Revising My Perspective on Failure

Photo by Stanislav Kondratiev on Unsplash

In my last post about my writing journey, I wrote about my initial tendency to compare my work against those of better writers and finding myself fall short. If I were supposed to be a writer, surely I would’ve been able to produce something decent on the first try, despite not having done much writing for fifteen years.

Growing up, I was taught that if I’m good at something immediately, I have a “talent” for it and I’m “meant” to be doing it. If I can pick up a subject or skill quickly, it proved that I was smart or talented. It worked well for me in school because I was good at learning academic subjects, and even in arts and writing. On the other hand, when a skill became harder, I thought it meant that I wasn’t “supposed” to be doing it, and I would move on to something else. The problem was, every skill ramped up in difficulty if one wanted to excel at it, so I kept moving from one skill to the next, never quite finding that elusive “passion.”

It wasn’t until recently that I found out there was a term for this — fixed mindset — and that there was a different way to see things.

Fixed and Growth Mindsets

As a young researcher, Dr. Carol Dweck first set out to study how children coped with failure. Her assumption was that some children coped well while others didn’t. But to her surprise, some children not only coped, but thrived in the face of obstacles. Based on these observations, she identified two core beliefs that shape how people approach challenges: “fixed mindset” and “growth mindset.”

Those with a fixed mindset assume that people are born the way they are. They are either smart or dumb, either good at something or bad at it, and this can’t be changed. Because they believe that these traits are fixed, success reinforces their intelligence and talent, while failure invalidates them.

Those with a growth mindset believe that life is about learning, growing, and stretching yourself. They believe that skill and intelligence are developed, and that mistakes and failures inform them of where they can improve.

Sounds like a no-brainer, right? Of course we can grow and change, so why is this such a big deal? The detail is in how each mindset gets extrapolated and carried out in real life.

Those with a fixed mindset wither from mistakes and failures because they believe that failure reflects their value, that it means they’re an idiot, a loser, not lovable. They end up relying on external validation for their sense of self-worth — for other people to tell them they’re smart, talented, doing a good job. They might have good self-esteem and be highly successful, but they tend to avoid challenges when the outcome is uncertain.

For those with a growth mindset, failures can also hurt, but failures don’t define them. They embrace challenges because they wish to stretch themselves — they are focused more on the opportunity to learn and less on the end result. They tend to see setbacks as opportunities for learning rather than something that reflects their value. Instead of receiving their sense of worth from others, they are validated by their own growth process.

Uncovering My Own Fixed Mindset

Clearly, the growth mindset is presented as the better option, so of course I wanted to be someone with a growth mindset. Everyone has a mixture of fixed and growth mindsets, not one or the other. While it would’ve been comforting to pat myself on the back and say that I had a growth mindset because I constantly work on my own growth, it’s more helpful to see my blind spots so that I can actually improve. Recognizing the fixed mindset in myself has been nothing short of life-changing.

One of Dr. Dweck’s research studies, told in her book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, illustrates fixed and growth mindsets in action. She proposed a fictitious scenario to study participants, who were college students:

One day, you go to a class that is really important to you and that you like a lot. The professor returns the midterm papers to the class. You got a C+. You’re very disappointed. That evening on the way back to your home, you find that you’ve gotten a parking ticket. Being really frustrated, you call your best friend to share your experience but are sort of brushed off.

When asked how they would feel, respondents with a fixed mindset said things like: “I’m a total failure.” “I’m an idiot.” “I’m a loser.” They saw what happened as a direct measure of their worth and a value judgment.

When asked how they would cope, they said: “Stay in bed.” “Get drunk.” “Eat chocolate.” “I wouldn’t bother to put so much time and effort into doing well in anything.” Their coping strategies were about comforting themselves and protecting themselves from feelings of disappointment and self-condemnation.

On the other hand, respondents with a growth mindset thought that they needed to work harder in class, be more careful when parking, and ask the friend if they were feeling okay the next day. They dealt with each situation directly rather than see it as a reflection of who they are.

I saw myself in the fixed mindset, particularly in terms of work. My fixed mindset tended to rear its ugly head when I’m forging my own way outside pre-conceived paths with clear markers of success, such as in academics or career ladders. When I first started my bookkeeping practice, I was terrified of working with clients because I saw them as judging my every move. I saw as failures every time I stumbled over words, every time I didn’t know the answer to a question, every time I made a mistake. I used them as evidence that I wasn’t cut out for this, and that internal condemnation made starting a business so much more difficult.

From the growth mindset, these stumbles would be part of the normal trial and error of learning. Instead of berating myself, feeling bad, and then not wanting to do it again because I feared failing — I realized I can learn from the experience and try again. It completely shifted how I saw myself and how I approached my business and my writing. I learned to address my weaknesses, learn from my mistakes, and improve my skill set rather than feel bad about what I didn’t do well. Instead of trying to appear better than I was, I became more honest about what I knew and what I didn’t. I asked a lot of questions and did a lot of research.

In my next post, I’ll continue my journey to adopting a growth mindset and dive deep into understanding the shadow of the fixed mindset.

Originally published at https://www.soultoworld.com on June 22, 2020.

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