The Gift Of Failing
With a growth mindset, we see failure as the gift it is: an opportunity to learn and prove that we are evolving and changing. Fixed mindsets teach us that failures are something to be scared of, and to avoid because they are a damning indictment of us as individuals. We view them as judgments rather than as merely part of the process of learning. However, growth mindsets help us see failures in a positive light because they represent the potential to be better.
We can develop a growth mindset by abandoning grand goals somewhere off in the distance and instead focus on tiny, consistent daily habits that bring us closer and closer to excellence. Having a growth mindset involves valuing the process over the outcome, letting go of outlandish expectations for ourselves, accepting our shortcomings, and prioritizing learning to improve above all else.
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We all will fail. That’s a given.
When we come into this world, we know how to do very, very little, and we understand even less. As infants, we are utterly helpless. But we are also little bundles of potential.
When we learn to do anything—walk, talk, eat with a spoon—we have to move from a position of ignorance and incompetence to one of understanding and ability. We can never, never move instantly from one state to the other; it always takes time, a little trial and error, and a lot of “failure.”
Failure is what success looks like in process. Failure is the mechanism of learning.
Failure is not really failure at all; it’s simply a natural, valuable part of the process of acquiring skills, understanding and wisdom. There is no way around it—every adult was once an infant who fell on their butts again and again as they struggled to master the art of walking. Every one of us has failed millions of times already, in the service of becoming who we are today.
Thankfully for us, babies have no shame. They’re learning machines and have not been indoctrinated into being embarrassed about the path they need to take to figure things out. They just do it. Later, as we grow up, we learn another lesson: that struggle, effort, confusion or mistakes are wrong, and make us bad people. Isn’t it ironic, though? All of us want to be intelligent and accomplished, but we are all squeamish when it comes to the very process that would take us there: so-called “failure”!
When you apply your conscious, intentional will to the inevitability of failure, you give yourself the opportunity to interpret and frame the experience according to your own values. You get to redeem failure, by transforming it into an opportunity to learn.
There are loads of benefits to failure! Failing teaches you, primarily, to be better. Aren’t you so lucky to have a kindly, wise old master called life, who is always ready and willing to show you where you need to improve? Failure teaches you to let go of your ego. More often than not, ego will only hold you back, inhibit your power to evolve and grow, and make life’s ordinary slips and hurdles more painful than they need to be.
Failure teaches you to be humble. To stay on your toes and never get too comfy with one level of mastery—there is always another horizon, and we are always beginners. Failure makes us more keenly appreciate mastery when we do achieve it, because we understand its price. Could we have felt as honored to be smart or rich or wise if we were simply given it all for free?
Failure is character building—if we engage it honestly and with conscious intention. The next time you fail, pause and try to become aware of yourself in that very moment. Look at your thoughts and emotions.
• Notice any stories you’re compelled to tell yourself (“See? You’ve failed again, you knew this was a bad idea…” or “people are going to be so disappointed in you…”)
• Choose to set these stories aside for a moment and remind yourself that failure is something you do, not something you are.
• Turn your attention to what can be done from this point on. How can you use this failure to fuel and energize the next step? What can you do better next time? Commit to taking even a small step in that direction, right now.
By following the three steps above, you may notice that you eventually learn to take the ego sting out of not getting things 100 percent right. Consciously choosing beneficial action is incredibly empowering. It reminds you of who’s really in control: you. It brings your focus right back to what you are really in control of: yourself.
In time, you may start to understand how silly it is to fear failure. You’ll see that you’re still who you are, still a worthy and valuable person even if you mess up here and there, or don’t know how to do something right the first time around. You may even start inviting mistakes—after all, they provide valuable data. Every “no” is actually one step closer to the “yes” you want, if you think like a scientist and see your failure as merely feedback on the hypothesis you’re posing.
If you mess up, have a sense of humor about it. Own up to any poor behavior, take full responsibility, and feel how this instantly gives you back your power and invites you to move on to the next step: try again. Trying to master something difficult and needing countless attempts to get it right is not a mistake or a failure at all. It’s simply the cost of your learning. Smile at every step in this process and trust that with an open, growth-oriented mindset, you’re getting closer to where you want to be.
“How you do anything is how you do everything”—you don’t need to focus so intently on specific individual actions if you have a robust, healthy growth mindset informing all your decisions and powering your core beliefs. And perhaps more than anything else, a growth mindset can radically and authentically transform all your limiting beliefs.
This all ties in very neatly with the four steps we outlined in the first chapter: uncover, remove, reduce and transform.
Let’s say with some reflection and self-inquiry, you discover that you have some beliefs that typify a fixed mindset. You begin by trying to uncover the root cause of this mindset. Maybe you notice that you say things like, “Well, it’s easy for her to lose weight, she has good genes, but I guess I was just designed to be fat,” and “Well, I’m just the sort of person that really loves food!”
These beliefs can come from a range of different places. Perhaps you have friends and family who express similar sentiments. Perhaps your culture or society taught you this. Perhaps the billion-dollar weight-loss industry has gotten into your head, convincing you that losing weight is ultra-complicated, and basically impossible unless you have some esoteric knowledge you paid for, or a special supplement or crazy diet on your side.
Once you’ve identified these thoughts and attitudes, you bring a little consciousness into things, noticing yourself thinking them when you do. Slowly, you can work to remove them. You can deliberately replace the above thoughts with a more realistic and active one, for example, “I have the choice to improve my health, right now. I can lose weight with effort.”
Though in some sense this is a more difficult position to take, on the other hand it is more empowering to take responsibility for your own well-being—because once you do, you suddenly hold your own success in your hands, even if it is difficult to do so. To cultivate this sense of empowerment, you can take action. Even small steps point in the right direction.
If you truly do doubt your ability to lose weight, you can start by establishing a small daily habit that will help, for example simply eating 100 calories less a day. In a few months, you will notice weight loss. This can be encouraging and reinforce the healthier, more growth-mindset position: that you can control your weight. In fact, you are the only one who can.
You can certainly reduce your fixed mindset, but there’s no need to eliminate it entirely. It’s reasonable, for example, to acknowledge the fact that you probably won’t lose half your body weight in two months, no matter how strong your willpower. By reducing this mental block, you can still retain some of the benefits of realizing that a few things are truly out of your control. You cannot significantly change your body shape, your height, or your age, for example. But we can still acknowledge all this with conscious acceptance, taking responsibility for the things we can.
Finally, you can transform your fixed mindset into something that really works for you. It may sound strange, but why not take the fatalism and resignation that comes with a fixed mindset and apply it to a new fact: that you are 100 percent in control and responsible for your life. There is nothing you can do about this fact. You are born with a certain fixed nature or quality—the quality of being completely, constantly changing and growing!
Let’s take some of these insights and apply them to real-life, practical situations. What does it actually look like to have a growth mindset?
1. Accept your flaws joyfully and with a sense of humor. Own all your weaknesses; they’re not impediments to success, but the very raw material you will use to cultivate personal development. Be honest and forthright about your bad sides. Laugh at your mistakes—it’s not really such a big deal to be imperfect!
2. Put learning, understanding and growth as a priority over other people’s opinions and judgments. Approval just isn’t as important. Making gradual, consistent improvements is far, far more valuable.
3. Focus on process rather than outcome. Set goals by all means, but focus on what you actually control every day: habits. Commit to small, repeatable actions. Praise and reward yourself for the right attitude, and for consistency, rather than for what you actually achieve. Always challenge yourself—if you’re not a little uncomfortable, keep pushing until you are!