Treat Failure like a Scientist

When a scientist runs an experiment, there are all sorts of results that could happen. Some results are positive and some are negative, but all of them are data points. Each result is a piece of data that can ultimately lead to an answer.

And that’s exactly how a scientist treats failure: as another data point.

This is much different than how society often talks about failure. For most of us, failure feels like an indication of who we are as a person.

Failing a test means you’re not smart enough. Failing to get fit means you’re undesirable. Failing in business means you don’t have what it takes. Failing at art means you’re not creative. And so on.

But for the scientist, a negative result is not an indication that they are a bad scientist. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. Proving a hypothesis wrong is often just as useful as proving it right because you learned something along the way.

Your failures are simply data points that can help lead you to the right answer.

James Clear 

Grappling for Knowledge

According to a 1995 study, a sample of Japanese eighth graders spent 44 percent of their class time inventing, thinking, and actively struggling with underlying concepts. The study’s sample of American students, on the other hand, spend less than one percent of their time in that state.  

“The Japanese want their kids to struggle,” said Jim Stigler, the UCLA professor who oversaw the study and who co-wrote The Teaching Gapwith James Hiebert. “Sometimes the (Japanese) teacher will purposely give the wrong answer so the kids can grapple with the theory. American teachers, though, worked like waiters. Whenever there was a struggle, they wanted to move past it, make sure the class kept gliding along. But you don't learn by gliding.”

Daniel Coyle, The Talent Code

Throwing Away your Children’s Art 

When I first tried throwing away my own young children’s art…I felt an ache as I pitched it into the trash. There’s a moment when a child first presents you with her art, holding it out with the last split second of attention she can muster after completing it. That moment contains a burst of pride on both your parts, and a frisson of mutual love. But in the end, your pride lasts longer than the child’s does. Eventually, and soon, it must move on to another venture. Theirs always does, but yours lingers, heartstrings tugged.

It’s the wish to prolong this moment artificially, I think, that motivates the urge to keep and curate your children’s art for posterity. You convince yourself there’s some future where your child will want to return to that moment of pride and love through the act of witnessing the thing she made so long ago.

Don’t fall for it. You’re only trying to make yourself feel better. You’ll never quite be able to tell which moment your children will remember, and it’s not as if you can regulate that memory on their behalf anyway. And besides, childhood is made from a thousand moments just like this. There’s no way to hold on to all of them.

Of course, you shouldn’t throw something away that your kids say they want to keep. But absent that urge, and particularly in the early years before it develops, most children’s art exists to be destroyed. The point of life isn’t to prolong youth, but to have grown up. That requires discarding things along the way, and enjoying the appropriate relief. That’s the kind of activity a parent ought to put their moral and aesthetic weight behind.

Mary Townsend writing in The Atlantic


Intelligence and personality can be developed

A “fixed mindset” assumes that our character, intelligence, and creative ability are static givens which we can’t change in any meaningful way, and success is the affirmation of that inherent intelligence, an assessment of how those givens measure up against an equally fixed standard; striving for success and avoiding failure at all costs become a way of maintaining the sense of being smart or skilled. 

A “growth mindset,” on the other hand, thrives on challenge and sees failure not as evidence of unintelligence but as a heartening springboard for growth and for stretching our existing abilities. Out of these two mindsets, which we manifest from a very early age, springs a great deal of our behavior, our relationship with success and failure in both professional and personal contexts, and ultimately our capacity for happiness.

The “growth mindset” creates a passion for learning rather than a hunger for approval. Its hallmark is the conviction that human qualities like intelligence and creativity, and even relational capacities like love and friendship, can be cultivated through effort and deliberate practice. Not only are people with this mindset not discouraged by failure, but they don’t actually see themselves as failing in those situations — they see themselves as learning.

Maria Popova writing in BrainPickings

Being Unmasked as an Imposter

As you might expect, failure isn’t all that popular an activity. And yet, not everyone reacts to it by breaking out in hives. While many of the people (in a recent study) hated tasks that they didn’t do well, some people thrived under the challenge. They positively relished things they weren’t very good at—for precisely the reason that they should have: when they were failing, they were learning.  

For growth people, challenges are an opportunity to deepen their talents, but for “fixed” people, they are just a dipstick that measures how high your ability level is. Finding out that you’re not as good as you thought is not an opportunity to improve; it’s a signal that you should maybe look into a less demanding career, like mopping floors.    

