It's all about the mindset
Interview By Arne Rubinstein
Ash Buchanan’s formal bio explains that he is a design and developmental consultant with over ten years’ experience spanning the areas of wellness, leadership and sustainability. His portfolio includes architectural projects in the built environment as well as advisory roles supporting organisational change.
His passion however, lies in Positive Psychology – its premise is that the absence of psychological issues is not the same as the presence of psychological wellbeing and resilience. It seeks to explore what’s right with people, to gain a more scientifically rigorous and complete picture of human nature, and to understand what constitutes the optimal functioning of individuals, groups and institutions.
During his Master of Applied Positive Psychology studies, Ash focused on the importance of mindset – the deeply-held stories we tell ourselves about the nature of reality. More notably, the definition of an additional mindset to the two already defined and best-known paradigms Fixed Mindset and Growth Mindset.
Benefit Mindset was spawned and ultimately defined as: “a way to describe and encourage the qualities of mind that some people use to promote thriving and wellbeing on both an individual and a collective level. The mindset of a person who is genuinely able to discover their gifts and strengths, and is empowered to use them to create a meaningful future of greater possibility.”
Ash is now a regular keynote speaker at wellness conferences such as the Positive Schools Mental Health & Wellbeing Conference, where his workshop explores the significance of our mindset in shaping a better future. It was during this national conference when our own Dr Arne Rubinstein caught up with him to dialogue about mindsets and how there’s an intrinsic link between benefit mindset and Rites of Passage.
Arne Rubinstein: Ash how did your work as a designer lead to your investigation of the the way we think and mindsets?
Ash Buchanan: Well I guess it's a bit by accident. For most of my career, I've been a design engineer working in sustainable planning. I was designing a lot of green initiatives and trying to create buildings that contributed to the environment, such as energy efficiency, water efficiency, being ecologically sensitive and reducing waste. I'd work with architects to design these amazing, world-leading buildings, we'd hand them over to our clients and what we'd find is that years down the track, these buildings that had been designed to perform at a certain level weren't actually living up to their potential. And organisations didn't know what was going on, the design team didn't know what was going on, and after doing that for ten years I kind of had a bit of a moment of insight - we'd been approaching sustainability as a technical challenge, and we'd neglected to acknowledge the human side of sustainability.
Arne Rubinstein: Can you break down the various mindsets you reference in your work or us?
Ash Buchanan: The fixed mindset, which is a concept founded by Carol Dweck, is based on the belief that we can't learn new things. A growth mindset is the belief that with effort, we can learn and that in order to reach our potential, we need to put in effort. The benefit mindset is something that I've been researching for the past few years, and it goes a step further than the growth mindset. It's based on the belief that with effort, we can make a meaningful difference. the belief we can be of value to one another. We choose to bring out the best in other people, choose to bring out the best in ourselves and we choose to bring out the best in our environment.
Arne Rubinstein: I'm very interested in how you see society, schools, the uptake, the world. Is this mindset concept coming into wellbeing programs?
Ash Buchanan: Yeah. I feel like there's a lot of amazing things happening at the moment in schools and in businesses around wellbeing, but we're only just learning how to articulate it now, and how to explain it and label it. And I think that's why these conferences are so valuable, because we're coming together to actually explain the good things that already exist, so we can promote them and encourage them to happen more often.
Arne Rubinstein: Well, there's probably a gap, a lag time between when we make this recognition and then actually get the ideas out into the felid. It can be hard for some schools to be early adopters.
Ash Buchanan: Yeah that’s right. But I really feel the benefit mindset is a powerful framework for highlighting how contribution is already showing up in schools. Where's lots of amazing things happening in schools that promote wellbeing. So the benefit of the framework is helping to give it a name so it can be studied and can be promoted.
I actually think all the mindsets, the fixed growth and benefit mindsets are valuable in the right context. We have a habit in society to polarise and say one thing is better than another, but really a fixed mindset is just, everyday habits and it's important to have everyday habits. But there's also context-specific times when it's valuable to be being open to learning and changing our perspective on things. It's also important to be of value and contribute. I think the real strength is when we acknowledge the value of all of these mindsets and use them in appropriate ways.
