The invincible mindset

If I were to ask you the number one factor that will determine whether you succeed or fail at your PhD, what do you think it will be?

Having better time management and procrastinating less?

Having a better system for dealing with literature?

Better resources?

Or even just having more time to do what you need to do?

Well it’s none of the above. They might be important, but there’s something more fundamental that makes everything else possible.

The importance of mindset

Everything starts in your mind. Your mindset, or your way of thinking about the problems you face is the basis for everything.

The way you approach a problem, the way you react to the challenges and surprises ahead depends entirely on the way you think about it.

A positive psychology makes all the difference in the world. It’s what will help you keep going when you face problems, it will help you stay creative when you need to be at your best, it will help you start the day excited about what you’re going to do and it makes a real difference to your chances of success.

But if you believe that no matter what you do nothing will work, then you aren’t very likely to achieve what you are really capable of. You can try all the time management techniques in the world, but if your own psychology is working against you then you’ll never make progress.

Fortunately, no matter how stressed you are right now, a positive attitude is something you can practice.

There are lots of positive mindsets to take, here’s just one to get you going.

The invincibility mindset:

No matter what happens, I will deal with it

Lots of things can go wrong. It’s easy to imagine the worst, and allow that to become a crippling fear.

  • What will the examiner say?
  • What if I fail?
  • What if this goes wrong or that goes wrong?

It’s easy to end up focussing on what might go wrong. The problem is though that it eats away at your confidence and stops you doing the things you need to do to succeed. It makes you doubt yourself and your work, and that makes you hesitant with everything you do.

Now of course things can go wrong. But you have to take the view that whatever happens, you will deal with it.

Let’s look at the worst case scenario.

If I fail (at part of the PhD, or the PhD as a whole) then is it the worst thing that can possibly happen? No. I’ll deal with it and move on. Whatever happens I will deal with it. But in the meantime I am going to give this my best shot.

When I did my PhD in experimental physics, my failure rate was probably well over 90%.

I let it get to me, and it ate away at my confidence until I reached a point where I was constantly expecting to fail. I saw myself as powerless… out of control. That meant I undermined my own efforts. I was sloppy in my preparation and rushed experiments.

It became a self-fulfilling philosophy.

But when I shifted mindset and accepted that things might go wrong, but decided to do things meticulously anyway…  my success rate increased and I made faster progress.

Whatever happens, I will deal with it. It cannot hurt me. I am invincible. So I’m just going to do my best.

What if the examiner asks a question I don’t know?

When I started writing, I knew that there were holes in my knowledge that the examiner might find. He had invented one of the techniques I had used… he could easily ask me something I didn’t know. Or he could ask me a basic undergraduate physics question involving maths I hadn’t used in 4 or 5 years… that would be embarrassing.

But my view was that If I get asked a question like that, I’ll just be honest. If I don’t know then I don’t know, and if I have to work it out or guess based on what I do know, then that’s what I’ll do.

I couldn’t go back and relearn every bit of physics I had forgotten (or not learned in the first place), and so since I couldn’t do anything about it I decided not to worry about it and get on with it and do my best at what I was doing.

I thought… well I’ve put the work in. The research is competent, I understand its implications and its limitations, but if I fail then I fail. So be it.

It takes the pressure off, and builds your confidence at the same time because it assumes, at a fundamental level, that you have the ability to cope with whatever happens…

It gives you a kind of invincibility. Nothing can harm you, because whatever happens, you will deal with it.

One of the big blocks that comes up again and again in my conversations with PhD students is a kind of reluctance to make a clear statement about what they are trying to argue. I think this is because it could be a point the examiner could disagree with… and so instead they write 1000s and 1000s of words circling around the issue.

But there is no avoiding it. You have to state your central premise clearly. So just say it. Take the invincible mindset, and have the courage to say what you think.

There is uncertainty in the future, but you have to be willing to take risks in order to move forwards, knowing that you are able to deal with whatever happens.

Writing a thesis is hard, but it’s not THAT hard.

Not like rowing across the Atlantic or climbing Everest, and it’s not like surviving in the wilderness after a plane crash. It’s not even as hard as raising a family

There is no massive physical effort you have to make, other than sitting and typing. And there’s no real danger either.

The invincible mindset allows you to work without being afraid, and once you remove fear, then you’ll be surprised how many perceived obstacles melt away.

19 thoughts on “The invincible mindset”

  1. Hello I have subscribed but have not had a link through to the thesis writing PDF file.

    Please advise how I can access this.