This fear of being unmasked as the incompetent you “really” are is so common that it actually has a clinical name: impostor syndrome. A shocking number of successful people (particularly women), believe that they haven’t really earned their spots, and are at risk of being unmasked as frauds at any moment. Many people deliberately seek out easy tests where they can shine, rather than tackling harder material that isn’t as comfortable.

Megan Mcardle writing in the Atlantic

The view you adopt for yourself 

For twenty years, my research has shown that the view you adopt for yourself profoundly affects the way you lead your life. It can determine whether you become the person you want to be and whether you accomplish the things you value. How does this happen? How can a simple belief have the power to transform your psychology and, as a result, your life? 

Believing that your qualities are carved in stone — the fixed mindset — creates an urgency to prove yourself over and over. If you have only a certain amount of intelligence, a certain personality, and a certain moral character — well, then you’d better prove that you have a healthy dose of them. It simply wouldn’t do to look or feel deficient in these most basic characteristics.

I’ve seen so many people with this one consuming goal of proving themselves — in the classroom, in their careers, and in their relationships. Every situation calls for a confirmation of their intelligence, personality, or character. Every situation is evaluated: Will I succeed or fail? Will I look smart or dumb? Will I be accepted or rejected? Will I feel like a winner or a loser? . . .

There’s another mindset in which these traits are not simply a hand you’re dealt and have to live with, always trying to convince yourself and others that you have a royal flush when you’re secretly worried it’s a pair of tens. In this mindset, the hand you’re dealt is just the starting point for development. This growth mindset is based on the belief that your basic qualities are things you can cultivate through your efforts. Although people may differ in every which way — in their initial talents and aptitudes, interests, or temperaments — everyone can change and grow through application and experience.

Do people with this mindset believe that anyone can be anything, that anyone with proper motivation or education can become Einstein or Beethoven? No, but they believe that a person’s true potential is unknown (and unknowable); that it’s impossible to foresee what can be accomplished with years of passion, toil, and training.

Carol Dweck, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success

How to cover up your fatal flaw

When did it become acceptable to embrace the characteristics that others have identified as detrimental to our mutual professional success? 

I suspect many of the people who trot out their fatal flaws are attempting to create a defense shield to protect themselves from further criticism:

"You will not speak of my fatal flaws because I have mentioned them first and am therefore immune to your potential condemnation."

It’s a classic offense-as-defense strategy.  That approach may work for a while but eventually it prompts some pointed questions: 

"If you know you talk too much, why do you continue to take up all the air time?"

"If you know you are considered dismissive, why do you believe it is in your best interest to denounce the perspectives of anyone who thinks differently than you do?"

"If you know you overpromise and underdeliver, what makes you think people will continue to take you seriously?"

"Why do you assume steamrolling over others is a sustainable strategy?"

It is good to be self-aware. But demonstrating self-awareness, while at the same time showing a lack of discipline to fix issues of concern, is worse than being clueless about our shortcomings. When people close to us offer consistent and considerable feedback about a behavior that is not serving us well, we need to listen up.  Dismissing feedback that does not comport with the way we see ourselves is understandable, but it is not strategic.

The most effective people I know sometimes whimper for a bit after receiving constructive criticism, but they quickly put a plan in place to modify the annoying or offending behaviors. By doing so, they demonstrate respect and appreciation for those brave enough to share difficult truths that are offered with the very best intentions. We need our colleagues to help us be better, but they can’t help if we’re not listening. 

Allison Vaillancourt writing in the Chronicle of Higher Ed   

What on earth is He up to?

Imagine yourself as a living house. God comes in to rebuild that house. At first, perhaps, you can understand what He is doing. He is getting the drains right and stopping the leaks in the roof and so on: you knew that those jobs needed doing and so you are not surprised. But presently He starts knocking the house about in a way that hurts abominably and does not seem to make sense. What on earth is He up to? The explanation is that He is building quite a different house from the one you thought of — throwing out a new wing here, putting on an extra floor there, running up towers, making courtyards. You thought you were going to be made into a decent little cottage: but He is building a palace. He intends to come and live in it Himself.

CS Lewis, Mere Christianity

Trusting Ourselves to Live Without Self-Made Barriers

My weekend of "sleeping" on the decision of whether to apply for a potentially exciting job evolved into a familiar frenzy of circular, useless thought and internal list-making, as well as reading everything I could get my hands on, including a book one of my journalism professors gave me, titled "Transitions: Making Sense of Life's Changes," which I have yet to finish for good reason.

