Fixing a fixed mindset: Failure is an option

“Failure is not an option.” For some people, this is how they say they’ve got grit and persistence. But others live it without recognizing that they’re working as hard as possible to avoid failure in many ways, big and small. “If I don’t do well, what’s become of my skills, talents, abilities? Doesn’t it call them into question?” If this is one of your worries, you may be operating in the fixed mindset.

If we can’t allow ourselves to consider the possibility of failure, we have locked ourselves into a cell with only one way out. And we’ve foreclosed the chance to learn. We make it difficult to course-correct. We make it more difficult to accept help, new ideas, and the inevitable developments that don’t go as planned. Worst, we make it almost impossible to notice what’s developing while we drive for our fore-ordained goal.

Circumstances sometimes go against us. Opponents may best us. Or, apparent opponents may prove to be allies as new developments take shape. Even if we do succeed on our own terms, we will not have learned how to respond to circumstance and change. We will only have found a way to manhandle events the way we have done in the past.

How to start fixing the fixed mindset

First, notice when success is the only option. Take responsibility for your part in feeding that mindset. Did you sign up for the assignment because it would confirm your string of successes? Did you sell yourself short and take on a sure thing? Are you blaming others for things that neither you nor they can control?

Second, use self reflection: What will I lose if I fail? Job? Maybe, but not likely. Not many of us will lose our jobs over a one-time fail. Respect, yes, for a while. Will you lose the fond idea of yourself as a success, and brilliant, and next in line for [whatever you think you want next]? If you think you can’t handle losing those, you may be noticing the fixed mindset.

What we believe about ourselves is pretty important to us. Think about it: it’s pretty important to you to be seen as a success, or as kind, or collaborative, or creative, even visionary. But you will not die without it. You may have to take my word on this. But from here on, watch and see if not getting everything right the first time inflicts a mortal wound. Oh, it will hurt. But you’ll come back from it stronger.

Third, keep an eye on yourself. Pay attention to when you insist that success is the only option. Learn to recognize the urge to take on the sure thing, the thing that proves you are who you think you are. See if you can name what you are really trying to get out of it. We’re usually reinforcing something that makes us feel very good; nothing is more natural. So don’t give yourself a hard time. It’s going to take some practice to learn to recognize this habit.

Last, try something like this. “I’m not positive how to [decide, select, present, evaluate, your verb here]. Here’s what I’ve learned about our situation so far, and that makes me think [this]. What do you make of the situation? What are we learning from this situation right now?”

It can be really challenging to do this. How old are you? That’s how many years you’ve been reinforcing the mindset you have. You can change it. It will take some time. It may take some help.

Step back when you are able. See yourself as the project. Ask, “What am I learning from this project so far?”

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