Arne Rubinstein: That's very interesting and I agree about this polarisation. In my work I focus a lot on Leadership and leadership skills development. Could you give us some context on when these various mindsets would be most ideal in different forms of leadership?
Ash Buchanan: I think the value is in when communities of people, in their specific context, ask that question of themselves. And so rather than looking to the expert to have a response to something like that, I actually think that the real magic is actually in the question that you just asked. Whereby students explore them in schools with their teachers, with their parents, in their specific situations. This is because, for example, the challenges facing children in an underprivileged area, where they're poorly funded, are quite different to the challenges that are facing privileged people living in a more privileged context.
Arne Rubinstein: I'm very interested that what you're saying about different mindsets being required at different times and contexts. It makes sense. When I read your model there's a part of me that says “I need to be in the benefit mindset or there's something wrong with me”. For example, when I work as a doctor in emergency, I can definitely see that there are times when the fixed mindset is absolutely the correct one for that situation. So I'm interested in that, and this idea ofbeing able to teach people about the different mindsets, and then for them to be able to discern what is most appropriate in that given situation.
Ash Buchanan: I really think of the framework as a compass. It's a navigation tool for everyday moments, for thinking about what mindset you're adopting and what mindset's appropriate for the context and situation that you're in. If you have the leadership abilities, maybe it is appropriate to use the benefit mindset, whereas if you don't feel like you possess those, maybe there's another mindset, maybe a learning mindset is more appropriate for you at that point. So I think it's a really powerful tool for us in framing these questions.
Arne Rubinstein: So when you started doing this work, the fixed mindset and growth mindset models already existed as excepted terminologies. Is there another mindset that you're working on or exploring out there? Is there a creative mindset?
Ash Buchanan: I like to think of those three mindsets as mindset archetypes, so it's just a tool to think about the orientation of thought. But ultimately, every single person has a different mindset at every single moment, and it's based on the experiences that they've had, and the context that they're in. So every single person's mindset is unique, and no one is a fixed mindset, same as there isn't a growth mindset and there isn't a benefit mindset. Rather, its a framework to explore about your minds orientation.
Arne Rubinstein: Even within these archetypes, I find the whole model fascinating, and I really like it and I relate to it. I’m wondering whether there is a matriculation through each of these ? Whereby the fixed mindset goes to growth, growth goes to benefit and so on. Does that lead somewhere else and also do they start branching off?
Ash Buchanan: Yeah, so at the moment the way I kind of think about it is they transcend and include one another. So if you have a fixed mindset, that's probably what you have. If you have a growth mindset, you're transcending and including your fixed mindset.
Arne Rubinstein: I'm just shooting from the hip here, but I'm wondering whether there's almost a spiritual or a faith-based mindset.
Ash Buchanan: I like that.
Arne Rubinstein: I've been asked to give a talk at the National Student Leadership Forum in Canberra later this year , and it's based on leadership through faith and values, so I'm interested in this concept of faith not having to necessarily be religiously based, and therefore whether faith is something that comes into a mindset where you just actually believe that it's going to work out or it's going to go where it's meant to go.
Ash Buchanan: Yeah, I love that concept. Can you tell me a bit more ... are you seeing that the word spirituality is becoming more acceptable in education and workplaces?
Arne Rubinstein: I think we are in a crisis of understanding what we want and what we need, and asking ourselves questions around what is the difference between religion and spirituality, and it's all very complex at the moment.
My aim in my work, for example, is to have Rites of Passage become mainstream, and 30 years ago to get an organisation like mine into the mainstream you had to have a religious base. Today to get an organisation like mine mainstream, its the opposite. We get people asking all the time, oh is it religious? And they have a concern if it is. And The Making of Men is not religious, but we're not not religious, anybody's welcome, they're just not allowed to push their beliefs on someone else. They're welcome to share their story, and what happened for them and what's important for them, but they're just not allowed to tell someone else that they have to be the same or that their ideas are right and an others are wrong.
