Decay Mindset

Written on June 30, 2022

As I sit here in my bed with something that might be the flu (hopefully not COVID again!) it strikes me that I never used to get sick this frequently. My younger self’s immune system would kick my current immune system’s ass.

It’s not just immunity: I feel like I’ve lost 20 IQ points if I so much as eat bread, yet younger-me smashed nutella on toast several times a day for years. I can’t even drink tea anymore because my stomach can’t handle the caffeine.

And then there’s cognitive faculties: although it’s true that my adolescent self struggled a little with social reasoning, he managed to memorise a hundred digits of pi, the whole periodic table, and a bunch of rote answers to VCE Legal Studies questions. The last time I used flash cards to learn something was back in uni and it was such an unpleasant experience that my brain now forcibly rejects any attempt at committing pointless facts to memory. I can barely remember a six digit two-factor authentication code in the five seconds it takes to transcribe it onto my computer.

To summarise my worldview, I see myself as a person in decay. Not necessarily a rapid decay, but a decay nonetheless. You might even say I have a Decay Mindset. There are studies that find that the speed of processing information peaks at 18-19 then immediately starts declining, and that short term memory peaks at 25, plateaues, then starts to decline at 35. Grim! The ability to evaluate people’s emotional states, and the extent of one’s vocabulary, peak much later, but how many people would actually look forward to those peaks?

Enter Growth Mindset. Growth Mindset, as popularised by Carol Dweck, is typically defined in relation to Fixed Mindset. The idea is that people with Growth Mindset view themselves as having the capacity to grow, via perseverance, along various dimensions including intellectual, whereas those poor Fixed Mindset’ers are convinced that innate genetic ability is the main factor that decides whether one will succeed, and that personal effort will only help you in acquiring narrow skills. Ostensibly, those with Growth Mindset deal with failure better and accomplish more over time compared to those with a Fixed Mindset. These findings have recently come under scrutiny after various studies found no actual benefit to Growth Mindset. Nonetheless, the term gets thrown around a lot at work and if anybody says that Growth Mindset has helped them in their lives, who am I to disagree?

But Decay Mindset has done me wonders. I’m more appreciative of the cognitive resources available to me in the present moment, and I’m encouraged to make the most of them before I lose them. I focus more on building things than on learning things, because I don’t trust my long term memory to store random facts for long, and yet in order to build anything non-trivial you need to go and learn things anyway, so I find myself learning a tonne and having something to show for it afterwards. I write down the things I learn as notes or blog posts, because I don’t trust myself to remember them in the future, which exercises my writing skills and solicits feedback from others. When I’m old and truly decayed I’ll be able to look back and say ‘Wow look at all this stuff that younger-me produced!’. And the best part is that if I’m wrong I’ll have produced a bunch of stuff without having decayed at all: the best of both worlds!

Does this mean I want to lobby for schools to swap out Growth Mindset education for Decay Mindset? No way: my sample size of one includes only people who swallowed the hard pill of determinism years ago. But if further studies definitely discredit Growth Mindset, who knows, maybe Decay Mindset will take its place.