Growing and Learning Through Failure

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By UB therapist Michael Maloney, LCPC

I almost missed her, but thankfully due to my babysitting days I was introduced to this wonderful woman.  Her name is Ms. Frizzle and she was an elementary school teacher in the cartoon series the Magic School Bus.  She had a catchphrase (as most things of the 90’s do) which I hold dearly, even to this day.  She would always tell her students to “Take Chances, Make Mistakes, Get Messy!”  The purpose of the show was to have kids explore science, with not just the facts, but also the process of exploration, of taking risks, and of going to unknown places.

But this phrase can help us even past the explorations of science and elementary school learning.  It can help us navigate our fears and doubts.  How many times do students refuse to answer questions in class because they might be wrong.  Or are we afraid of trying something new because we won’t be any good at it.  We might not ask out that person we have a crush on because they might say no.  Life feels safer when we avoid making a mess, when we don’t take chances where we can be hurt, and refuse to let others see make mistakes and appear weak.  All this feels safer, but is this the true life we want to live?

Fill in the blanks to the following sentence.  If only I were more __________ then I could ____________.  

There are often many things that we want to change about ourselves.  We wish we were braver or more confident.  We would like to be better public speakers or not feel so awkward at social events.  We want talent or skills or intelligence that would make us unique or feel like we could go out and do more.  You might wish your were good at cooking or were more athletic.  If only we were better we could go out and do the things we have always wanted to do.  

Most of us have a version of these thoughts.  Most of us are afraid that if we go out and try something and fail it.  And failure can have consequences.  Failure is finding out our limits and it feels safer not to have confirmation of those limits.  You might not try out a sport or an art class because you might learn you are no good at it.  If you get noticed people might learn you are awkward or find something out about you that they would not like.  If we ask out the crush or apply to the dream job there is always the chance of being rejected for not being good enough.  It feels safer to avoid the failures.

But this interpretation of ‘failure’ is within a certain type of mindset, the fixed mindset.  With the fixed mindset, we believe that there is a concrete and stable limit to our abilities and talent.  We perceive talent as a constant that someone is born with.  Like one’s height, it is something out of our control.  You can only grow so tall and then you are stuck and can’t go past that point.  When we see really smart people doing amazing things or that olympic athlete break records, we believe that that are special.  You need to be unique and be born with super genes to achieve that level of greatness.  

But with failure, we can look at it from an entirely different mindset.  This is the growth mindset.  Both growth and fixed mindsets were researched by psychologist Carol Dweck.  From Dweck’s growth mindset, failure is seen as an opportunity to grow.  In the growth mindset we can make mistakes.  In fact people often learn more from their mistakes, than doing something perfectly from the start.  Failure doesn’t necessarily teach us our limits, but teaches us where we need to improve on.  

And this is where Ms. Frizzle’s important phrase comes into play.   “Take Chances, Make Mistakes, Get Messy!”  Failures are new opportunities to learn.  There a certain ways to help with this and cultivate this growth mindset.

Outcomes vs. Process. A fixed mindset sometimes only focuses on the outcome and not the process.  A person dealing with social anxiety may get upset or down because they went to a party and felt uncomfortable and didn’t make any new friends.  This person focused on the outcome and not the process.  The process would be that they got themselves to the social event, which maybe a new step for them.  Once they see that growth happens or is possible it is easier to think about next steps.  The next time they go to a social event they can have new goals to set for themselves to keep the process moving.  

Don’t build mountains.  As with outcomes, sometimes our goals can be grandiose or higher level goals.  Setting smaller goals that feel attainable and still rewarding can help better set expectations.  These higher level goals may seem imminent, such as a person dealing with depression may want to feel better now.  Very understandable.  But growth takes time as does building new skills.  Having many small goals allows this growth to happen.  Perfection is not the goal; learning is the goal.

Monitor achievements. A big part of growth comes from being able to see progress.  Students of martial arts are often given tests to advance their belt ranking.  They can see their progression by passing their tests and be recognized for their achievements.  Runners sometime see how far or long they can run to see if they are improving.  Having many small goals helps in seeing what we accomplish and when next achievements we want to strive for.  Keeping tabs on these achievements can help us stay motivated.

How can I grow from this?  This is the question to ask to look at any given situation.  Especially when a situation is uncomfortable, it is time to reflect on what we can learn my pushing through with the situation.  You might hate public speaking but going through with that presentation at work might help you slowly get better and more comfortable with it.  

Learning a growth mindset takes time.  Dweck, the innovator of the growth mindset has students catching her or catches herself falling back on the fixed mindset.  You do not have to be perfect at it and you can make mistakes.  That is part of the process too.  

But what if I fail?  The big question.  This too can bring growth.  As with asking out that crush you might not get your desired outcome.  We are told that it is better to know than live life never knowing.  This seems harsh but sometimes safety has its costs.  We feel safe in never getting our answers but we might never move on.  We might learn that chances are best avoided.  Safety might help us feel secure in our turbulent world, but safety is also a bubble that keeps us from expanding our world.

You do not have to forgo safety and security all together.  Being secure in yourself and your opportunity to learn from even your mistakes and failures you can do the things you are afraid of.  Small steps lead to expansions into our desired world.  The more you fail the more you learn about the world, yourself, and what you can become.

So are you ready?  Ready to learn what you can do?  Ready to try leave a little bit of safety behind?  Ready to see that you can be okay if people see your flaws or make mistakes?  Ready to learn you can be okay if you fail?

Take Chances, Make Mistakes, Get Messy!