Mindsets change the meaning of failure.

Last year, a parent said to me, “You know, all of us are of the two mindsets at various time. You never really can avoid a fixed mindset completely.” Exactly! That is why this topic is so important. Yes, we all struggle with fixed and growth mindsets, but how they change the meaning of failure is critical to the growth and development of our children.

Believe me. Imagine Back to School Night, when we have 500 parents in our school, scurrying to classrooms, most of them happy, some of them maybe not so much, I am sometimes driven to a fixed mindset. Is our school good enough? What about that change we made. Has it brought about the improvement that we desired? Are we doing enough? Is failure an option for us? So many people are depending on us. Kind of drives me to not want to take risks.

What do you do when confronted with failure? What do your kids do? Brace yourself. Let me begin on a personal level. I really dislike losing to someone who is just luckier than me. If you are better, and I lose to your skill, I don’t love that, but I can live with it. I really struggle when you are just lucky and you think it is skill that beat me. I remember “Billy” as a kid, a foot shorter and about a hundred times less skilled in basketball, beating me on a LUCKY shot. Come on Billy – rematch. You can’t make that shot again!

Ok, are you ready for the Dr. Leever psycho-therapy couch session? My family loves games. Any games. Card games. Board games. Drawing ridiculous picture games. They play them all the time. Kids: “Dad, wanna play?” Dad: “Nah, I am engrossed in this cooking show.” “I would, but I was just gonna go wash the car in 120 degree heat.” Why this avoidance? Honestly, I developed some sort of fixed mindset with my intellect and ability long ago in some game (no, it wasn’t Billy, he was just lucky, ONCE) and I have avoided them for most of my life. How ridiculous is that?

Carol Dweck confronts this head on in pointing out that failure is a painful experience. She tells the story of Jim Marshall, a football player, who picked up a lose ball and ran the length of the field to score – in the wrong end zone. He scored for the other team. This was on national television. He said that at halftime, he sat, dejected and wondered what to do. He could shrink away in disgrace, or do something great. He went out in the second half, played spectacularly and helped the team win the game, erasing his mistake. But he didn’t erase it. He began to go out and speak about it, to tell others how he had managed to overcome the fear, face it, grip it, and use it to be better both as a player, but more importantly, as a person.

“If failure means that you lack competence or potential – that you are a failure – where do you go from there?” (Pg. 35) Take a look at this graphic. Dweck studied seventh graders. The question was how do you respond to academic failure, a poor grade on a test.

Growth Mindset Fixed Mindset
“Study harder for the next test” “`If you don’t have the ability, why waste your time?”
  “I would seriously consider cheating”
  “I would find another way”

If you are deeply ingrained with the fixed mindset, you might seek someone who is worse off than you to give your self-esteem a boost. When college students were given the chance to look at the tests of others after doing poorly on their own test. Guess what happened? Those with a growth mindset wanted to see the test of those who had done better to try to see if they could remedy the deficiency. Those of a fixed mindset “chose to look at the tests of the people who had done really poorly.” (Pg. 36) I suppose this is why I liked playing basketball with Billy, on all but one day anyways. But wait, it also explains why Billy kept coming back to play with me. Hmmm.

This is a very entertaining and enlightening part of the book. Go back and re-read the part labeled “Mindsets Change the Meaning of Failure” (Pg. 36-44 in my paperback version) Fascinating stuff. Dweck believes that she has linked the fixed mindset to depression, having studied college students in the second semester. She uses a number of other great illustrations to make her point.

Consider the tortoise and the hare. We all know the story and how the hare is foolish and the tortoise is what we should all really want to be. But Dweck points out, who really wants to be the tortoise? No one. “We just want to be a less foolish hare.” (Pg. 38)

Dweck points out that there are high risks associated with effort. For those with a fixed mindset, “great geniuses are not supposed to need it. So needing it casts a shadow on your ability.” (Pg. 43) Secondly, effort robs the fixed mindset of all excuses. “Without effort, you can always say ‘I could have been (fill in the blank).’ But once you try, you can’t say that anymore” (Pg. 43).

What can I take away from all of this? Well, Billy may have been motivated by a growth mindset when it came to basketball. I am pretty sure that I had a fixed mindset with Billy, but was willing to grow when I was playing with others. I guess I also need to admit that my intellect and ability is not wrapped up in winning at a card or ridiculous drawing game. For your own children, what does failure mean to them? How can you help them embrace growth and failure to make them stronger and more resilient? Keep reading or run out and get the book Mindset for yourself.

My kids will be so happy with my mindset shift. Let the games begin!

Next Time: The Truth About Ability and Accomplishment


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