    Thank you

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  4. My marriage broke up at the end of my first year. I’m a single parent of two small children. The juggling of domestic and academic life is not my biggest challenge, however. My biggest challenge is working in a way that is productive for me (surprisingly close to the ideas and methods of this website even though I am an ARTS student) in a culture which requires regular submission of finished sections from term one. I know what I’m doing and have already published in leading journals, but the system and most of the training I have been offered through the university is psychologically undermining and counter-productive for me. Thank you for this resource which has made me feel creative, productive and hopeful for the first time in a long time.

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  6. I hit lows quite often in this Phd Journey of mines. I read your articles often especially the one above I like to give me a bit of a push and maintain a positive state of mind.
    Heartfelt thanks for all your efforts.

  7. Hello James
    I so needed this today so thank you for posting it. I raised a daughter who is now 19yrs as a single parent and it was tough. I started this when she was younger, but I made a decision that I will keep a life and my relationship with her. So I bailed out and pledged to come back later. I would have clinched it back then if my supervision, had been more structured and if I knew then, what I know now! Now I started back, I am so much wiser and I know I will complete but the challenges are different.

    I agree with you that the PhD is tougher, not because it is harder intellectually, but because of the comnpeting factors I have to face while working fulltime IN A VERY DEMANDING JOB, and trying to do this on a part time basis. I was trying to do it when my daughter was younger and I was also working full time then. So now she is an adult and even suppports me emotionally, I am now telling myself that I can cope, I will cope, I have to cope, but the doubts don’t disappear.. She tells me, of course you can! Dont worry if it takes a bit longer,or whatever, you will still make it. I seem to need to hear it from someone who has been there and done that so thanks again!!

  8. Thank you! Your encouragement and motivation comes at the right time as I am now quite a bit down with my progress, lacking motivation and really stressed out.

    Yes, we need to be positive so as to make our work more effective!

  9. Thanks for the motivation boost! You’re right, you have to look on the inside, gain confidence, don’t over analyse things and just do it.

    We can’t connect the dots looking forward, we can only connect them looking backwards. So we have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in the future..

  10. Ops…. Jameshayton, sorry I read yr post/comment not accordingly. Well, I know PhD is indeed tough….. but if I just focus on my PhD n ignore my family….. I might need to face a life-time problem after my PhD later like one of friend who got her PhD but unfortunately till now lost the opportunity to obtain her son love anymore. This is what her son said to her “I do not need your attention now after all you never care about me when you were doing your PhD last time”. I really pity her but I can’t bear to go through that stage after my PhD later. Everything must be deal (balance).

    • Absolutely, everything in balance. If you have a family, it’s all the more reason to be as productive as possible when you are away from them.

  11. Agree so much with jameshayton. Being a mum to 5 (ranging from 2+ to 16 yrs)…. worst still non of them have total similar character, attitude and behavior, it is indeed the extra challenge that I need to deal with during my present PhD journey. At time ….. I just cry but again I know that I need to be strong in this journey….. strong for myself and also for my family.

    • yes…we must be strong! Sometimes, I feel like to quit my phd journey….but I have to finish what I had started…..Be a good example to my children..

  12. Thank you. I’m enjoying your more regular posts – just like a coach. But I disagree on one point. I find child raising much easier than my PhD! Although the PhD will end, parenthood won’t.

    • Hi Lindel, thanks for the kind comment, I’ll try to keep up the regular posts as long as the ideas keep coming!

      My question in response to your point would be WHY is a PhD harder than raising a child? The stakes are so much higher when raising a kid, and a PhD is, ultimately, just an exam. You can walk away from a PhD, but (hopefully!) not from your family.

      I think the difference is psychological. Not to say there aren’t real difficulties to face, but the way you face them and your ability to respond is affected by your mindset and the relationship you have with your PhD

      • Ohh, good point: I do think the difference is psychological.

        However, another big difference is in how we are judged externally for these two things being compared: with child raising, even if we are judged by people, their judgements really don’t matter as far as whether we are successful or not; with a PhD, our success *depends* on how well we are judged.

        On the other hand, though, I’ve been really benefitting from realizing that I could treat my thesis as “my baby”, where I get to make my own decisions and stand by them. It took quite awhile to reach this point, though, because of a lack of confidence, but as soon as I got going on it I knew it was an important way to be.

        Still, I am much calmer about the fact that I am very soon going to be a mom than I have been at any time about my thesis… but I definitely see the benefit of treating both as things I just have to deal with in as invincible way as I can.

        Thanks for the uplifting perspective!

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