What is your relationship with “failure”? If you are not embracing it, you are missing out on some of your biggest opportunities to learn and grow. I am so thankful for Carol Dweck’s book, Mindset, The New Psychology of Success. It not only changed my relationship with failure, but it freed me to try new things and not be confined by perfectionism and the fear of making a mistake. Check out her TED Talk to hear the highlights of her research findings: https://www.ted.com/speakers/carol_dweck
Learn from the Missteps
When striving for perfection, a mistake can feel devastating, but in reality, there is so much to be gained from it. We can learn where things didn’t work and make adjustments to reach our goal. There is information to be captured and shared. You can even celebrate the fact that you are getting closer to success by eliminating the last approach. I don’t know about you, but I haven’t been to many “things didn’t quite work as planned” celebrations. Instead, the mistake is likely not talked about at all, and the opportunity to knowledge share and collaborate on a new approach is missed. Being outcome driven is a double-edged sword. While it provides focus and a vision of the goal, if you are not careful, you will miss the journey, and all that it has to teach you.
We obviously celebrate victories, accomplishments and success, but how much thought do we put into the training, sacrifice, missteps and do-overs that are just as much a part of the journey as the final outcome? This is where the magic happens. Skills are honed and confidence is built, but that part of success typically goes unrecognized because all of the attention is given to the end result. When we think of the people who have become the best at what they do, we primarily see the outcome. What is unfortunate about that view, is that it does not let us in on all of the hard work and challenges overcome that led to them being known as the best.
Praise the Effort
Think of your favorite athlete, most beloved author, or industry mogul. We are impressed by their success, and that’s why they’re admired. Their stats and accomplishments are often committed to memory, but what about their work ethic? Their resilience? We seldom praise their effort. Of all that Dweck wrote, this point really grabbed me. She challenged us as parents, teachers, leaders and coaches to re-focus our praise. If we praise the effort instead of the accomplishment, we open up unrestrained possibilities. The narrative is rewritten, and it is no longer about what I can and cannot do but, shifts to what must I do in order to reach the goal or gain the desired skill. That shift is huge. Imagine a time when you tried something new. After a few attempts and seeing others begin to master it, it was easy to decide that you didn’t have an aptitude for it and stop trying. The focus on aptitude told you that you were wasting your time because either you won’t learn it, or if you do, you won’t be very good at it. But in reality, you may need to put in more effort, but the skill can be learned.
I wrestled with this most of my life with math. I was an honor student, but I was convinced that I could not do math. I always eked out a good grade in the class, but it was a tortuous process, and I didn’t retain the information. I had heard other women in my family, and I had joined the “we are just not good at math” club. Because of that mindset, I struggled, and I actually failed my first math class in college. It was the first time that I had ever failed any class, and it was devastating. It confirmed what I had always known, and it didn’t speak very well of my professor either! Neither of us were able to get the job done. I reeled from that defeat for years and was a nervous wreck when it was time to re-take the class. I remember whining about how bad I was at math, and how the class would do me in when a co-worker told me that I needed to go back to the basics. Start with the order of operations, and make sure I had a good handle on the processing required to solve the different types of problems. He said that math is the only subject where you can know for sure that you have the answer correct before it’s graded. You can check your answers, so you are in control of your grade. That was a real game changer. We worked on the basics. My understanding improved, and I got an “A” in the class. The difference this time around was mindset and effort.
My challenge to each of you is to consider your skills on a spectrum. One end of the spectrum is that I know nothing about this topic, and the other end is that I have mastered this topic. There are many degrees of understanding between those two ends. That is where effort comes in. Wherever you fall on the spectrum, your effort will move you towards mastery. It is not necessary to master every skill, but effort will move you forward on the spectrum, and improve your abilities. We focus too much on achieving a particular grade or result. However, I believe that the true measure of learning is improving one’s abilities and continuing to learn. I hope that this will help you rethink failure and develop a healthy relationship with it. Keep learning! Keep climbing!