Getting into bed at the end of the evening is by far my favorite activity of the day, but it’s also my mind’s cue to start running through the greatest hits list of my mistakes. First my parenting takes a hit: “You yelled again. What’s the matter with you? Yesterday you resolved not to do that!” Next, it’s usually my spiritual life. “You said you were going to make time to pray. How come that didn’t happen?” After the classics, anything goes. Relationships, accomplishments, everything comes up looking sub-par. Once, I was giving myself grief about how I redecorated my bathroom. Seriously, brain, that one was a cheap shot.
Whether or not the thoughts are fair, there’s a reason why they sting so badly — but they don’t have to. Author Carol Dweck gave me a helpful framework to understand it, by making a distinction between two different ways people tend to approach their own mistakes. Maria Popova, writing about Dweck’s method and research, explains how if you have a fixed mindset, you’ll assume that “character, intelligence, and creative ability are static givens which we can’t change in any meaningful way.” Its opposite is the growth mindset — one that “thrives on challenge and sees failure not as evidence of unintelligence but as a heartening springboard for growth.”
It’s obvious to me that that “fixed mindset” has my name written all over it. Actually, it helps answer a huge question of mine: Why does acknowledging my own sub-par behavior hurt so much? I mean, if we never noticed when we fell short, we’d never get anywhere, and indiscriminate cheerleading isn’t helpful. But still, saying “I failed” is about the scariest thing ever, and I’ve never understood why. God knows (literally) that we’re not capable of perfection — so why is it messing up my biggest fear?
Dweck explains the consequence of having a fixed mindset, and it answered my question. “Believing that your qualities are carved in stone … creates an urgency to prove yourself over and over.” Every situation forces you to ask, “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? “That’s a serious amount of pressure, making everything so black and white. Your self-respect is at stake with every move. Ultimately, it’s an attitude that leads to despair, because the conclusion of it all is that “effort is a bad thing. It, like failure, means you’re not smart or talented. If you were, you wouldn’t need effort.”
You end up telling yourself that when you fail, it’s proof of your own insurmountable limitations. So with every inevitable failure, it gets harder and harder to put in the effort next time. And I can’t think of anything scarier than despair.
Dweck, in her Ted Talk, holds up a school in Chicago as a great example of a growth mindset. When students don’t pass a course, “they got the grade ‘Not Yet.’” She says, “I thought that was fantastic, because if you get a failing grade, you think, I’m nothing, I’m nowhere. But if you get the grade ‘Not Yet,’ you understand that you’re on a learning curve. It gives you a path into the future.”
So the key seems to be remembering your own capacity to change, to grow. “Do people with this mindset believe that … anyone with proper motivation or education can become Einstein or Beethoven?” writes Dweck. “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.” Ultimately, everything from success at work or school, to relationships with family, friends, and even God, don’t have a ceiling where our growth just stops.
If failure is proof of our limitations, then yeah, I’m done trying. But if failure means “not yet,” instead of “not ever,” maybe it’s not so scary after all. It looks like I have my work cut out for me, then.