I was recently asked to help a team prepare to tackle some challenging work more effectively. I was motivated to say yes for professional and personal reasons, but I didn't fully think through the necessary conditions for success, and I made some critical errors in planning and delivery. In a word, I failed.
It wasn't a complete failure--I'm confident that some learning occurred--but I certainly failed to live up to my own standards for success. I've reflected on what I could have done differently, and I've learned a lot--but perhaps the most valuable thing I've learned is the extent to which I've developed a growth mindset. As Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck notes,
In a fixed mindset, people believe their basic qualities, like their intelligence or talent, are simply fixed traits. They spend their time documenting their intelligence or talent instead of developing them. They also believe that talent alone creates success—without effort. They're wrong.
In a growth mindset, people believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work--brains and talent are just the starting point. This view creates a love of learning and a resilience that is essential for great accomplishment.
The relevance here is that I'm not interpreting this failure as a character flaw or a fundamental inability to do good work. I'm fully aware that I take on projects like this all the time, and most of them turn out quite successfully. This isn't to say that I'm ducking responsibility for my failure or ignoring it in any way. I'm very clear about the mistakes I made and what I'll do differently going forward.
I'm reminded that in 2011 Jonah Lehrer reviewed a study by Michigan State's Jason Moser that applied Dweck's concept of mindset while assessing the neurological processes involved in learning from mistakes:
It turned out that those subjects with a growth mindset were significantly better at learning from their mistakes... Most interesting, though, was the EEG data, which demonstrated that those with a growth mindset generated a much larger [error positivity] signal, indicating increased attention to their mistakes… What’s more, this increased...signal was nicely correlated with improvement after error, implying that the extra awareness was paying dividends in performance. Because the subjects were thinking about what they got wrong, they learned how to get it right...
Moser's study suggests that a growth mindset allows us to pay more attention to our mistakes because we're less upset when confronted with the evidence of those mistakes, which allows us to study them more closely and learn more as a result. In the case of my own recent experience, the outcome is that I'm able to calmly assess my failure, learn from it and move on. I'm disappointed, to be sure, but I'm not upset about it in a way that might have negatively affected other projects or aspects of my life.
By no means am I suggesting that I've mastered this process--it doesn't take much work to envision a failure that would be extremely upsetting. But at the same time it's worth noting that the work I've done over the years has resulted in a greater sense of resilience and an increased capacity to face up to--and learn from--my failures.
Photo by Mikel Ortega. Yay Flickr and Creative Commons.