Becoming a Good-ish Person, Fighting Bias

I just finished a fantastic book, and be warned: I have the zeal of a recent convert! The book is by Dolly Chugh, and it is titled The Person You Mean to Be: How Good People Fight Bias.

The premise of the book is quite straightforward: it is applying a “growth mentality “–a concept popularized by Carol Dweck–to the work of diversity, equity and inclusion.  It is straightforward, practical and, in my view, somewhat of a revelation. 

Chugh describes very clearly how our self-protective mechanisms, like defensiveness, kick in when we feel that our status as a “good person”—either in our own eyes, or in the eyes of someone else—is threatened.  But it is these very mechanisms that keep us from being “the person we mean to be”—a better person, a growing person, a person who keeps learning, even in the midst of messing up, making mistakes, and sometimes disappointing ourselves and others.  So, she invites us to let go of our desperate clinging to our identity as a good person, and instead seek to move from being a believer in the values of equity, diversity and inclusion, to being a builder of those values. She writes, “believing in the values of equality is no longer enough. We need to be people with the skills to make it better” (xxii). Her book offers a roadmap to developing those skills.

In the Introduction, she describes the psychology of good people, noting the way in which “our behavior pivots around our identity” (7). She describes it this way: “…we each have identities we claim. We look to others to grant those identities. When we don’t get that affirmation [as a good person], we feel threatened, which is stressful, and we do things we would not normally do. Under self-threat, we become less of the good people we mean to be” (5). Therefore, it is important to redefine what we mean when we say a good person. What if, instead of thinking that a good person never does a bad thing, never has a racist thought, never makes a sexist comment, we defined a good person as “someone who is trying to be better” (8)? That is an invitation to be accepted, rather than a fixed identity to be defended. It is someone in a growth mindset.

Laszlo Bock, who wrote the forward, says this: “The benefit for each and every reader…will be a path to self-acceptance and action. Acceptance is vital…Everyone behaves imperfectly sometimes. Everyone pauses sometimes. Therefore, don’t beat yourself up over it. Get on with acting” (xiii).

The book, then, seeks to move us from being believers to builders in four phases: Activating a growth mindset of being a good-ish work-in-progress, not a premade good person; Seeing the ordinary privilege we hold and putting it to good use on behalf of others; Opting for willful awareness, though our minds and lives make willful ignorance more likely; and Engaging the people and systems around us. (19)

Every chapter is honest, practical, and filled with “aha” moments. Here are just a few of my favorite insights.

In the first chapter she talks about “stumbling upward.” It’s a metaphor that she uses when we are actively seeking to grow, and willing to take risks and make mistakes to learn something new. This is what the growth mindset is all about. She writes”

“…in a growth mindset, we still make mistakes and we learn from them, which makes mistakes less likely in the future. In a growth mindset, it is possible to make good mistakes. Some people worry that if mistakes are accepted as part of learning, then we give people a free pass to make mistakes. Yet, research says that when we view ourselves as works-in-progress, we are more willing to hold ourselves accountable for our actions. We are more likely to apologize to people we have hurt and we offer better, more complete apologies. Accountability is higher, not lower, when we give ourselves room to grow” (35).

One of my favorite parts of the book is the way she uses the metaphor of headwinds and tailwinds (taken from anti-racist educator and author Debbie Irving). I have found that a lot of people balk at at the language of “privilege.” For many people, it is an instant trigger for defensiveness, leading people to emphasize their own hard-knock stories, or their own hard work, or anything else that would show that they are no more privileged than anyone else. It can shut conversation down quickly and firmly.

By contrast, talking about headwinds and tailwinds can elicit a much different response. Here’s how she starts this metaphor.

Have you ever flown east west versus west east in the United States? You may have noticed a difference in flight times. It takes as much as 40 additional minutes to go from New York to LA versus LA to New York, for example. The difference lies in the headwinds one face is going west versus the tail winds going east (64).

Oh, right–all of us who travel frequently have experience that. Then she gives the example of running:

“When you run against a headwind, your speed slows down and you have to push harder. You can feel the headwind. When you have a tailwind pushing you, it is a force that propels you forward. It is consequential but easily unnoticed or forgotten…When you have the tailwind, you will not notice that some runners are running into headwinds. They may be running as hard as, or even harder than, you, but they will appear lazier and slower to you” (65).

She then drives the point home, using this reality as a metaphor to explain the difference between equality and equity. “Equality says we treat everyone the same, regardless of headwinds or tailwinds. Equity says we give people what they need to have the same access and opportunities as others, taking into account the headwinds they face, which may mean differential treatment for some groups” (65-66).

In my view, this is a great way of making systemic injustices more visible and inviting people into a deeper understanding of how they create such any quality–not only for individuals, but for whole groups of people; not only in one lifetime, but over generations.

She also talks about the importance of noticing, paying attention, especially to the things that we do not expect to see, things that challenge our confirmation bias. She quotes psychologist Anthony Greenwald who says, “We like to think that our mind is like an impartial judge in search of the truth, but it is more like an attorney searching for evidence to support her case.” Chugh says, “We are drawn toward information that is consistent with our worldview, not inconsistent. Our minds do not search for new data that might challenge what we believe, but for data that will confirm it” 97. Ouch; I am definitely guilty of that.

In addition to the above, the book is full of concrete, practical suggestions, which I really appreciated. In just one example, in chapter 8, she talks about the opportunity that we have every time we have a meeting. She says “run a better meeting, build a more inclusive organization” (174). Again, she encourages us to start by noticing: where people are sitting, who is talking and who is being silent, how emotions are expressed and received, how everyone is listening, who is giving and receiving credit for ideas and work, etc., etc. When we pay attention to these things, we can construct more creative, collaborative, equitable meetings that, in turn, facilitate more inclusive organizations.

I also really appreciated her emphasis on stories, and how important it is to hear the stories of others. This came through in many different places in the book, where she talks about the danger of echo chambers–where we only hear stories that reflect our own; when she talks about what media we consume, again who stories we are listening to; and even whether or not we are reading. She writes, “research shows that reading fiction increases empathy, social perception, and emotional intelligence, which we need for becoming the people we mean to be” (192). She also reminds us how silence creates a narrative—by saying nothing, we are saying something.

Finally, related to that, she encourages us by reminds us that saying something really can make a difference, and this is because of how social norms work. Research shows that “just one person violating a social norm can loosen its hold” (207). And this goes back to stories again. There is a ‘rule’ that people can be divided into three groups, and it is often called the 20/60/20 rule. The point is that when you are thinking about change, there is a group of 20% that will be on board and ready to go right away, and another 20% who will strongly resist or even sabotage efforts to change. She writes, “the leverage rests with the ‘movable middle’ 60%; they are reading the room and can be influenced by either 20% group” (209). And the best way to move them? Stories.

I guess the last thing I want to say is that ultimately, one of the best things about developing a growth mentality is that it moves us away from fear, defensiveness, apathy, etc. to a space where we are inquisitive, open, and eager for a new opportunity to learn.

Of course, this work is not easy: Chugh acknowledges that “the work of being a builder is exhausting. If you are not exhausted, at least some of the time, chances are you are still a believer only” (242).

But the whole point of the book is that you don’t have to do everything, you just have to do something. You don’t have to be perfect, you just have to be good-ish, and open to becoming better. 

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