You need to fail in order to succeed


Image: sheltoninteractive.com

You know the famous stories: The Hare and the Tortoise, The Little Engine that Could, and The Saggy, Baggy Elephant. All of them have a similar storyline – two main players, a better-endowed antagonist and a less-endowed protagonist. The story is always the same; the antagonist uses less than all its gifts and ends up being shown as “losers” by the more hardworking, or determined, protagonists. These are great stories of moving past one’s limitations through sheer will, determination and hard work.

Except that they aren’t really that great.

What these stories have done is to polarize personalities into: EITHER you are better endowed but less hardworking; OR you are less endowed but more hardworking. This is what Jim Collins calls “The Tyranny of the OR”. Either you are one OR the other.

In fact, what Stanford University professor Carol Dweck found out in her research with children and students in college, is that there are two types of mindsets: the fixed and the growth. The fixed mindset seems to follow the better-endowed students, and the growth mindset, the less. She laments that the fixed mindset students – and she identified herself as one – would treasure the natural talent that they were endowed with, and will not go out of their way to jeopardize the “superiority” feeling that they have by doing things that they are not familiar with. The fear of failure keeps them hugging the baseline of comfort so that they can continue to show their talent. In short, they will not go where they are not certain to do well. Ultimately, though, they will get left behind, just as the hare discovered.

In contrast, the growth mindset people are risk takers. They are not afraid to be wrong, fail, and then learn from their failure. They stretch themselves beyond their natural ability so as to set a new normal. When they perform poorly, they are interested in doing better, looking at what they got wrong, and uncovering the answers from those who did. They were not ashamed to say they didn’t know the answer, all the while looking to get better. In her studies, Dweck found that those who were less endowed with abilities tend to adopt this mindset.

In a sense, life imitates art.

But Dweck further laments that this should not be the case. If the well-endowed adopted a growth mindset, and is not afraid to admit that they did not have the answer, there will be a perfect storm of the smart getting even smarter. By being gifted, AND applying that gift to learn new things, stretching oneself beyond the norm, allowing oneself to be wrong and accepting the consequences of being labeled a “failure”, one will be able to ride an ever-increasing vortex of success. Indeed this is the “Genius of the AND”, again ala Collins.

And this uncovers one of life’s greatest paradoxes – to succeed, one needs to fail.

Aesop’s descendants should perhaps update the story of the Hare and the Tortoise; that perhaps the hare wins through application of more hard work, and natural genius. Alas, this will not sell, because we have been fed the fairy tale notion of the triumphant underdog, further entrenching the polarizing thoughts of EITHER this OR that.

Pity.

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