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Mindsets and Marmite

I was intrigued to read about a study by DNA Fit and Unilever over the summer which aimed to demonstrate that our ‘love’ or ‘hate’ relationship with Marmite is genetic. A clever PR stunt for sure, but the reason it caught my attention is because I happened to be undertaking a Marmite experiment of my own at the time. Having hated the taste of Marmite my entire life, I was determined to prove that we can overcome our aversion to anything with the right mindset. Eight weeks later and I am through my first jar and looking forward to buying the next one; lunch wouldn’t be the same without it. What did I do differently? I believed that I would enjoy the taste.

Many of us still hold the erroneous belief that we are born with a specific set of traits and that no amount of effort will change those traits significantly. We either like something or we don't. We are either naturally good at sport or we aren’t. We are a natural born mathematician or destined to be the next Picasso, but rarely can we be both. Our beliefs determine our choices in life, as well as how much effort we apply to those choices. Countless studies have shown that our abilities are, at most, 50% genetic. Our behaviours are equally as important, if not more so, as they can physically alter the expression of our genes. Science has shown that adopting the right behaviours has the potential to switch some harmful genes off and turn helpful genes on via our epigenome.

If we believe that our genes are working against us and that our fate is pre-determined, we stop trying. The belief that our genetics trumps effort can limit us considerably. It is worse still when we believe that our self-worth is inextricably linked to our ‘genetic’ traits. If we fail at something that we believe we are ‘naturally’ good at or 'should' be good at, then we too must be a failure. Only, that type of thinking, as compelling as our critical inner voice might be, is flawed. I should know, my inner voice has told me many things over the years - many have been wrong. The results we achieve are determined by the effort we put in. If you need proof, look at your favourite sporting hero or business leader. How did they get to where they are?

If you feel strongly that genetics plays a large role in people’s ability at work, you may want to challenge that belief, irrespective of how convincing it may appear at first. Most jobs being undertaken today have existed less than a generation. Significant shifts in DNA can take hundreds (if not thousands) of years to materialise. Social stereotypes have a much bigger influence on people’s abilities in the workplace, as they create self-limiting beliefs on both sides of the divide. Those in a male dominated industry will believe that women simply don’t cut the mustard and women might be put off applying because they mistakenly assume they aren’t good enough.

A great example of these societal biases was uncovered in the 1980s. The Boston Symphony Orchestra, as with most other orchestras around the world at the time, was predominantly male. The panel responsible for vetting new members was adamant men were simply better at playing instruments and it was plain for all to hear. To counter any suggestion of unconscious bias, however, the panel agreed to erect a screen so that they could not see the gender of the person auditioning. Despite this addition, the panel’s initial assertions were correct. Men were consistently chosen ahead of the women, even with the screen in place – men were better; it was genetic.

It turned out to be an erroneous belief. Those auditioning were asked to also take off their shoes before walking on stage. It turns out that the panel had subconsciously been able to ascertain whether it was a woman auditioning because of the heels she was wearing and the sound those heels made on the stage. Walking barefoot, and with no other clues as to gender, suddenly the ratio of men to women being selected became 50:50.

While we may not have control over the genes we are born with, we do have control over the beliefs we hold, the subsequent behaviours we adopt and who we ultimately become. As a result, we also have some control over the expression of our genes. All the time that we believe our genes determine our life, we will limit our true potential. If someone believes that they are lazy and hate sport, much like how I felt about marmite, they will indeed hate it (until such time that they choose to believe otherwise). If we are convinced we don't like (or are no good at) giving presentations, we won't be.

All the time we hold self-limiting beliefs, we limit our potential. The past doesn't have to determine our future, unless we let it. If you don't like what the future holds, why not try visualising a different one and take a step towards it? It won’t happen overnight, but with the right mindset and perseverance, we can achieve amazing things.

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