How to Overcome Failure with a Growth Mindset

Is Failure Your Teacher or Your Judge?

Can you imagine how the emperor felt when someone finally had the guts to tell him he’d been conned?

Alone in his chambers, he must’ve felt like a total fraud. He’d just paid two swindlers a fortune to convince him to parade down Main Street in his underwear.

I know the feeling. All too well.

About a year ago, on the heels of a season of failure, I went on a walk to clear my head of the swirling negative thoughts that were on my trail like a pack of bloodhounds.

It didn’t work.

As I ambled through my neighborhood that beautiful, bright spring day, my mind played a sadistic highlight reel of forty years of personal shortcomings, missteps, and failures. By the time the credits rolled and I walked through my front door, I felt like a complete and utter fraud.

I had no confidence left.

Throughout my life, I had viewed myself as somewhat of a leader. I’d served in several leadership positions, I’d mentored people, I’d spoken publicly for twenty years, and even founded a non-profit.

All in my underwear.

It was as though I had spent four decades pompously parading around as if I were donning a three-piece Armani while no one had the heart to tell me I was just taking a walk in my boxers.

Until now.

As the movie played, I began to remember poor leadership decisions I’d made. I reflected on ceilings I was unable to break due to incompetence. I was tormented by the overall lack of traction my leadership had produced.

I wasn’t a leader. People had just been being nice. Now, the truth was out.

The Painful Truth Heals

Admittedly, there was lots of self-flagellation going on. However, a large part of my self-assessment was true. The truth hurts, and it was beating me to death.

  • It was true that I had fallen far short of my personal goals.
  • It was true that I wasn’t as mentally strong as I thought I was.
  • It was true that I relied too much on my natural ability instead of putting in the work of developing my craft.
  • It was true that I wasn’t as talented as I had previously thought.

What wasn’t true is that I was stuck like this. It wasn’t true that “this is just who I am.”

Learning this set me free and turned my life around. It will do the same for you.

You see, we all have those “emperor” moments in our lives in which we come to grips with the limits of our humanity. We fall short. We get played. We fail.

The mindset through we which we process failure determines whether we rise from the ashes or decompose at the bottom of a landfill.

And I viewed my failure in the worst way imaginable. With a fixed mindset.

The Fixed Mindset

Dr. Carol Dweck in “Mindset” defines the fixed mindset as “believing that your qualities are carved in stone.” In other words, who I am now is as good or as bad as I’ll ever be. My talent, my character, my future, is fixed.

Dweck says that having this 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.”

She goes on to say:

“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.”

This was me. I had always viewed my present performance as confirmation or denial of my fixed ability.

For example, toward the end of my last leadership venture, I became so burned out that I started battling depression. Following the ordeal, my fixed mindset told me, “You’re weak and can’t handle pressure.”

In the case of realizing that I relied on natural ability instead of working to develop my craft, my fixed mindset told me, “You’re lazy and undisciplined and this will always hold you back. You are one of those sad cases of wasted potential.”

I’m not making this up.

A fixed mindset is a prison in which you are held captive by things out of your control, “I didn’t get the breaks”, “I wasn’t born with enough talent”, “I’ve always been a failure and always will be”, “I’m too old to turn things around.”

But after forty years of doing hard time, I finally broke out.

The Growth Mindset

According to Dr. Dweck, a growth mindset is as follows:

“There’s another mindset in which these traits are not simply a hand you’re dealt and have to live with…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, interest, or temperaments — everyone can change and grow through application and experience.”

A growth mindset tells me that I don’t have to burn out and spiral into depression next time around. A growth mindset encourages me that it’s not too late to hone my craft and develop my gifts. A growth mindset means that I’m not a failure although I have failed.

From Passive Victim to Active Hero

I was born a fatalist, prone to catastrophizing everything, but I’m not that way anymore. That’s just the temperament I was given at the beginning. The one I have the responsibility and the ability to develop.

The payoff of adopting the growth mindset is I directly deal with my issues rather than self-loathe and play the victim card.

For example:

  • Rather than bemoaning my emotional hang-ups, I started seeing a counselor.
  • Rather than lamenting the years of wasted talent and complaining that I’m too old to do anything with my life, I started a blog and began to write every day.
  • Rather than accepting that I’m just not one of those fathers who is great with his kids, I started putting the smartphone down and picking up the stroller and baseball mitt.

You can probably imagine the results.

Your Unknowable Potential

This is not to say you can be anything you want if you just put your mind to it. The growth mindset calls for a different line of thinking altogether.

Dweck writes:

“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.”

So, who are you? Have you accepted recurring patterns of behavior as your fixed lot in life? Have you allowed those bad genes you inherited to write your epitaph? Have you let failure define who you are?

I did. Now I don’t. And that’s what the growth mindset is all about.

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