Reframing Failure in College and Life

This article first appeared on LinkedIn.

Grow. Think. Achieve.It’s that time of the semester when students start to receive grades on midterm exams and papers. Some find what they’re looking for, that coveted A. Others find a grade somewhere else along the spectrum: B, C, or even (gasp) D or F. In today’s highly competitive system, grades have become trophies to collect; and all too often students see anything less than an A as a sign of irredeemable failure. Especially for first-year students accustomed to being top performers in their respective high schools, the leap to university-level expectations can be a daunting challenge. Their success—just like the success for any of us in our careers or lives—depends greatly on the mindset they bring to that challenge.

So it is during this point near the beginning of a new academic year that I ask my first-year writing students to reflect on what grades mean to them and invite them to see grades from (what is often for many) a different perspective. Although intended as a pep talk for college students, I believe we can all benefit from these ideas regardless of where we are in our lives or careers. That’s because life is filled with the equivalent of low grades, and future success has more to do with how we respond to those grades than the grades themselves. Here’s why.

Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck, who studies the behavioral dimensions of motivation and achievement, distinguishes between what she calls a fixed mindset and a growth mindset. Those with a fixed mindset believe their talents and intelligence are fixed traits. By implication, grades are seen as evidence that the talents are present from the start (in the case of high grades) or absent altogether (in the case of low grades). Since the talents are supposedly fixed, according to this mindset, then little can be done to change them. The result is either validation (with high grades) or rejection (with low grades)—success or failure, where failure is seen as a catastrophe that merely brings embarrassment and disapprobation.

Those with a growth mindset, on the other hand, believe their abilities can be developed. For them, low grades represent difficulties that can be overcome with more dedication and effort. They may not yet be there, but if they engage with the mistakes and learn from what went wrong then they will eventually get there. In fact, in a TED talk, Dweck cites a high school in Chicago where failing grades are recorded as “Not Yet” on the students’ report cards. This approach encourages the growth mindset. Dweck argues that “if you get the grade ‘Not Yet’ you understand that you’re on a learning curve. It gives you a path into the future.” It encourages you to engage with setbacks rather than running away from them.

The takeaway from Dweck’s work is that nurturing success depends upon bringing the right mindset to your failures. Fortunately, you can change your mindset by reframing those low grades—or whatever difficulties you face in your career or life.

Reframing failures as “growth opportunities” is an important element of the approach advocated by Bill Burnett and Dave Evans. These two designers have been teaching students at Stanford how to apply design principles to their lives. They detail the approach in their recent book, Designing Your Life, where they talk about (among other things) how to achieve “failure immunity” (yes, that’s “immunity” not “elimination”). Failure immunity effectively involves adopting a growth mindset where you become “so clear on the learning value of a failure that the sting disappears (and, of course, you learn from the failure quickly and incorporate improvements).”

According to Burnett and Evans, the key to learning from our failures is to identify growth insights from those failures. The authors suggest a framework for categorizing failures in an effort to identify such insights. Let’s imagine we have three buckets. In the first bucket we’ll put what Burnett and Evans call “screw-ups.” These are silly errors that we typically get right most of the time. But, on occasion, we slip up. There’s not much to learn here because we’re not likely to do it again. In the second bucket are what the authors call “weaknesses.” These are the enduring problems that we encounter over and over again. While they can be improved, and we shouldn’t shy from improving them, they will never match the areas in which we really excel, our strengths. In the third, and perhaps biggest, bucket we’ll put what the authors call “growth opportunities.” These are failures that can be overcome because we can identify the cause and direct action toward fixing them.

Once we’ve identified the growth opportunities, Burnett and Evans encourage us to approach them as designers approach problems. Designers build, and as the authors emphasize throughout their book, we must “build our way forward.” Building entails action—trying things, creating prototypes, failing, and creating new prototypes that incorporate lessons learned from the failed prototypes, and so on. Crucially, building is a process with a series of actions or steps taken along the way. To build our careers, education, relationships—life—forward, we must engage directly with the difficulties and failures that are inevitably part of these works in progress.

The focus on process emphasized by Burnett and Evans, as well as Dweck, is widely echoed by champion athletes and Zen masters alike. After all, process is where the work gets done, where learning takes place, and where life is lived. Modern society’s focus on outcome as the be-all and end-all deflects needed attention from the process-oriented steps so central to growth and development—not just for students, but for all of us fallible humans in every stage of our lives.

So if you didn’t achieve that grade you hoped for on your midterm paper—or close that deal you were negotiating at work—check your mindset. Adopt a growth mindset. Look for the growth insights, and continue to work through the process with the feedback you gleaned.

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