How do we deal with failures? A lot of it depends on our mindset. The concept of mindset and its influence on how people think, act, and interact with others has been well-researched scientifically. Often used colloquially, mindset is a set of strongly-held assumptions and beliefs that dictates our worldview, how we see ourselves and others, and our relationship with material and non-material components of life.
One useful typology is that of growth versus fixed mindsets. This was originally introduced by Carol Dweck, a professor of Psychology at Stanford University, with respect to children’s perception of intelligence. A “fixed mindset” assumes that our character, intelligence, and creative ability are static and given and cannot be increased over time. A “growth mindset”, on the other hand, involves continuous incremental development along one’s life. In many ways, this is similar to the classic nature-nurture debate of whether it the genes that determine the wealth of one’s intelligence or does the environment have a role to play.
Whether we are in a fixed mindset or a growth one has a big role to play in our relationship with success and failure in both professional and personal lives and ultimately in our well-being. Those with the former mindset want to be perceived as smart in every situation, want to prove themselves to everyone, and want to avoid failing at all cost. Consequently, they tend to avoid challenges, get defensive easily, and are unable to accept criticism. People with such mindsets can easily rationalize putting in less effort into tasks because, for them, the outcomes are already fixed and depend on genetic traits and pre-determined levels of intelligence.
On the other hand, a growth mindset entails accepting challenges and failures as a part of one’s learning and development process. In case of failures, instead of getting into a denial mode or taking it too personally of “I am a failure”, growth-mindset people motivate themselves with “I failed but I’ll try harder next time”. Instead of being threatened by others’ success, they look for lessons and inspirations from there.
Related, it is rather interesting to understand how the two kinds of people respond to feedback. In a series of experiments, fixed-mindset people showed no interest in hearing the right answer when they had gotten a question wrong. They already knew they were wrong and that was enough information for them. In contrast, growth-mindset people showed keenness to know more and develop an understanding of how they could do better the next time. In other words, their priority was learning instead of the binary distinction of success and failure.
Dweck found that people displayed the same dichotomy even when it came to their personal relationships. For instance, the definition of an ideal partner for those with a fixed mindset was someone who would put them on a high pedestal, idolize them, and make them feel perfect. The growth-mindset people wanted a partner who would help them recognize their faults, encourage them to learn new things, and work on becoming a better person.
New research is now being developed to understand the application of this fixed-growth mindsets in the workplace. In one research reported in the Harvard Business Review article ‘How Companies Can Profit from a “Growth Mindset”, researchers investigated the links between growth mindset on an organizational level and factors such as employee satisfaction and perceptions of fairness and collaboration in the workplace. Through a survey conducted with employees in seven companies of Fortune 1000, the researchers found that employees who worked in companies that had a growth-mindset organizational culture were significantly more likely to perceive their workplace as just, innovative, and collaborative.
Crucially, such mindsets starts manifesting from a very early age. In one study, four-year-olds were offered a choice between redoing an easy jigsaw puzzle or to try a harder one. Even these young children clearly showed the dichotomous patterns: one group preferred to stay on the safe side and to redo the easy puzzles while the other group took on the new puzzles showing confusion about why would anyone want to do the same puzzle over and over.
Being in the right mindset can have long-lasting effects for individuals, companies, and our societies. By believing in intelligence as a malleable trait, we can respond to failures with resilience. Instead of wasting time proving over and over how great we are, we can refocus our energy on becoming better. At a time when levels of depression (and suicides) are at an all-time high, we need to inculcate not just tolerance but encouragement towards such a trial-and-error- mode towards life.
Dr. Kriti Jain