With spirituality, my personal belief is that people are searching for a spiritual calling or belief but at the first hint of enforced spirituality, we’ll run a million miles an hour.
Ash Buchanan: Love it. And tell me, how do you create space for this kind of work in a culture that may potentially challenge it?
Arne Rubinstein: That's a very interesting question. I've been involved in Rites of Passage work for 25 years, and at times it has not been welcomed into culture. I think its because its very challenging for people on many levels for a number of reasons. ... For men, when we talk about boys becoming men, a lot of men deep down don't actually feel like they are a man, or don't understand what it means to be a man, or are intimidated by concepts of manliness or masculinity. So they will have a certain resistance to the work and to bringing their boys along and feel that if their son goes through a Rite of Passage, does that mean that he sort of steps above me on some level.
Inherent within our work it is this belief that every person is different, every person has their individual gifts and talents, strengths, genius, spirit, however you want to define that, and that ideally, every person should live towards and within those strengths and gifts and talents and genius and spirit.
But we live in a society where marketing actually aims to have everybody the same, buying the same clothes, eating the same food, listening to the same music. And so if everyone was the same, we would be able to sell them the same products and make the most money, and so it's almost like we sell our individuality, our soul, as a commodity, if that makes sense?
And so for that reason, society doesn't necessarily always welcome the work we do, and a lot of adults and children are very much in the mindset that the best thing they can do is be like everyone else and therefore that is challenging.
Ash Buchanan: I'd love to hear an example of working with a community that might have had that mindset, that has now been through a Rite of Passage and come out the other side transformed. Do you have an example?
Arne Rubinstein: Definitely. We see it all the time, we see it in schools when we work with groups of boys from the same school where there's this enormous pressure for them to all be the same and with that pressure to feel the same, many of them feel like they're living behind a mask, and this actually contributes significantly to the mental health and wellbeing of the kids because they're not actually being true to themselves. And when they come on a Rite of Passage program, and they're actually encouraged to share their stories and name their challenges and at the end, they get honoured for their own individual gifts and talents and their genius and spirit, that changes their lives. In many ways for the first time, we're saying to them you're actually fabulous as you are, we want you to be you, and that's actually the best that you can be is you in all your glory.
Ash Buchanan: Love it, wow. That's amazing,
Ash Buchanan: How many schools are you working with at the moment?
Arne Rubinstein: Well, the thing is we're not trying to get schools to run our program. We are training people within schools and communities around Australia and around the world to understand the elements of a Rite of Passage, and then create their own program in their own way for their own community. So we have many programs running globally now, but called all sorts of different things because it's a community-based program.
Ash Buchanan: That's amazing. So can you give me some examples of these countries that you're working in?
Arne Rubinstein: Yeah, we have programs running out of places like the Green School in Indonesia, we have programs happening on Vashon Island, Washington, there's the "Tracks" program that happens in New Zealand, there are programs happening in Belgium, Holland, Sweden and Israel.
Ash Buchanan: So it's important for these different communities and cultures to create their own program?
Arne Rubinstein: Completely. It has to be their own program and has to be culture-appropriate. The most important thing is that we're sharing the understanding of what the elements of a Rite of Passage are, and that the reason to do it is to support people to keep moving through the different stages of their lives in an appropriate way, and looking for what their own personal gifts, their own calling, their own passion and purpose is in this life, and for that whole process to be supported by elders.
Ash Buchanan: Wow, it's beautiful.
Arne Rubinstein: Yeah, and we're lucky to be involved. And, you know, there's a big tie in with the mindset. And this is a benefit mindset idea.
