Failure Is an Option


Discover how shifting toward a growth mindset can help you reframe failure as an opportunity. 

“I’m just not good at languages,”  the young woman says, blushing, as feelings of ineptitude wash over her. “I’m hopeless.”

“There’s no such thing,” her Italian teacher encourages. “Try again.”

Nearby, another student raises his hand. When the teacher nods, he launches into his own shaky Italian. Truthfully, the young woman realizes, it doesn’t sound much better than hers. Yet, rather than blush and stammer, he smiles throughout, then listens without any trace of embarrassment as the teacher makes corrections.

The first student felt like a failure, while the other enjoyed the challenge and didn’t take his mistakes personally — or even think of them as mistakes. He saw them as learning opportunities. Again, the only difference is mindset.

A similar scenario inspired Carol Dweck, PhD, a psychology professor at Stanford University, to investigate the virtues of failure. Conducting a test with a group of children, she noticed that some actually seemed thrilled by their mistakes. “I love a challenge!” one boy said. Another, Dweck notes in her book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, was toiling away on some puzzles when he “looked up with a pleased expression and said with authority, ‘You know, I was hoping this would be informative!’”

At first, Dweck wondered what was wrong with them; she’d always thought of failure as something you just coped with. Then she became intrigued, which led her to explore the theory of “fixed” and “growth” mindsets.

Those with fixed mindsets believe their abilities are static traits — they have a certain capacity for something and that’s that. They’re good at languages, or they’re not. They’re great athletes, or they’re not. A fixed mindset makes it difficult to leave our comfort zones or take risks; we’re afraid setbacks will reflect poorly on us. In this state of mind, we take failures personally.

By contrast, people with a growth mindset perceive talents and abilities as something they can develop over time, through effort and instruction. They actively seek challenges, learn from mistakes, and persevere. They ask for help. They don’t worry about appearing smart or talented, because they’re more interested in learning and developing new skills.

These mindsets don’t just affect us. They can have a profound influence on those around us — a fact that’s especially relevant for managers, mentors, and teachers. A 2012 study in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology found that a “fixed theory of math intelligence” can lead to a teacher diagnosing a student from just one test score. A low math-ability assessment often means teachers will offer less encouragement and assign less homework to the student, locking him or her into a cycle of low achievement.

Fortunately, and not surprisingly, a growth mindset is something we can develop.

Shifting toward a growth mindset begins with changing how we speak to ourselves. “If you hear that fixed-mindset voice in your head telling you not to take a risk, to pull out when you make a mistake — start noticing that,” Dweck advises.

“And then tell yourself, It’s just the fixed-mindset voice in your head. And start answer-ing back with a growth-mindset voice: You won’t learn if you don’t take the risk, and mistakes are OK.”

This article originally appeared as part of “Change Your Mindset” in the December 2016 issue of Experience Life.

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Jessie Sholl is a writer and writing teacher in New York City.

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