Groundhog Day, Mindset Change, and the Value of Constraints

The 1993 movie Groundhog Day provides an insightful example of the value of constraints in producing positive mindset change.

Trapped by his fixed mindset in the hell-scape of having to live the same (boring) day over and over again, main character Phil Connors eventually finds ways to use the narrow constraints of his strange new world to incrementally change his mindset. 

What he did in that movie was learn how to make the most of the present moment…to be here now, to optimize his interactions with people, place, and time.

He did this by switching from focusing on what he could get for himself (which had never made him happy) to focusing on how he could be of service others (which ended up bringing joy to everyone, including himself).

His new mindset broke him out of the fixed mindset of living the same day over and over in an ego-focused echo chamber, as his life expanded outwards through meaningful connection with others.

Circle of People Pulling on Connected Ropes

Groundhog Day is a classic that is both fun and rewarding to watch again and again and again (do we see an ironic theme here? 😉) ... because new insights emerge every time you see it.

What makes Groundhog Day such a great teaching story

 is that it demonstrates the power of CONSTRAINTS

 to produce meaningful mindset change.

Educational researcher and theorist Robert M. Gagné taught that the first step in achieving effective mindset change (as opposed to just paying lip service to what people want us to say), is to get deeply in touch with WHAT’S NOT WORKING FOR US. 

At the beginning of the movie, Phil is not aware that his selfish, egocentric mindset isn’t working for him. He doesn’t even realize he’s unhappy (he just makes everyone around him unhappy, instead). He’s fooled by the outer accoutrements of his prestigious job and fast- paced lifestyle, into thinking that he has it all. 

It’s only when he’s prevented (by mystical quirks of quantum physics and brilliant screenwriting) from dashing mindlessly onward in the way he’s used to doing, that he has to stop and notice other people and their needs.

And from there, through trial and error, he slowly discovers ways of being, doing, and relating that will work better for him.

Discovering what will work better for us is the second step in achieving effective mindset change. 

Being restricted to slowing down and living the same day over and over again, is the constraint that both requires and facilitates this positive change for Phil.

What is it about constraints that help us change?

Constraints force us to slow down, look within, and examine our priorities. 

When we run out of choices … whether with respect to health, time, energy, money, relationships, or anything else…

we are forced to prioritize.

If we are limited in our ability to change things in the outer world, 

we are forced to change OURSELVES.

Every medium, system, situation, business, person, society… anything that is, has constraints.

We are all constrained by gravity on the planetary surface… and that helps keep our bones strong.

Living under conditions of zero gravity (without constraint) leads to weakened bones… a situation most of us don’t have to worry about too much, but something that’s interesting to contemplate as a metaphor.

The current global situation is imposing severe and unpredictable constraints on all of us. In addition to whatever individual and personal challenges we face in these unprecedented times, the planet as a whole is facing limitations, shortages, restrictions in a multitude of ways.

And as uncomfortable as it is, that's not necessarily a bad thing. We need limits and restrictions to push against in order to get stronger.

The challenge is balancing those limits against our strength.

If the constraints become too crushing we may lose our ability to adapt and grow. But if there are no constraints, or they are not challenging enough, we can be all over the place with no focus or channeled direction for our energy or growth.

That’s one reason many people choose to take an online course or work with a coach:

 they are seeking

structure and accountability

 that guides and channels their growth in a specific direction.

Let’s look at another, very different, story to understand how constraints impact our mindset under extremely demanding and restrictive conditions.

The TV series “Alone” (season 7 takes place in the Arctic) is currently showing on the History Channel, and I recommend it highly for any and all educators, coaches, and entrepreneurs.

This show is a goldmine of “aha” moments about learning and mindset change…moments that just keep coming, one right after another. 💡💡💡

In season 7, a group of the world’s best survival experts is taken to a remote location in the Arctic and each of them is dropped off entirely alone with only a small list of items they were allowed to pack in advance.

Mindset is a tremendously important part of these survival experts' ability to make it through for the required 100 days alone in the Arctic… building their own shelter, finding ways to stay warm, catching their own food.

Many of the concepts we use as digital entrepreneurs, show up in literal concrete form on this show

  • Passive income = snares that catch rabbits or nets that catch fish while the survival expert is busy doing othe things
  • Runway = the relationship of available energy (in the form of calories of available food) to the required energy expenditure needed to obtain shelter, provide heat, and obtain more food

The show is riveting for its focus not only on mindset but also on other types of learning (cognitive strategies that help the survivalist “learn how to learn” where the best food and shelter are, how to avoid predators, etc.) and “how-to” skills needed to identify what’s safe to eat and understand the habits of the local wildlife.

The survival experts chosen for the show already possessed those how-to skills as essential prior knowledge for making this experience work.

(What happens when one lacks such prior knowledge in a wilderness survival situation can be seen in the equally fascinating and tragically true story, “Into the Wild”.)

Silhouette woman on top of mountain peak. Success and winner concept. Hiking lifestyle

Under severe constraints 

such as those imposed by having to

 survive alone in the Arctic for 100 days,

 the importance of having the right mindset

 becomes crystal clear.

