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Failing Forward is a Vital Mindset for Us in a Down Economy

“People we see as happy usually have a way to measure failure.” Failure was the topic at Ben Casnocha and Chris Yeh’s  junto I was unable to attend.  Another observation from that junto: “Introspection produces wisdom. Success doesn’t

produce introspection.” Such people have what Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck calls a fixed mindset. They see intelligence as pre-determined, unchangeable:  bright people are born, not made. They hone a single expertise to become a recognized expert with the fewest missteps along the way. They are less inclined to experiment or explore disparate topics. In short, they’d rather know than learn, she concludes in Mindset

Those with a “growth mindset” enjoy experimentation and eventual mastery. They thrive on learning new things even if they fail along the way. They believe that understanding why they failed leads to greater understanding and success. 

If you believe Dweck’s view as I do then you can see why it is vital to encourage the love of learning and of critical thinking at an early age – or any age.  

As the junto participants noted, “Failure is the intrusion of reality into our perception of ourselves. Successful failure helps you realize personal competencies.”  Yet, fighting against the instinctive desire to be certainrigorous honesty with oneself and others is needed to enjoy this benefit.

Even if you fail you’ll have the mindset to learn from it and modify your next attempt, without feeling the failure will sink you. In fact, your experience reinforces your self-knowledge of your resilience and appetite for living fully – with others.  You are not dependent on other people’s opinions for your sense of self so you can see them and yourself more clearly. With that clarity, you make wiser judgments over time about individuals and situational options.

Yet, because we can rationalize any failure as some kind of success, we can only reap these benefits, notes Dan Erwin, by establishing a “yardstick” for success before taking a risk. “I’ve learned that the best way to really analyze failure is to lay out your measuring yardstick before you undertake the task. Of course, that implies that how you frame a problem, determines the yardstick.”

Finally, from the junto, ”Be terrified of failure and avoid failure until the moment it arrives, then be able to let go (and ignore sunk costs) and embrace it / learn from it. This is tough: you don’t want failure, but you do want to see the silver lining when it happens.”

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  1. Posted February 18, 2009 at 4:10 pm | Permalink

    I love this post. For some reason (because society is so fixed on success, I suppose) we have a terrible time dealing with failure. Companies, managers, and individuals all pay lip service to the idea, and then we turn our backs on those who fail, and those who appear to fail. And yet, failure is the only way to learn. When I taught public speaking at Princeton, I would always challenge my classes with the “Totem Exercise.” In it, I asked them to write down 10 things that were going well in their lives, and 10 things that were going badly. Then I would have them note down the 10 best moments/events in their lives, and the 10 worst moments or events. Finally, they were to look at the lists and compile a list of their strengths and weaknesses based on the highs and lows recorded. I encouraged them to draw a picture of this list (the Totem) and then they had to give a speech about it. The speeches were astonishing: moving, funny, and insightful. The audience often shed tears. Why was this so moving? As students who had worked so hard to get into Princeton, and then so hard once they were there, they rarely stopped to think about what they were doing. For many, this was literally the first time anyone had asked them what their lives had added up to. And the failures reported were always the most interesting stories.

  2. Posted February 18, 2009 at 4:36 pm | Permalink

    This totem is a powerful exercise. I just did it for myself. It is a giant step towards self-understanding, a necessary precept to truly seeing and understanding others. And, as you well know from your book, Trust Me, connection can’t happen until trust exists. Thank you Nick

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