Perception of failure: The end of the road or a new beginning?

When you hear the term ‘growth mindset’, what comes to mind? Do you think about expanding your horizons; thinking ‘outside the box’; or adopting brain exercises to grow your brainpower? Perhaps something like ‘philosophical musings’ come to mind? Whatever it is that you think of, it’s an important concept to know about in today’s fast paced, ever changing, VUCA world.

A good place to start with this concept and how you can use it to your advantage is by introducing you to Dr. Carol Dweck (Psychologist and Researcher, Stanford University). Dweck is the preeminent researcher in the field of mindset. She has dedicated her practice to understanding the power of deeply engrained beliefs (whether conscious or unconscious) and how these impact our success in achieving our goals/aspirations. She has found that the beliefs we hold about ourselves and the world around us as formed in childhood later shape our behaviour and permeate every part of our lives in adulthood; that what we believe to be true becomes the driver of our success (or lack thereof). This is a game changer for those wanting to live a successful life; a life less ordinary…

To define the term, ‘growth mindset’ is a positively-focused frame of reference, or a lens through which we see ourselves, others, and situations/opportunities that present. This mindset sees people thrive on challenge; they view failure not as a lack of intelligence or skill, but as a chance for growth, learning, and development. It is the passion for stretching oneself and sticking to one’s goal, even (or especially) when it feels uncomfortable, and/or is not going to plan. Ever heard the phrase about needing to get ‘comfortable being uncomfortable’? I think of this as a mantra for those with a growth mindset. For these people, failure is a necessary step on the path to ultimate success, and that means naturally experiencing feelings of discomfort. As an interesting side note, for those with a fully-fledged growth mindset, situations of apparent ‘failure’ may not even be viewed in this way as ‘failure’ is an absolute, finite, notion; rather, for them ‘failure’ is simply a chance for course correction back on the path to success. I’m pleased to say that this is going some way to describing my mindset now, but that is only after a lot of personal development, reflection, and determination to move away from having the opposite mindset – the fixed mindset…

The fixed mindset is how most of us have been conditioned to think from an early age. It is based on the belief that our character, intelligence, skills, and creative ability are carved in stone, and that after a certain age, we are unable to change them in any meaningful way (i.e. you can’t teach an old dog new tricks). For those with this frame of reference, success is the affirmation of inherent intelligence and provides an assessment of how one measures up against an equally fixed standard. This results in a need to prove oneself over and over given that failure is seen in the negative and as something to be avoided at all costs. Those with a fixed mindset want to maintain the impression of intelligence and being good at what they do, so they avoid putting themselves in situations that may indicate otherwise; where they think they might not succeed (despite what they could potentially gain if they took a risk and leapt into the unknown). To our detriment, this is how most of us think/behave; however, it is this fear that can limit our growth and can hinder us realising our true potential. If you remain untested and don’t take risks with developing yourself, you never know how far you could go (or grow!). Sound familiar? It does for me, but like I said, I’m working on it…

Taken together, this begs the question of how we can change our mindset if what we think is based on deeply engrained beliefs shaped from a very early age. If you naturally lean toward having a fixed mindset, you might think that you can’t change what you believe and how you think, that you are too set in your ways, and that how you are now is how you will always be. If that is describing your thoughts, perhaps allow me to challenge them… back in the day as a budding student psychologist, I was taught that fluid intelligence was developing up to the age of about 18, plateaued between 18 and about 50 (i.e. you grew your intelligence up to early adulthood which then remained static through mid-life), and started to decline from (approximately) 50-60 onwards (sorry Baby Boomers!). This seemed to make sense to me (and who was I to question the research that I was being taught?) however Dweck’s work really challenged me as it flies in the face of this (as does all the current neuroplasticity research, but exploring that is for another day)… I had to spend time quite a bit of time processing what her research was finding – that what one believes and how they think about something can change how effectively they process that information (intelligence), and then act on it (behaviour). Now there’s a turn up for the books! That you can shape your intelligence, skill, character through changing your mindset is (pardon the pun) mind blowing – my oh my, how powerful we are finding the mind truly is! Given this understanding, the phrase I now adopt is along the lines of ‘if you think you can or if you think you can’t, you’re right’ – and I have to say, adopting this has challenged me, changed me (for the better), and continues to do so as it shapes me more into having a greater growth mindset.

So where do you sit in terms of the two mindsets? Some of the statements below may provide an indication:

Growth

You have a mantra of “nothing ventured, nothing gained” or “if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again”

You love challenge and have a passion for stretching yourself

You see risk as necessary for growth

You believe in making a great effort regardless of current skill/knowledge

You’re resilient in the face of setback and don’t give up just because things aren’t going to plan or are getting more difficult

You don’t accept failure as the end, you simply see it as a necessary step toward the success you seek

You believe that basic qualities are things that can be cultivated and developed through effort and that everyone can change and grow through application and experience

With determination and effort, you can change how intelligent/skilled you are

With determination and effort, you can change the kind of person you are

 

Fixed

You have a mantra of “nothing ventured, nothing lost”

You avoid situations where you don’t know what you’re doing

You don’t take risks by attempting things that are completely new

You fear failure or perceive it negatively, and therefore avoid it

You tend to give up when things aren’t going to plan/aren’t going well

You only say yes to things you are sure you can do

You do what you can to protect your reputation of being ‘intelligent’

You believe you can learn new things but you can’t really change how intelligent/skilled you are

 

You can do things differently but the important parts of who you are can’t really be changed

 

In essence, the fixed mindset makes you concerned with how you will be judged, so you adapt your behaviour accordingly to avoid judgement. The growth mindset makes you concerned with how you can improve, so you adapt your behaviour to ensure that every experience is one where you learn something and move forward from that.

It may be possible that there are different times/circumstances where you identify with both mindsets – this is entirely possible, and highly likely. How we view the world and what happens around us is shaped through both nature and nurture; we have a natural disposition toward one or the other (nature), which has then been shaped through life experiences (nurture). Regardless of which mindset we currently have, Dweck’s research shows that we can work on changing our mindset (if that is desired). For me, I naturally lean more toward fixed with elements of growth, but am learning how to be predominantly growth focused. Doing so has been an incredible journey and has resulted in increased resilience, tenacity, and focus for me. I still have setbacks, of course I do, but I view them differently now. If I can learn something from my experiences, regardless of whether they are positive or negative, they have been worthwhile as long as I use them to continue to shape me into more of the person I want to become and the goals I want to achieve.  

Relating this to leadership, I believe when leaders adopt a growth mindset for themselves and then instill this in those who they lead, their teams and organisations can achieve greatness. There are many case studies indicating the organisational impacts of growth mindset (think Google, Facebook, etc.), however I will save these for another post. If you want to learn more about growth mindset in the meantime though, I suggest you start with reading Dweck’s book –  “Mindset: How You Can Fulfill Your Potential” and go from there… happy growing!

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