Arne Rubinstein: There's a question I really wanted to ask you, it was in relation to this article that you wrote in Humans & Nature. In it you talked about the context of cooperation ... I'll use the exact terminology, "cooperative expression of creativity, rather than competitive struggle." And I think this is really interesting in its relation to the benefit mindset. Can you tell us more about this notion and its connection to the work you do in enabling people to flourish rather than operate in isolation.
Ash Buchanan: One of my big inspirations for my work is nature. And it's because of the fact that humans have been around for about 200,000 years, and we've learned a lot of wise things, but nature has been around and it's been thriving and flourishing for billions of years. There's a lot of time-tested wisdom in the way nature works that can inform the way we think about wellbeing. There's a myth in our society that nature's about the survival of the fittest. And what science is starting to show is that this myth isn't exactly true, and that nature on the whole has actually been more of an expression of novelty and creativity. So, rather than being overly competitive, it's actually being more contributive.
And if we look at thriving ecosystems, what actually brings them alive is diversity performing in concert. Contribution seems to be the natural rule that makes the entire web of life thrive.
Arne Rubinstein: So instead of this perceived notion of competitiveness, it's actually the cohesion of the elements that creates the biome, right?
Ash Buchanan: Yeah. Let me give you an example, when you think about the human body, and what makes the human body work, we've got 37 trillion cells that all come together and perform in concert to make us-us. That's an amazing amount of contribution that evolved for billions of years to bring us to this moment, and an amazing expression of creativity.
Arne Rubinstein: So now we've reached this point with these mindsets and that it's about bringing that into schools and into communities, right?
Ash Buchanan: Yeah. I've been to a lot of wellbeing conferences, and we often talk about wellbeing as if it's a solo pursuit, it's something we do in isolation. But there's another way of looking at things, that we're actually living in a profoundly interconnected world, and that we're all in this together. And what actually makes us flourish is everyone bringing out the best in each other and playing a valuable role in each others' lives. And so that's one of the core ideas and principles behind the benefit mindset, this idea of me and we together, to promote wellbeing and flourishing.
So I feel ... and I love how, what you were just saying how everyone needs to create their own programs for transformation and this important spiritual work within their own context, because we're all existing within different ecosystems, and it's that important, mutually beneficial partnership that brings out the best in individuals and the system as a whole. Is that what you're finding in your work as well?
Arne Rubinstein: We started off basically running Rites of Passage, looking at ways for boys to become young men and girls to become young women. First, we started involving the fathers and we started involving the mothers, and then we involved the families, and now we realise it's the whole community. It's genuinely the whole community. And this is what I've found very interesting of late. This idea that for one part of the community to go through a transformation, say a child's going to move and become a young adult, then the adults in that person's life also have to move and go to a new level. And if they don't, then that ... there's a risk that the child that's made their transition will then be pushed back into the space of being a child again, and that actually the whole ‘biome’, moves at once. And unless all the different elements are working together, it doesn't actually create what we're looking for.
So when I'm working with schools now what I'm talking about is that not only do we have to create these programs for our children, but we have to enrol the parents as they are a key part of the transformation process. We also have to work with the staff, because they're part of it. And if the whole community's working together as one, everyone contributing. (Laughs) There's your benefit mindset. That's when we actually get the greatest impact.
Arne Rubinstein: So, Ash, based on your work and your understanding of the benefit mindset, what's your vision? Where are you hoping to see and how do you see this work and what you're talking about impacting on the world?
Ash Buchanan: I think, once again, the power is in the question. What I think probably doesn't matter as much as getting communities to ask that question for themselves. I strongly believe there is a force ... a most powerful force on this planet and it is a community discovering what they care about, coming of age and becoming the change. And these kinds of questions that are s going to take society to towards a thriving, healthy future.
About Dr Arne Rubinstein
Dr. Arne Rubinstein is an internationally-recognised expert on Rites of Passage and adolescent development. He has been running programs for teenagers and delivering cutting-edge leadership training in Australia and internationally for over 20 years.
Author of the best-seller The Making of Men, Dr. Arne has become the go-to person in Australia for advice on how to support boys to successfully make a safe, healthy transition to young men.