What Does It Mean to Have a Limitless Mind?

This blog post includes an excerpt from Limitless Mind by Jo Boaler, an expert in teaching mathematics for a growth mindset.

Is there a particular subject or skill that you’re convinced you can never learn or be good at, even if you study or practice endlessly?

What if I told you that for most of us, learning new skills and subjects is actually limited only by our perception? The research is increasingly clear: the idea that we simply don’t have or can’t develop certain abilities (e.g., “I’ll never be able to play the piano” or “I’m not a math person”) is, for most people, a myth. The reason some of us don’t feel like a “math person,” for example, isn’t because of some fundamental difference in our brains. Instead, it’s because our peers and mentors indicated it’s okay or normal to feel this way, and society reinforced that idea. Whether because of that or for other reasons, in most cases many of us never truly put in the time—and in particular, the struggle—necessary to grow our abilities. 

Jo Boaler's Limitless Mind (HarperOne, 2019) is an attempt to make the case, laid out in the form of six keys of learning, that we are capable of learning anything. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a seasoned professional trying to learn more in your field or a student who feels like a discipline just isn’t for you; these keys can empower you and disrupt the myth that you’re not cut out for any given ability. 

  • Key #1: Brain Growth. Understand that your brain is a complex organ that continues to grow throughout your life and offers limitless potential.
  • Key #2: Mindset. Approach learning with a growth mindset. That alone can overcome certain obstacles and enable learning.
  • Key #3: Struggle. Learning doesn’t take place when things are easy; it requires difficulty. Embrace mistakes as prime learning opportunities.
  • Key #4: Multiplicity. Learning is not about memorizing facts and procedures. (That includes math!) It requires being creative and approaching the same problem through multiple paths.
  • Key #5: Flexibility & Depth. Learning is not about speed. Understanding a concept isn’t about being able to do it fast; it’s about being able to engage with the concept in multiple contexts and in a deep way.
  • Key #6: Collaboration. You cannot do it alone. It is vital to listen to other people’s perspectives and build upon other people’s ideas.

To get a taste of the book and the ideas Jo Boaler explores, enjoy an excerpt of Limitless Mind below. (Note that this book is not associated with HMH, although it repeatedly references Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool’s Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise, a 2016 HMH title.)

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It was a sunny day and I stopped to appreciate the sunlight playing on the columns of the San Diego museum as I walked into my presentation. A flutter of nerves passed through me as I climbed the steps of the auditorium, ready to share the latest science on the ways we learn to a room packed with medical professionals. I speak regularly in front of teachers and parents but was uncertain how a different audience would relate to my latest discoveries. Would my ideas fall flat?

I needn’t have worried. The response from the group of medical professionals was the same as that of the many students and educators I regularly work with. Most were surprised, some were shocked, and all could immediately see the crucial connections of these ideas to their work and lives. Several even started to see themselves in a new light. Sara—an occupational therapist—rushed up to me afterward to tell me how she dropped out of a math major many years ago when the work got difficult and she felt as if she didn’t belong. She recalled an experience of being held back by damaging and incorrect beliefs about her ability. She believed, as most people do, that there were limits to what she could do.

But what if the opposite is true, and we can all learn anything? What if the possibilities to change our expertise, to develop in new directions, to form different identities as people are actually endless and continue throughout our lives? What if we wake up every day of our lives with a changed brain? This book will share evidence that our brains—and our lives—are highly adaptable, and that when people fully embrace this knowledge and change their approach to their lives and their learning, incredible outcomes result.

Almost every day I meet people who believe damaging ideas about themselves and their learning, and they come from all ages, genders, jobs, and walks of life. Typically people will tell me that they used to like math, art, English, or another subject area, but when they started to struggle, they decided they did not have the right brain for the work and gave up. When people give up on math, they also give up on all math-related subjects, such as science, medicine, and technology. Similarly, when people get the idea they cannot be a writer, they give up on all subjects in the humanities, and when people decide they are not artistic, they give up on painting, sculpture, and other aspects of the fine arts.

Every year millions of children start school excited about all they will learn, but quickly become disillusioned when they get the idea they are not as “smart” as others. Adults decide not to follow pathways they had hoped to pursue because they decide they are not good enough for them, or they are not as “smart” as other people. Thousands of employees enter meetings in the workplace anxious that they will be found out, and exposed for not “knowing enough.” These limiting and damaging ideas come from inside us, but they are usually sparked by incorrect messages sent by other people, and by institutions of education. I have met so many children and adults whose lives were limited by incorrect ideas that I decided it was time to write a book dispelling the damaging myths holding people back on a daily basis; it was time to offer a different approach to life and to learning.

When we learn the new science in this book and the six keys of learning I will present, our brains function differently, and we change as people. The six keys not only change people’s beliefs about their reality, they change their reality. This is because as we begin to realize our potential, we unlock parts of ourselves that had been held back and start to live without limiting beliefs; we become able to meet the small and large challenges we are faced with in life and turn them into achievements. The implications of the new science are important for everyone. For teachers, leaders, and learners, the changed possibilities created by this new information are far reaching.

I am a Stanford professor of education who has spent the last few years collaborating with brain scientists, adding their knowledge of neuroscience to my knowledge of education and learning. I regularly share the new knowledge that is in this book, and invite people to think differently about problems, and it changes the way they think about themselves.

The six keys of learning I will share in this book create opportunities for people to excel in the learning of different subjects, but they also empower them to approach life in a different way. They allow people to access parts of themselves that were previously unavailable. Before the journey I will set out in this book, I had believed that learning about brain science and the limitless approach would change how educators approached the teaching and learning of school subjects. Through the interviews I have conducted for this book—with sixty-two people from six different countries, people of different ages, jobs, and life circumstances—I discovered the limitless approach means much more than that.

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Developing a growth mindset in learners is critical to HMH's intervention solutions, with a particular emphasis built into MATH 180, where Jo Boaler's research was incorporated into the program's design.