I initially plunged into the book, knowing my super-speedy reading skills would yield another "achievement" of having yet another book to bring up at parties or feel particularly good about myself when I can tell others, "Yeah, I've read that," as if some book fairy was waiting on the last page to plant a huge gold star on my forehead for being on the fast track to personal enlightenment. There I go again. Fast as I can. Trying to get to the finish line before anyone knows I'm in the race. But something slowed me down. Something made me stop trying to rush through a book intended to help me enjoy, or at least cope, with life's gentle lulls.

Amid my mental commotion, I managed to pick up another book by Geneen Roth, "Women Food and God." That one was impossible NOT to read in about three hours - again, for good reason. It was a book I needed to read ten years ago. And it led to a few realizations:

The constant drive I feel to keep climbing whatever ladder happens to be in front of me at the moment has a lot to do with the fact that weight loss has somehow programmed to me think that PROGRESS is actually REPAIR for a person I've always been convinced is broken. I'm not skinny enough, so I "fix" myself with a rigid diet. I'm not smart enough, so I digest information at every possible opportunity to seem less inadequate. I haven't accomplished enough, so I keep seeking professional outlets for which to prove to a judgmental world that I'm aware of my shortcomings and want to overcome them.

This self-inflicted rat race has never been about personal growth; it was always about internal repair. And these moments of murky transition scream to my compulsions, saying, "Wait, there is no way that YOU could be good enough to slow down. You've never been good enough. What makes you think you are now? Keep pushing. Keep working. Keep killing yourself to prove you have value. It's the only way."

Any sort of educational, professional or personal structure I've ever maintained in my life was an excuse to keep a cage around Broken Me. I adhere to strict, torturous diets and workout plans because if I don't, Broken Me (who obviously can't be trusted) will screw up and gain weight. I maintain impossibly difficult schedules because Broken Me would waste her life away if left unattended. I've spent my life devaluing everything about myself in order to justify having my own predetermined life track. I've also convinced myself that if I don't spend a life obsessively submerged in all that I love, simply loving it has no value in itself, hence the all-too-predictable desire to jump at the opportunity to apply for the job.

And the truth is, I would love that job. I would learn from it. But, would I grow? My news judgement and management skills would likely improve. I would be able to gain a new type of experience. But, would taking on a position like that enhance my education or serve as yet another comfortable crutch for a girl who convinced herself long ago that she couldn't stand on her own two feet?

Alex McDaniel

Adaptability: Critical to Effective Leadership

A decade long study published in Harvard Business Review set out to identify the specific attributes that differentiate high-performing CEOs: 

Our analysis shows that CEOs who excel at adapting are 6.7 times more likely to succeed. CEOs themselves told us over and over that this skill was critical. The adaptable CEOs spent significantly more of their time—as much as 50%—thinking about the long term. Adaptable CEOs also recognize that setbacks are an integral part of changing course and treat their mistakes as opportunities to learn and grow. In our sample, CEOs who considered setbacks to be failures had 50% less chance of thriving. Successful CEOs, on the other hand, would offer unabashedly matter-of-fact accounts of where and why they had come up short and give specific examples of how they tweaked their approach to do better next time. Similarly, aspiring CEOs who demonstrated this kind of attitude (what Stanford’s Carol Dweck calls a “growth mindset”) were more likely to make it to the top of the pyramid: Nearly 90% of the strong CEO candidates we reviewed scored high on dealing with setbacks.

Read more about the CEO Genome Project in the Harvard Business Review


What Growth Requires

Growth requires hard work. The world is a complex place. We all become creatures of habit in the ways we think and act. To learn is to strip away those deeply ingrained habits of the mind. To do so requires that we push ourselves, that we keep building and rebuilding, questioning, struggling, and seeking.

Ken Bain, What the Best College Students Do


Arthur Chickering writes that helping “students deepen their understanding about reaching for authenticity and spiritual growth.. starts and ends with self-reflection and employs that throughout..”

To say the journey is all about self-reflection is restrictive and small. Perhaps the teaching and learning adventure dips into navel gazing from time-to-time and ends with light bulbs popping above eager young heads, but discovering the insights of other people who have gone before is not going to happen quickly. What if we first read the great thinkers of the past-and then wrestled with the questions and ideas we discover? An fruitful journey requires a shift away from the self to a focus on something greater and sorting through previously mined dirt to discover valuable nuggets of truth.

