Is Failure Good or Bad? It Depends.

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As my children head off to college, I know they will start to compare themselves to other students.  Who is smarter?  Who is going to succeed?  However, is a person’s intelligence a fixed quantity they’re born with? Or is it something malleable, something that can change throughout the lifespan?  Can a person change careers, even in the mid-40’s?  Can a person go back to get her doctorate after 50?  Why do some reach their potential while others don’t?  The answer has to do with your mindset.

Psychologist Carol Dweck have been studying “mindsets” about intelligence for decades, and they find that mindset really matters. People who have a “growth mindset” typically do better in school and work than those with a “fixed mindset.”

The key item to understand is that mindset impacts how people respond to feedback. Let’s start with a school example and then bring it to the workplace.

Suppose Christine and Terri both do poorly on a math test.  Christine has a growth mindset, so she thinks to herself: “I’d better do something to improve my math skills.  Before the next test, I’ll do more practice problems!” Terri has a fixed mindset, so she thinks to herself: “I guess I’m no good at math. Next time I won’t bother with the honors course!” And when Christine and Terri are given the option of trying to solve a hard problem for extra credit, Christine will see it as an attractive invitation to grow her math skills Terri as an unwelcome opportunity to confirm she’s no good at math.

Over time, the mindset differences will impact the experiences they expose themselves to, what they study, and how they work.  According to Carol Dweck, the reason some people reach their potential while others don’t isn’t ability; it’s whether a person looks at ability as something inherent that needs to be demonstrated or as something that can be developed.  

When an organization is run by a leader with a fixed mindset versus a growth mindset, what may be impacted?  Here are some examples:

Fixed Mindset Growth Mindset
Hire for specific skills Hire for attitude and culture fit.  
Performance Reviews are based on meeting or not meeting expectations Performance Reviews are ongoing and are about learning and growing
Its critical to look smart and never make a mistake Mistakes are seen as a way of learning
People do not typically move from one role to another Movement around the organization is encouraged
Risky and visionary ideas are not brought to the table for fear of failure Innovation and new ideas are encouraged

Companies today that can focus on continual learning and accept mistakes and failure as necessary to the overall innovation process are far more likely to succeed in the long term.