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Feel like you’re going out of your mind? Consider your mindset

No one likes to make mistakes, but how you manage them can be a key to a stronger future. (Monika Aichele/The New York Times)
No one likes to make mistakes, but how you manage them can be a key to a stronger future. (Monika Aichele/The New York Times)

About 13 years ago, I made a mistake in a column written for this newspaper. In the hierarchy of errors, it wasn’t a major one, but it was embarrassing.

I said daylight saving time had begun when it actually had just ended. And making matters worse, it was in the opening paragraph. A correction had to be written and affixed to the bottom of the article, where it will remain for as long as the article exists. I was deeply annoyed with myself.

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As I sat there a few days later ruminating about the correction and my self-directed anger, I began to wonder why so many of us hate our mistakes so much. While we may be told early in life that mistakes are OK and we can learn from them, we quickly discover the opposite: that we won’t be lauded for messing up, but admonished.

When and why does this change? Is it universal? And how does the way we think about our mistakes affect our ability to be resilient to the ups and downs of life?

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My following column examined some of these ideas, and it grew into a book published in 2011, “Better by Mistake: The Unexpected Benefits of Being Wrong.”

As I learned through my research, if we see every mistake as a crisis, every failure as a sign we’re losers, then we avoid taking risks, we become less creative, we even learn less deeply.

But if we’re resilient enough to understand that mistakes are inevitable, that we often make them when we’re trying something that challenges us and that the learning process is (or should be) as important as the final achievement, then we’re far more open and able to accept them.

A major source for my column and for a chapter in the book was Carol Dweck, a professor of psychology at Stanford University and one of the foremost researchers on how we think about mistakes and failure. She laid out her findings in a 2006 book, “Mindset: The New Psychology of Success.”

Over the years, her ideas have gained wide popularity in the growing field examining how we develop resilience and grit. And more important, they were adopted by numerous teachers and schools with real success.

Her work focuses on mindsets — that is, how we view our own abilities. She distinguishes between what she termed fixed mindsets and growth mindsets. Those with a fixed mindset don’t believe that their abilities, intelligence and personalities can evolve. They see mistakes, challenges and setbacks as signs of stupidity or incompetence and give up.

Those with a growth mindset understand that intelligence and capabilities are malleable. Even if we all won’t become world-class mathematicians, for example, we can get better at math. They are more likely to be resilient in the face of obstacles and failure, seeing them as necessary to becoming better at just about anything.

How do you know which mindset you have? First, we’re all a mixture of both. But if you agree with the notion that “everyone is a certain kind of person and that there’s not much they can really do to change that,” you’re more of a fixed mindset sort of person. If you are more likely to agree that “people can substantially change the kind of person they are,” you tend toward the growth mindset type.

Dweck said that if children, starting as young as possible, were taught about these mindsets and could genuinely adopt a growth mindset, they would become adults who were more willing to experiment even in the face of possible failure, to move out of their comfort zone because they weren’t so afraid of failing. They will embrace the process of learning, not just the grades or prizes.

The concepts of fixed and growth mindsets are not limited to education, although that is where most of the research has been done; they have been used in workplaces and in areas like conflict resolution and mental health research.

Dweck’s research caught fire around the world. Her 2014 TED Talk has had almost 11 million views. In 2015, the U.S. Education Department granted almost $2 million to a number of school districts across the country to promote social and emotional skills, including learning about mindsets. The Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development found that a growth mindset was one factor associated with academic resilience internationally.

As the ideas spread, however, critics emerged. Efforts to replicate a few of her studies failed. Some wondered whether Dweck’s ideas on growth and the fixed mindset — and particularly how they were defined and taught — “overpromised and underdelivered,” as a Scientific American article put it.

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So, I decided to revisit the professor — this time virtually — and find out where the issue stood now. How resilient was she feeling in the face of some of these criticisms? Do mindsets have anything to offer us in this time of great uncertainty and fear?

In an interview from her California home, Dweck said she hesitated to discuss mindsets as a panacea in the current crisis.

“I get at least two podcast invitations per day, and I do not accept any of them,” she said. “I’m not a COVID expert, and I don’t want to seem to be saying when people are sick or losing their jobs, ‘Just have a growth mindset.’ "

But she and other mindset researchers did want to see if they could learn anything during this time that could be useful in the future, and began interviewing teachers and administrators on the front lines.

High school teachers in cities around Texas, including Houston, El Paso and Fort Worth, who had studied in a growth mindset program said students with more of that mindset were able to adapt faster to online learning. And the teachers themselves are using what they learned to guide students; as one teacher said in an Education Week article, he tried to make sure his students were comfortable enough to discuss their struggles. “That’s the big thing from growth mindset. What do you do when you have that struggle? I try to push onto them, ‘You use it as a learning opportunity. You ask questions. You can’t just give up.’ "

As far as criticism of her work, Dweck said it had spurred her to do more and deeper research on mindsets. But she also acknowledges things change when theory becomes practice.

One thing she and other researchers didn’t anticipate was the many nuances that could be lost when practiced in the classroom.

For example, one major part of developing a growth mindset is focusing on effort rather than results. But in the classroom, too often that translated into a teacher simply praising a student’s efforts without offering new approaches to solve the problem or overcome the obstacles.

“‘Just try hard,’ they would say to the students,” Dweck said. “Well, OK, effort is one of the ways you can develop your abilities, but there are also strategies and support from others. An exhortation to try harder, especially in a culture that believes if you had ability you wouldn’t have to try hard, will not be effective.”

Ultimately, effort is “supposed to foster learning,” she said. “It’s not just a consolation prize.”

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And then there was the problem that the notion of a fixed mindset had become so negative that teachers and students were ashamed to admit they had them.

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“So, they professed a growth mindset even when they didn’t fully understand or believe it,” Dweck said.

So, how should we try to develop a growth mindset?

— Beware of assuming that because something doesn’t come easily, you won’t ever be good at it and then quit. Focus on the process — what you’re learning — rather than the final product.

— Just trying the same thing over and over isn’t enough. When you run up against a brick wall, you have to come up with new strategies, skills and input from others to figure out the right approach.

— Be aware of what triggers you from a growth to a fixed mindset — when you feel vulnerable? Anxious? Stressed? When those emotions surface, don’t get annoyed with yourself; just try to bring yourself back to a growth mindset.

The next big challenge in mindset research is understanding when and under what circumstances growth mindset works and how to create skills and opportunities to sustain it. “We call it the next Mount Everest,” Dweck said.

This article proved to be a mini Mount Everest for me. Somehow I couldn’t get it right. My editor offered some helpful comments, but a second try also fell flat. My first thought was “Oh, forget it. This just won’t work.” The second thought was an internal wry smile and an acknowledgment that I wasn’t demonstrating much of a growth mindset. Back to the computer.

c.2020 The New York Times Company

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