Let’s Celebrate Failure + Try Again

Written by Meriden McGraw of CincyStateofBeing.

I met a new client today for the first time. She’s 12, and wicked smart, and struggling big time with anxiety. Her parents hired me to teach her mindfulness and breath techniques to use in times of distress. We spent an hour together, a portion of which was spent discussing the way our human brains work, and why the heck anxiety even happens. I was attempting to explain the concept of cognitive feedback loops – the idea that our thoughts, emotions, physical sensations, and corresponding behaviors are all reciprocally related, and that with cognitive awareness and shifting, we can interrupt negative cognitive loops. During this conversation, I asked her a question, and her response made me take pause. I thought, “This small, badass girl will change the world someday – that is, if a learned mindset doesn’t get in her way.”

Those with a growth mindset fail at a math problem and wonder how they can improve. Those with a fixed mindset give up.

It was shortly after my new 12-year-old friend told me that when she grows up she wants to figure out how to effectively split atoms without causing an explosion in order to harness alternative forms of energy to save the environment. I had a very short response, because I don’t truly understand what that means. But I do know she’s got plans and she’s clearly smart.

We were running through hypothetical events, imagining what our thoughts would be, and then hypothesizing the corresponding emotions and physical sensations as a way to emphasize the connections between the three concepts. I asked her if she got a new math problem wrong in front of her class what she might think. She responded, “That I’m bad at math, and I would feel embarrassed.” We didn’t even get to what physical sensations this emotion would cause, because I had to change course. I asked her, “If you make a mistake, does that make you bad at whatever you’re trying?”

“Yes,” she responded. Yes. Screeching halt. Cue Carol Dweck.

In her bestselling novel, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, the Stanford University psychologist explains that we either have a fixed or growth mindset. A growth mindset is the understanding that abilities, knowledge, and skills can be developed. Those with a growth mindset believe that talent, intelligence, and thus, success, are malleable through time and effort. A fixed mindset is one that assumes abilities, knowledge, and skills are fixed traits. It’s the “you have it or you don’t” mentality. Those with a growth mindset fail at a math problem and wonder how they can improve. Those with a fixed mindset give up. It’s probably not a big shock that mindset impacts success.

I realized how limiting my unconscious beliefs were.

In one study, Carol and her colleagues assessed the mindsets of 373 students entering junior high school, and then tracked the students' math grades for two years. At the end of the study, students who endorsed a strong growth mindset were outperforming those who held a fixed mindset, controlling for prior achievement.

Some research suggests girls tend to have fixed mindsets and males tend to have growth mindsets. Harvard University professor Claudia Goldin found that female students were dropping out of undergraduate economics courses when they got Bs instead of As. Meanwhile, their male counterparts stuck with the major, accepting less-than-perfect GPAs for an anticipated payoff down the road in their careers.

I used to have a very fixed mindset. Growing up, by no fault of my parents, I was praised for fixed traits: being pretty, being smart, being strong, being fast. But that meant if I failed at a math problem, I was no longer smart. The trait was fixed. However, if I had been praised for process or effort, I might have been encouraged to try, fail, and try again, not hold myself back from harder math problems for fear of failure. The good news in all of this is that our mindsets can change. Carol’s book rocked my world. I realized how limiting my unconscious beliefs were. Of course, if I failed at something the first time I tried, that didn’t mean anything except I had more to learn. My 12-year-old friend and I talked in-depth about this concept today. I’m not sure I impacted her at all, but I hope I did.

So, what can we do for our fixed-mindset girls? Pick up Carol’s book and shift your own mindset. And then start praising girls for effort, for trying, for failing, for the process. Otherwise, thousands of potential scientists, mathematicians, and engineers might stop trying before they succeed, and our world needs their ideas and effort.

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