The Importance of Learning How to Fail

“An expert is a person who has found out by his own painful experience all the mistakes that one can make in a very narrow field.” -Niels Bohr

Carol Dweck has devoted her career to studying how our beliefs about intelligence influence the way we learn. In general, she finds that people subscribe to one of two different theories of mental ability. The first theory is known as the fixed mindset – it holds that intelligence is a fixed quantity, and that each of us is allotted a certain amount of smarts we cannot change. The second theory is known as the growth mindset. It’s more optimistic, holding that our intelligence and talents can be developed through hard work and practice. "Do people with this mindset believe than anyone can be anything?" Dweck asks. "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."

You can probably guess which mindset is more useful for learning. As Dweck and colleagues have repeatedly demonstrated, children with a fixed mindset tend to wilt in the face of challenges. For them, struggle and failure are a clear sign they aren’t smart enough for the task; they should quit before things get embarrassing. Those with a growth mindset, in contrast, respond to difficulty by working harder. Their faith in growth becomes a self-fulling prophecy; they get smarter because they believe they can.

The question, of course, is how to instill a growth mindset in our children. While Dweck is perhaps best known for her research on praise – it’s better to compliment a child for her effort than for her intelligence, as telling a kid she’s smart can lead to a fixed mindset – it remains unclear how children develop their own theories about intelligence.  What makes this mystery even more puzzling is that, according to multiple studies, the mindset of parents’ is surprisingly disconnected from the mindsets of their children. In other words, believing in the plasticity of intelligence is no guarantee that our kids will feel the same way.

What explains this disconnect? One possibility is that parents are accidental hypocrites. We might subscribe to the growth mindset for ourselves, but routinely praise our kids for being smart. Or perhaps we tell them to practice, practice, practice, but then get frustrated when they can’t master fractions, or free throws, or riding without training wheels. (I’m guilty of both these sins.) The end result is a muddled message about the mind’s potential.

However, in an important new paper, Kyla Haimovitz and Carol Dweck reveal the real influence behind the mindsets of our children. It turns out that the crucial variable is not what we think about intelligence – it’s how we react to failure.

Consider the following scenario: a child comes home with a bad grade on a math quiz. How do you respond? Do you try to comfort the child and tell him that it’s okay if he isn’t the most talented? Will you worry that he isn’t good at math? Or would you encourage him to describe what he learned from doing poorly on the test?

Parents with a failure-is-debilitating attitude tend to focus on the importance of performance: doing well on the quiz, succeeding at school, getting praise from other people. When confronted with the specter of failure, these parents get anxious and worried. Over time, their children internalize these negative reactions, concluding that failure is a dead-end, to be avoided at all costs. If at first you don’t succeed, then don’t try again.

In contrast, those parents who see failure as part of the learning process are more likely to see the bad grade as an impetus for extra effort, whether it’s asking the teacher for help or trying a new studying strategy. They realize that success is a marathon, requiring some pain along the way. You only learn how to get it right by getting it wrong.

According to the scientists, this is how our failure mindsets get inherited – our children either learn to focus on the appearance of success or on the long-term rewards of learning. Over time, these attitudes towards failure shape their other mindsets, influencing how they felt about their own potential. If they worked harder, could they get good at math? Or was algebra simply beyond their reach? 

Although the scientists found that children were bad at guessing the intelligence mindsets of their parents – they don’t know if we’re in the growth or fixed category - the kids were surprisingly good at predicting their parents’ relationship to failure. This suggests that our failure mindsets are much more “visible” than our beliefs about intelligence. Our children might forget what happened after the home-run, but they damn sure remember what we said after the strike-out. 

This study helps clarify the forces that shape our children. What matters most is not what we say after a triumph or achievement - it’s how we deal with their disappointments. Do we pity our kids when they struggle? (Sympathy is a natural reaction; it also sends the wrong message.) Do we steer them away from potential defeats? Or do we remind them that failure is an inescapable part of life, a state that cannot be avoided, only endured. Most worthy things are hard.

Haimovitz, K., and C. S. Dweck. "What Predicts Children's Fixed and Growth Intelligence Mind-Sets? Not Their Parents' Views of Intelligence but Their Parents' Views of Failure." Psychological Science (2016).