Why You Need to Embrace Failure

23 April, 2017

How do you respond to challenge and failure?  Do you think you have a Growth Mindest or a Fixed Mindset?  Does failure or success make you smarter? 

There's a common theme in my coaching at the moment: dealing with the fear of failure.  There's a reason it's common, which is simply because most of us struggle with it, and as we will explore for understandable reasons.

It's such an important thing to be addressing on an interpersonal level.  Simply because, in our western society at least, there is an almost excruciating dynamic that we are all living with on a daily basis: the desire to achieve, the desire to be creative, the desire to experiment - AND - the social and interpersonal shame we have to live with when we don't achieve what would be considered a 'successful' outcome: also known as 'failure'. 

This is the thing that so many of us fear, and it is such a shame that we do so, because it limits us in so many ways.  We won't try something new in case we won't be good at it, or we won't be deemed ‘successful’.  You can see the oxymoron here can't you?!  How have we come to expect ourselves to be immediately successful at something we haven't done before?  Something that stretches our comfort zone and our current capacities?  It implies we have some kind of super-human ability to just pick something up and immediately be competent at it.   Or, we want certainty, guarantees that we won't be criticised or judged by others, that we will still be seen as competent, despite the fact that we have so openly ‘failed’.

It makes perfect sense that we would struggle with the possibility of being seen as incompetent or ‘stupid’ in the eyes of others.  I have talked often about this in previous articles, that as humans we have a sensitivity to what others think of us because we have a deep need to belong in social groupings (much like penguins, we don’t survive long without strong social connections).  This hard-wired need for connection and belonging has us fearing rejection on a very primal level, because deep down we know that rejection leads to personal demise.

The other reason it makes perfect sense that we fear ‘failure’ so acutely is the way we are responded to when we are forming crucial neural pathways as very young children.  How many times did we hear ‘good boy!’ or ‘good girl’ when we ‘succeeded’ at something?  We learn to put the lid back on the yogurt pot, we learn to walk, we learn to ride a bike, we learn manners and we are heavily praised for being ‘good’ and achieving a favourable outcome.  In other words we are praised for competence, for being able to do something that is outwardly considered ‘good’. I am a parent of a toddler, and I know myself that it is almost impossible to not do this kind of praising to my two year old!  I can only imagine how much harder it will be to avoid it once my child starts school, starts playing sports, starts taking school tests and so on.

What we don’t praise our young people enough for is failure.  For trying something, challenging ourselves, and subsequently not being very good at.  Failing gloriously!  It may seem strange to praise someone for effectively buggering something up:  Why, you might ask, what good would that possibly do for someone?  Do we want everyone to not care how they do, to let themselves off the hook, to be drop-outs with no goals or sense of satisfaction or achievement?  Goal setting and achievement is good for our brains - you told us that!!

And yes, that’s all true, goal setting achievements is wonderful for our brains and sense of confidence and self-esteem.  The reality is, unless we all have super-human powers, we cannot and will not ‘succeed’ and achieve at everything we do.  We can’t score every goal, paint a picture that everyone in the world will love, achieve fantastic results in every test.  Sorry to have to break this news to you, and it’s true.  So, the question then becomes, how do we want to respond to ourselves when we inevitably ‘fail’?

Researcher Carol Dweck, author of Growth Mindset provides important answers for us, and I believe her work is really pivotal in shaping our young people from now on.  In her initial study, she gave 10 year olds test questions that were slightly too hard for them, and studied how they responded to the challenge.  They fell into two distinct categories, which lead her to coin the terms Growth Mindset and Fixed Mindset.  Those with Growth Mindsets were unusually positive:  they said things like, ‘I love a challenge’ and were really keen to seek feedback on how they could improve for next time.  Those with Fixed Mindsets responded by describing this challenge as tragic and catastrophic - they believed they had failed, that their intelligence was on the table for judgment, and said that they would cheat next time in order to do better.  No prizes for guessing what they were placing a high value on here.

When they scanned their brains, those with Fixed Mindsets had very little neural activity when compared to those with Growth Mindsets - it is starkly and quite obviously different on the scan images.  Her theory is that when we embrace a ‘not yet’ attitude you open up to your ability to improve, and therefore connect new neural pathways to make improvement happen.  In short, what this means is that failure re-framed in this way (as a ‘not yet’) actually makes your smarter.  How about that?!

So, now we have the scientific evidence backing up why embracing failure works, so what can we do to encourage a Growth Mindset in ourselves and our young people?  Her advice is simple:  praise wisely.  Don’t praise talent or intelligence or competence, as we now know that doesn’t work.  She calls it Process Praise - praising the effort, the strategy, improvement, and qualities like perseverance and focus.  Rewarding the ‘not yet’ actually increases confidence and persistence and therefore resilience.  Sounds so much more useful, doesn’t it?

And, as adults, we have the capacity to turn this inward onto our selves.  Praise our own efforts, strategies, perseverance and focus. Be a role model for Growth Mindset.  Play, experiment, be creative and above all fail, and fail gloriously!  This is what we need to be role modelling for our young people.

As always, I welcome your comments and feedback.
With love, Charlotte.

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