My dad gave me the best lesson in overcoming failure by accident.
I had the rare treat of going to a bike shop. Being a feisty preadolescent, I bolted towards to the most glorious piece of cycling machinery hanging in the front window. It had a bright chrome frame, jet black accents, and a cherry red logo. Classic. Oh yeah, and it only had one wheel.
I’d seen unicycles in street performances, but this one was different. It was more compact, had a smaller wheel, and a shorter seat. This thing was kid size…my size. I begged my dad to buy it, but he said, “If you want it, buy it yourself.” $80 was too much to swallow. We left the shop without it.
48 hours later he came home from work and that beauty was resting in the trunk of his car. There was a catch though…he said if I wanted it to go any further than the trunk, I owed him the money. It was easier to accept now that it was home. I obliged.
The next morning I couldn’t contain my excitement. I shoveled down my breakfast, grabbed the uni, and darted outside. I raced out to the driveway and got so out of control I tripped, scraped my ankle, and sent my new investment grinding down the driveway. I felt every piece of gravel like my own teeth were crunching down the coarse pavement.
After surveying the damage, I regained my composure and slung one leg over like a normal bike. I almost dropped it again! I slowed my frenzy and tried to mount this thing. I shifted left, then right, then left, forward, backward, left again, I could not figure out how to get on this contraption. After half an hour, I found a way to lean back on one leg and have it rest underneath me. I gathered my courage and jumped up. It shot out and pounded down the driveway once again.
I tried again and again. Each time it crashed to the ground it felt like dropping a newborn, but I pressed on. 1 hour later and the pristine seat guards and pedals were chewed up like an old dog toy. I spent the next 7 hours that day trying to mount the slippery beast. My best run of it I’d put both feet on the pedals, held still for about 2 seconds, and landed back on both feet.
The next day, I propped myself on a wall to get more acquainted with the feeling of riding. I’d later learn this choice was pivotal. Learning to ride a unicycle has two distinct components. Getting up and riding. Combining the two is like learning to play an instrument and sing at the same time. It’s a valuable combination, but wasteful to practice when first learning. The entire second day was switching between creating my own stability without the wall and using the wall to ride. I now had the ability to sit for a few seconds in the middle of an open driveway or make two revolutions of the crank from the wall.
Day 3 was the big turning point. I was still practicing the same two techniques, but around noon I managed to get a third revolution of the cranks and felt something unique. It took a while to place it, but I honed in on the focused maneuvering of my legs. I had been absorbed with articulating my arms and upper body to balance and had overlooked my legs. It took 18 hours of trial and error to discover my legs were fundamental to balance. 18 hours of getting up, then falling down, get up, fall down, get up, fall down. 18 hours and my personal best distance was 1 yard. But by the end of the day, I could ride almost the entire length of the driveway. And on day 4, I could get up and cycle without outside support. I was playing the instrument and singing at the same time.
Becoming a rookie unicyclist had taken 24 hours. Unknowingly, my dad provided me with an opportunity to foster a growth mindset. The only thing I had was the belief that my efforts would result in the ability to ride. And it worked. The belief in progress in the face of defeat is the essence of a growth mindset.
Fixed Mindset vs Growth Mindset.
Carol Dweck, a psychology professor at Stanford University, coined and defined the terms fixed mindset and growth mindset. Those with a fixed mindset believe that skills are innate and view failure as the lack of required basic abilities. In more layman’s terms, either you have a skill or you don’t. Those with a growth mindset believe that they can gain any skill as long as they devote effort and/or study. In other words, you can gain any ability if you put in the work.
A person’s mindset impacts how they attack challenges. Those with a growth mindset will continue to press on despite setbacks. This happens because those with a growth mindset know that learning rewires the brain and increases your intelligence. This proves to be the most valuable asset in adopting this mentality. Asking questions and striving to learn are the process of gaining intelligence.
Trying harder or experimenting with different tactics helps you in the current task, but also helps you flourish in the future by strengthening your brain. Like your abs, biceps, quads, etc., your brain gets stronger with exercise. The best, most efficient way to exercise your brain is through deliberate effort and persistence.
|Someone with a|
|Fixed Mindset||Growth Mindset|
|Avoids challenges||Embraces challenges|
|Gives up quickly||Perseveres through barriers|
|Views effort as fruitless or harmful||Identifies struggle as course to excellence|
|Ignores criticism||Learns from criticism|
|Feels threatened by others’ success||Finds inspiration in others’ success|
Eliminating Dual Mindsets.
