19 Jan Turning Failure into Growth
Fixed and Growth Mindset
I present to you my personal arch-nemesis, Excuse #6: “I’m terrified of failure.” I blame this fear on society. More specifically, our society’s collective fixed mindset. If you are familiar with Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck’s work on fixed and growth mindsets, feel free to skip the next couple paragraphs. If not, allow me to briefly fill you in.
Fixed mindset, bad!
A fixed mindset assumes that we are all born with an inherent and basically predetermined, or fixed, amount of talent and intelligence. In other words, we are naturally smart or naturally gifted and our successes and failures are evidence of these inherent abilities, or lack thereof.
Growth mindset, good!
A growth mindset, on the other hand, assumes that our natural intelligence or talent can develop, or grow, through hard work and effort. Failure, then, merely demonstrates an unsuccessful attempt or strategy rather than our lack of intrinsic talent or smarts. A growth mindset is immensely healthier, as it fosters a sense of curiosity and adventure, boosts self-esteem and resilience, and is much easier to work with in a team or company setting.
I would argue that our society, however, has for so long glorified geniuses and prodigies and natural talents that we have adopted a collective fixed mindset and are thus terrified to admit failure. In fact, I think we hesitate to confess how hard we work even when we are successful. Why? Because anybody can try hard and succeed. There’s nothing special about that. And if you try hard and fail? There’s nothing more pathetic than that.
Or so the story goes.
With a fixed mindset, we care most about saving face.
As a professor, and longtime student before that, I see this fixed mindset all the time in a classic academic phenomenon I like to call the Undercover Studier. The Undercover Studier is the student that secretly studies super hard but tells everybody that they didn’t. Why would anyone do such a thing? Because anybody can pay attention in class, take copious notes, study for hours, and then ace a test. That’s just natural cause and effect. There’s nothing special about that, we tell ourselves. But if you are so naturally smart that you can pass without even trying? Those chosen few are surely touched by the hand of God. Now that is special. That is sexy. And who doesn’t want to be special and sexy?
The flip side, of course, is even more damaging to our egos. If you pay attention in class, take copious notes, study for hours, and still don’t ace the test? Then there’s got to be something wrong with you, we tell ourselves, and that’s humiliating by our societal standards. So, the Undercover Studier will hide their flash cards and color coded notes and cower into class on test day, all for the potentiality that they don’t ace the test. Then, thanks to this charade, they can blame their failure on their alleged lack of effort. Because, like I said, what’s more pathetic than trying hard and still failing?
It’s all about saving face. And saving face has fixed mindset written all over it. Rachel Hollis observes it in our impulse to keep our goals and hard work a secret: “The public can be surprised and delighted by any success you have. They never know what you’re working on, so any achievement feels like a happy little coincidence, fate smiling down on you again.”
With a fixed mindset, successful people are just lucky or special, so we don’t bother to try.
Think about it. We sing along to songs we imagine were written effortlessly by a lyrical genius noodling around on a piano one evening. We watch ridiculously coordinated athletes on the court or on the field and call them “beasts,” as if they came out of the womb dunking and tackling. But Michael Jordan failed to make it onto his high school’s varsity basketball team the first time around. And every last member of One Direction lost as a solo contestant on The X Factor before Simon Cowell banded them together for a second shot at fame. Yes, even Harry Styles was a big fat televised fail.
And here’s what else! Rachel doesn’t talk about this but I think it has definitely played a role in my personal excuses not to try something big and scary: If we adopt a fixed mindset and think that the winners in the world are just lucky and naturally gifted, it gives us a safe, lazy, and blame-free excuse not to try.
So, is it time to swap these fairytales of exclusivity and a charmed breed of humans with more realistic narratives of empowerment and the inevitable success of strategic effort? Or is this story necessary to prevent heartache and disappointment? How can we feel more comfortable being transparent about all the nose to the grindstone work that has led to our victories, even if that means opening ourselves up to vulnerability and judgment (see Excuse #8 coming up)?
Rachel insists that we “let them see the mistakes! Let them watch the missteps! Let them see you dust yourself off again and again and again and keep going!”
What do you think? Are you ready to let them see all that?