Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Seeking Failure

Odd title to a post, I know. But I'm just about finished with Carol Dweck's Mindset: The New Psychology of Success (she also wrote the more academic, but no less wonderful, Self-Theories: Their Role in Motivation, Personality, and Development) and it really is one of those life altering books. The basic idea that she's communicating (and she has the research to back it all up so this isn't just hypothesis on her part) is that there are essentially two ways of understanding ourselves and others.

First is that each of us has a set personality, capabilities, talent, etc. and that you simply have what you're born with and there's going to be a point in time where you simply hit the limit of your gifts. Second is that all of these things are developed and that with hard work (and only with hard work) can achieve just about any level of capability.

Shockingly (not really), those who have the first mindset (the fixed mindset) work hard to avoid failure and, as a result, end up not challenging themselves (insofar as challenging oneself creates the possibility of failure and failure is evidence of having arrived at the limit of one's abilities). On the other hand, those with the growth mindset view challenge in a positive light. They are less interested in proving that their "talent" is very high and more interested in improving and view challenges as the only way to improve.

For me this comes down, to a large extent, about ways of viewing failure. With a growth mindset, not only do we not view failure as an indication of anything beyond a need to work harder but, further, failure is a good thing. It points out where we need to work harder. In fact, it seems to me that with a growth mindset we'd actually (freakishly) seek failure because it would provide us with the information we need to improve.

This idea of seeking failure isn't all that unusual. Scientists do it all the time, in the same way the growth mindset would. Scientists come up with a hypothesis and then test it. The way to test a hypothesis is to figure out what sort of evidence would prove the hypothesis false and then work to see if that evidence exists. So, you figure out an experiment that is most likely to prove the hypothesis false, if it is indeed false, and if the experiment doesn't prove the hypothesis false, then you are safe going another day believing the hypothesis. BUT you continue to search for those experiment that might ultimately disprove your hypothesis.

I, of course, would never have come up with this on my own. Who seeks failure? Isn't failure in something evidence of being a failure. Nope, that's stinky fixed mindset thinking. Failure really is simply a situation that shows where improvement is needed. Once we know where improvement is needed then we can set to achieving said improvement.

A radically new (and kind of scary) way of thinking. I want to think this way and see that it makes sense. But, it certainly isn't a way of thinking that comes terribly easy to me. So, it's going to take time and I'm likely going to backslide, but I'm off to work on having more of a growth mindset and less of a fixed mindset. Wish me luck!

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