  • One must be aware and vigilant, yet open to exploration and the potential for positive surprise.
  • One may work hard to enjoy the good things of life procured through one’s own hard work,
  • but losing focus while doing so may cost one everything.
A young boy dressed in business suit and tie wears a homemade jetpack and flying goggles raises his arms in the afternoon sun while running to take off into the air on an outcropping above the surf in Montana de Oro State Park, California. This young entrepreneur is ready to take his new business to new heights.

It’s ironic that a show about surviving alone in the Arctic, 

seems to track so closely to the mindset issues we face as digital entrepreneurs!

Why is that, I wonder?

Perhaps the commonality is that each of us, like those survivalists, possess a high level of prior knowledge in our own areas of expertise…and that is what has led us to seek to challenge ourselves by becoming entrepreneurs.

We want to be of service, we want to test our limits, we want to learn and grow. We need to provide sustenance for ourselves and our families, in a landscape that can be hostile and unpredictable as well as fertile and magnificent and filled with grace.

Saithip Waterfall in Phu Soi Dao National Park,

We are each alone in our own wilderness

 and we need to learn how to survive and thrive.

Rear view of a survivalist man with a backpack walking across a meadow with a river in a forest.

How can we best do it?

When constraints come crushing in, as they are doing for so many these days, how can we use those constraints to get stronger rather than give up?

How do we know when a situation has become untenable (as it did for some of the survivalists) to the degree that the better course of wisdom is to call it and give up?

If the situation one is in is not working and is not GOING to work, the optimal mindset to adopt may be one of recognizing and accepting that.

In addition to understanding what’s not working, and discovering what could work better, Gagné’s research tells us that mindset change requires a strong connection with one’s own personal WHY for making the change.

  • What mindset is not working for you right now?
  • What mindset could serve you better?
  • And most importantly, WHY do you want to make a change, and adopt a new attitude towards whatever it is you are doing and working with?

Once we understand the mindset we want to work towards, we need to see inspiring role models who are successfully doing what we want to learn how to do. But groundbreaking entrepreneurs sometimes have no role models available.

If you are doing something no one’s done before, then YOU are the role model… 

not only for those who will later follow you, but for your own self as you forge the path you are on now.

Your own future self needs to be your role model. So throw out a lifeline to your own best, future, version of yourself and create that version as a role model you can grow into.

Sometimes, when alone in the Arctic, there is no other choice. And sometimes, having no other choice is exactly the constraint we need to force us to become the best version of ourselves we can be.

Finally, positive mindset change, as Gagné discovered, requires long term ongoing support. What support systems can you build into your work and life to sustain you as make the desired mindset change?

Reflecting on Groundhog Day, it’s fascinating to realize that the CONSTRAINTS Phil Connors faced --the limitation of having to live the same day over and over and not being able to escape that -- WAS his long term ongoing support.

That severely limiting constraint provided a safe container in which he could achieve positive mindset change.

In the movie he discovered (and the rest of us, who don't live in a screen-written fictional world, should NOT try this at home!) that in his reality, he could never die.

The extreme constraint he faced of knowing that every day no matter what had happened the day before, he’d wake up in his bed and breakfast in a time-warped loop at 6 AM, ironically gave him the freedom  to try many things he would never have otherwise tried.

groundhog standing up in a field

This is what happens in the artificial world of games, where one can “die” many times only to play again, knowing now what one didn’t know before.

In the Arctic, on the other hand, the potential for LITERAL death is very real and not a metaphor. In the Arctic, there are no alarm clocks, no bed and breakfasts, and no predictability of life from day to day.

That LACK of constraints in itself presents a different type of extreme constraint… requiring constant attention to the environment and constant balancing of energy input and output in order to stay in the game.

The wide openness of the Artic requires a mindset of tightly FOCUSED attention.. whereas the tight limits of living the same day over and over in a small community, led to a BROADENING OUT of ideas and possibilities.

Business deadline overtime crunch stress concept. Business person worker or manager employee trying to get job done in due time. Overwork unhealthy frustration. Flat vector character illustration

There are always going to be constraints, in any situation we are in.

Right now, globally, the constraints on all of us are tightening. Perhaps we can learn from both Groundhog Day and Alone…to focus our attention on what’s most critical to our survival and well-being at the moment, while also being open to the types of new ideas and possibilities that the conditions of extreme uncertainty we’re all living in, make possible.

What are some helpful mindsets these compelling stories might encourage us to explore and adapt?

  • Working hard, yet appreciating the need to rest and regroup
  • Doing our best to be of service to others, while also taking care of ourselves
  • Being determined to succeed at what we’re doing, while also recognizing that sometimes success emerges from things that initially don’t work

When we think of mindset change in relation to constraints, 

the possibilities for new discovery are endless.

I invite you to try it.

Whether you like the shows I found inspiring, or prefer to use others as a springboard for your own reflections,

what does meaningful mindset change mean to you?

How do you experience the constraints you're facing in the current situation, whatever they may be, to stimulate positive change?

Let’s talk about it in the comments below... I’d love to hear your thoughts!

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