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Embracing the Challenge Mindset

A threat mindset can stop you in your tracks from pursuing a long-term writing goal. How do we embrace a challenge mindset?

Picture showing a case of challenge mindset.
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I first thought about writing a novel back in high school. It’s decades later, and although I’ve written plenty of nonfiction in my career as a magazine editor, I haven’t written a single paragraph of a novel. Consider my experience a fair example of having not embraced a challenge mindset, a problem I’d like to explore in this article.

Fear and a Threat Mindset

If you and I, fellow writers, were having coffee or a beer together, I’d reveal why. Fear.

Like Frank Herbert wrote in Dune: “Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.”

I’ve let fear obliterate any action on my part to write a novel. Obliterate might not be the right word. The image that comes to mind is being bound in a straitjacket.

Not long ago, I gained some insight into this problem when I interviewed Eric Potterat, Ph.D., for a magazine article. Dr. Potterat is a clinical psychologist who specializes in performance.


“It’s a threat mindset,” Potterat declared, explaining fears that stall or kill action. “A threat mindset occurs when we face obstacles and barriers, whether they’re real or imagined.”

A threat mindset, he added, can produce fears with varying levels of intensity.

“Those of us who are really going to have a hard time with a threat mindset are those who perceive an obstacle or adversity as a threat to their reputation. They don’t want to take risks because they’re worried about their ego.”

“No kidding?” I replied, knowing he just diagnosed me.


Child’s Play and the Challenge Mindset

A threat mindset’s opposite, Potterat said, is the challenge mindset.

“A challenge mindset is like, ‘Hey, I just want to do this new thing. It’s a challenge. It’s nothing more than a challenge. And I’m going to give my best effort to accomplish it.’”

Potterat explained how the threat mindset typically creeps into life when we’re past the age of 5.

“When kids get socialized, they tend to vector into a threat mindset,” Potterat said. “But before this socialization process, the challenge mindset is natural to them.”


Weirdly enough, I am given an example in real time – thank you, universe! – while writing this column from the observation deck of a kids’ gymnastics program. My daughter, Maddie, who is 5, just launched into a handstand, propped upside-down against a cushioned wall. She’s amidst dozens of other kids, her coaches, and a bunch of gawking parents pressed up against a big window. She had no fear at all. All challenge mindset.

What’s a long-socialized adult to do?

Embracing the Challenge Mindset

Potterat replied, “You want the overarching mindset of: ‘Hey look, this is a challenge, and it isn’t a threat, and I want to go beyond my comfort zone just a little bit. So I’ll think of each approaching obstacle as a challenge – and an opportunity to get out of my comfort zone and see what I can do.’”


He paused, then added: “That’s it.”

A Challenge Mindset Invitation

That’s it! I’m in. Time to get out of my comfort zone and write a first novel. And I could use some help: If you’d like to join forces with me and go beyond your writing comfort zone this year – whether it’s a novel, a play, a memoir, an essay – send me an email, and we’ll start our own online support and accountability group. We’ll get some work done and have some fun doing it.

T.J. Murphy is the editor of The Writer. Follow him on Twitter: @tjmurphywriter.