Standing on the shoulders of great thinkers in order to peer down the road a bit further than we could on our own two legs is a great way to start the learning process. If we insist on hacking a path through a jungle instead of taking paths already cleared is a sure way to waste our time and energy, clawing our way through undiscovered regions.

The Chickering quote comes from his book "Encouraging Authenticity and Spirituality in Higher Education."  Chickering understands the value of encouraging students to read great works. But his goal is helping them “evolve” their "own" answer, he writes. Applauding young people just for coming to their own conclusions about life is not adequate. Their answers may be weak or entirely baseless.  Learning to think critically will help them sort through which ideas are worth hanging on to.. even when we're not around to guide them.

It’s not just about whether you arrive at an answer but how you got there and whether it will stand up to criticism. Patting students on the tops of their heads, just for coming up with something they can call their own isn't teaching them to be thinkers and lovers of truth. Can they effectively defend their positions?  More importantly, can they live those answers?

Stephen Goforth

the Best Moments

Contrary to what we usually believe.. the best moments in our lives are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times — although such experiences can also be enjoyable — the best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile. Struggling to overcome challenges, and then overcoming them, are what people find to be the most enjoyable times in their lives. People typically feel strong, alert, in effortless control, unselfconscious, and at the peak of their abilities. Find rewards in the events of each moment . . . to enjoy and find meaning in the ongoing stream of experience, in the process of living itself.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience

the Ultimate Adventure

Time spent in the neutral zone is an opportunity for inner reorientation. There’s no time limit on your stay and no certainty of what the “goal” is while you remain there. More than a readjustment to the “new you,” it’s where the real business of transitions takes place. Most people don’t recognize it for what it is but will look back later and see there was significant transformation taking place. It is a time of greater sense of self and lesser sense of what’s going on around us, what all the circumstances mean. We become more acutely aware of what’s going on the inside more than on the outside.

Even Jesus needed a retreat into the desert to gain a sense of who he was – and thus, what he was here to do. It is in these “moments of discovery” that we are mostly likely find God because we are "open" in a way we are not when caught up in every day life.

It starts with letting go of what no longer fits or is adequate to the life stage you are in. Some people never fully let go of those ill-fitting parts or else run back to these broken connections. May it never be said of us that we failed to meet this challenge. Here's to transitions that take us into uncharted waters without a map. This is the ultimate adventure.

Stephen Goforth

Improving your inner circle

I reviewed my life when I turned forty. I had the desire to keep going to a higher level and to make a greater impact, but I realized that I had leveraged my time as much as I possibly could, and it would have been impossible to sharpen the focus on my priorities any more than it already was. In other words, I could not work harder or smarter. That left me only one choice: learning to work through others.

John Maxwell, The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership

Happiness vs Growth

You stop to visit a friend to find her five year old is running around in diapers. Your friend explains, “That’s the way he likes it and as long as he’s happy, then it's all right with me.” You’d probably say to yourself, if not out loud, “That’s not love. Love works to see children grow up and take on responsibility as they are able.”

If I love you, I can’t just be looking out for what makes you happy. When happiness and growth collide, real love chooses growth. If there's someone in your life and you are wondering if he or she really loves you, ask yourself this question: Is this person seeking what’s in your best interest? Even when you don’t fully understand why they are doing what they are doing? Is this person willing to sacrifice your favor in order to see you grow?

Stephen Goforth

in Pursuit of Failure

When you consider failure, it is important to distinguish between two kinds. There is the failure of giving up, turning around, and walking away. Although this failure holds a certain seductive appeal, you must not let it divert you from the true heart of failure: the triumphant defeat of all your hopes, stratagems, and efforts. This is the ultimate failure that tells you who you are. You want to failure you have to work hard for, failure you put everything into--failure so rich with loss and pain that, even years later, it gives you the basis from which to make yourself anew, the scar tissue that deeply confirms your aliveness. Real failure requires real effort and is its own reward.

Andrew Boyd, Daily Afflictions

the suburb within

You might live in the middle of a big city, but there could still be a white picket fence around your imagination. You can take the subway to work but still park your identity in a two-car garage. This is the inner suburbia, and you probably moved her long ago. You’ve learned to contain your longings and sympathies within a comfortable zone, measures and mediocre. To grow, you must move toward otherness. You must quit the ranch house of your soul and head for the forbidden place—your inner wilderness, inner bohemia, or even your inner inner city. The answer you need lie there, where you are least at home.

Andrew Boyd, Daily Afflictions