How do you explain when you fail at something that is important to you? What words do you use to describe your failure? Is it as an action (I failed) or is it as an identity (I’m a failure)? Why does it even matter?
Carol Dweck, a famous Stanford psychologist spent 20 years researching this question and exposed some revealing correlations between our beliefs and the reaching of our potential.
She became fascinated with how her students would grapple with problems. She never thought anyone could derive a positive benefit from failure.
What these children knew was that human qualities, such as intellectual skills, could be cultivated with effort. In their eyes, they saw failure as a route to getting smarter. They were learning and were driven on by the thirst for knowledge.
Dweck went on to illustrate the consequences of thinking that your intelligence or personality is something you can develop with perseverance and effort (growth mindset) as opposed to something that is a fixed, deep-seated trait (fixed mindset)
In the fixed mindset, the individual is concerned with how they show up, how they will be judged and less emphasis, if any, is placed on learning or even the enjoyment of the challenge. The self-talk will be continuously asking, "Will I pass or fail? Will I look smart or dumb? Will I feel like a winner or a loser?
The growth mindset believes that the initial distribution of "talents" is merely a starting point for a journey of skills acquisition. It also believes the potential of an individual is unknown. Armed with that belief, it is easy to see how this creates a passion for learning.
Why would you worry about looking smart if you believed you can get better through application? Why would you worry about hiding deficiencies when you know that through perseverance, you can overcome setbacks? Why would you stay in your comfort zone when you can look for experiences that will stretch you? The hallmark of the growth mindset is the conviction to stick to your cause even when you are struggling and it is not going so well.
Let’s consider the same question through a sporting lens. In January 1995, Matthew Syed became the British number-one table tennis player aged 24. What had marked him out for sporting greatness? Speed, mental strength, agility and reflexes were how he chose to explain it initially. The way he chose to tell his story was typical of the way that many who had reached the top in sport express their rise to greatness.
When he took a step back and realized that eight of the top ten players in the nation at that time all lived on Silverdale road in Reading, he thought again.
He reflects on a number of hidden advantages in his upbringing when he considers the sport. Firstly, his parents decided to buy a full size table tennis table in 1978 and put it in their large garage. Secondly, Matthew had a brother called Andrew who came to love table tennis as well and they would play for hours together after school. The third element to this story was Peter Charters, the nations’s top table tennis coach and a teacher at the local Aldryngton primary school. Peter was passionate about the game and anyone who passed through the school and showed potential was persuaded to join him for training at the local club, Omega. Syed comments “Charters invited me and my brother Andy to join Omega in 1980, at the very moment we were beginning to outgrow the garage.”
Omega certainly wasn’t luxurious club. It was a hut containing one table on the outskirts or Reading about two miles from where they lived. There was no central heating so it was furiously hot in summer and freezing cold in winter. It had one thing that made it almost unique in the country and that was it was open 24 hours for the exclusive use of its tiny group of members, each of whom had a key!
The nucleus of players that grew up on Silverdale road were the beneficiaries of very unusual circumstances. Syed concludes that these players were blessed with “powerful advantages” over all the other aspiring youngsters in the rest of the country and he was the best of this very small bunch. If a bigger group of youngsters had access to a table tennis table aged eight, had a brother who played, a top coach at their school and a club open all hours, in all probability, he would not have been number 1 in the country.
We all like to believe that sport is a meritocracy and that is achievement by ability and hard work, but it is only part of the story. The delusion lies in focusing on the individuality of their triumph without exploring the powerful advantages that formed part of their development.
When Syed thinks he is special or “talented” he reminds himself that had he been born one door further down the road, he would not have attended Aldryngton, never met Chalmers and not joined Omega. Whilst his birthplace afforded him the hidden advantages, it was his growth mindset together with the practice opportunities which created the potential for high achievement. If practice is denied or diminished, no amount of talent will get you there.
The way we explain the events in our life can have a profound effect on our ultimate success. How are you choosing to tell your story. Cultivating a growth mindset will create the behaviours to achieve exceptional performance.
Our special thanks to Simon Hunt.