly” at any moment. Ten percent hardly constitutes “most people.” Sometimes I have to remind myself of this truth when I forget.
4. Question your self-talk to see if what you believe is true. The human mind has a “mind of its own” and sees patterns and draws conclusions. Questioning your thoughts and challenging your beliefs opens you to the possibility that what you accept as true may not be accurate. If you try cooking a new recipe that doesn’t taste the way you expected, does that mean you are a lousy cook or need more practice cooking the meal?
5. Set intentions for what you want to manifest in the world. How do you want to live? What is the life you want to create for yourself and others? Our intentions influence our minds. Our brains fire electrical waves in preparation a few milliseconds before taking voluntary action. Though outside of conscious awareness, this preparation is triggered by our intention. Our intentions powerfully influence our lives through our thoughts and behaviors. One of my intentions is to become a better writer. I’m becoming more skilled at writing by setting and practicing this intention daily.
To create the life you imagine, you must be willing to engage your beliefs and consciously nurture your mindsets.
Cultivating a mindset is about turning toward the natural fluidity of life rather than trying to control it. It’s bringing a spirit of inquiry, experimentation, and tinkering in the service of living. It’s surrendering ideas about whom you will become and engaging freely with the process and path, embracing life moment by moment, belief by belief, and one step at a time.
As your mindsets move from static to dynamic, your perspectives will evolve, as will your capacity to welcome ambiguity and embrace paradox. More profound wisdom, effectiveness, freedom, and flexibility will be revealed.