The greatest struggle is having a growth mindset in some areas, but fixed mindset in others. You might be able to rebuild anything with an engine, but could never envision being bilingual. You may believe exercise will improve your fitness, but regard cooking is a God-given talent. We’re pigeonholed into the talented or the untalented. The weak and the strong. The intelligent and the stupid. Embrace the knowledge that any skill can be learned.
Think about your own life. Take out a pen and paper or open a note on your phone. Do it! Are you still reading this without a way to record your thoughts? Doesn’t sound very growth mindset oriented. Right now is a perfect opportunity to practice persistence in the face of an ‘I want to fuck-off’ attitude.
Now that you’ve got writing supplies, create a list of 5 different things you hold as fixed in your life. Think about those things that are holding you back. Record anything that you verbalize with the following setups: ‘I’m not very _____’ or ‘I’m just not a _____ person’ or even ‘I can’t _____’. Write them down and don’t continue to the next paragraph until you’re finished.
To the right of each item, record an action you could do in the next five minutes that would make progress towards reversing, accomplishing, or growing that fixed item. If you have flexibility as fixed, you could write stretch. If you’re not a numbers person, you could write practice math. If you’re paralyzed, you could write research functional electrical stimulation (FES).
I am not paralyzed, but this gives insight into the power of a growth mindset. In 5 minutes, I found FES, the benefits and opportunities it offers, and a rehab center that will administer the treatment. The point of all this is to show that you don’t have to have a fixed mindset about anything. Remove fixed and embrace growth.
Developing a Growth Mindset.
The most beneficial and most challenging time to implement the growth mindset is in the face of failure. When it feels like you’re making no progress or even moving backward.
The simplest way to foster a growth mindset in the midst of a challenge is by adding yet or right now to the end of the sentence. I’m can’t play the piano yet. I’m not an NYU graduate yet. I can’t ride a unicycle right now. This sounds easy to execute but is overlooked when it counts.
Adding yet continues the sentence into your subconscious. When you say, I can’t run a marathon. The conversation stops and so does the impetus behind any potential effort. We add yet or right now to continue the flow. I can’t run a marathon yet. By adding yet, you’re also conveying to your brain, “But one day I will”. I can’t run a marathon yet. But one day I will.
From here your brain starts to light up. I can’t run a marathon yet. But one day I will. If I just run to the end of the block, I’ll be that much closer to running a marathon. My calves are always sore after a run, maybe if I focus on strengthening my calves I’ll be able to run further. It feels like my like my strides are really short, I wonder if working on my flexibility would help me improve stride length. Yet is a catalyst for advancement.
Take a second before attempting something challenging to remind yourself of the power of yet. This is best practiced in a fitness type setting when first starting. The other day I was struggling to complete a set of push-ups. At the point I wanted to quit, my mind was flooded with ‘you’re not strong…’ with great trouble, I added a yet to the end of the sentence. I was able to crank out my last five before collapsing. When you feel like caving, reach for the yet continuation.
Practicing this skill makes the growth mindset easier to implement in unforeseen ‘I want to give up’ moments. It took me 18 hours to reach a meager resemblance of ‘riding’ a unicycle. A growth mindset is spending 17 hours getting nowhere, but believing your efforts will result in success. Many times 17 hours of concentrated struggle doesn’t even scratch the surface. Ask a seasoned guitarist how well they could play after 50 hours. Or an artist how well they could paint. Or a chef how well they could cook. They’ll all tell you they sucked. The most valuable tool for learning any skill is the growth mindset.
Want to be a manager, but have tendencies towards quiet introversion? Feel bad about your inability to dance? Deny the fixed mind set and embrace growth. Work on it. Make the effort. Don’t be defined by labels assigned to you or that you assign to yourself. Foster a growth mindset. It holds the strength to pull you back up when you’re knocked down. It will help you embrace the suffering that is progress. It will block the mental chatter that holds back The Pursuit of Excellence.
I’ll leave you with the words of retired Navy SEAL commander Jocko Willink. Get fired up and take on the world.
Mindset: The New Psychology of Success by Carol S. Dweck, Ph.D.