Softening our Fear of Failure:
Relaxing a Fixed Mindset
'When self-love depends upon externals, on others' opinions of what you are and do, the self is betrayed...'
Elan Golumb, Trapped in the Mirror
('longing for recognition' Sat May 20 explores this theme - now booking)
This is written as a companion piece to the excellent, liberating summary of Carol S Dweck's Mindset in Brainpickings. Dweck's bestselling work distinguishes between two mindsets: fixed - where our dread of failure stalls our ability to learn, and growth - where we move more freely, ingesting new information without being affronted that we did not know it already. I wanted to draw out the longings and wounds that often lie beneath the 'fixed' orientation and deepen our awareness of the existential fragility that leads to such self-preoccupation, and how it may be addressed.
‘We are all struggling, none of us has gone far...’
It’s been dawning on me for a few decades that, despite apparent intelligence, I am also remarkably slow. I haven’t learned much over time. It seems I’m not concerned to. Flickers of evidence of this have continually drifted into my awareness, and I’ve instinctively swatted them away. They don’t fit my idea of myself; and they haven’t seemed to fit others idea of me. But I should have paid more attention. I can now let the simple truth land: I don’t like to learn.
I never have. In fact, I’m hostile to it. Most of the time, I don’t want to learn, I’m not interested in it, not wholeheartedly, and it certainly doesn’t appeal to me. Of course this is deeply mad, yet it has a reason: in essence I don’t want to be wrong (which learning invariably implies to someone like me). The emotional experience of not-already-knowing feels humiliating.
All this feels less damning after reading Carol Dweck, via Brainpickings. What I’ve just described is the classic behaviour of someone with what Dweck defines in Mindset – as having a ‘fixed growth mindset’. As Dweck envisages things, ‘fixed growth’ people lack faith in our capacity to improve, and so become preoccupied with establishing that we are already good enough. As a result, we make the choice, over and over, to ‘redo an easy jigsaw puzzle’ rather than try a harder one in which we might learn something but risk failure. (There are growth-oriented types out there to whom such choice is ridiculous, who would, says Dweck ‘be perplexed’ by the oddness of a decision to engage in a task in which they cannot learn.) We don’t find it odd at all though: we know the little surges of triumph the accomplishment of anything gives birth to; we know the relief of an affirmative yes in the eyes of the other. It stabilises and reassures us. Those milliseconds matter. We need them – or have long believed we do.
The orientation Dweck describes will be familiar to many of us who have developed far less than our ‘potential’ once seemed to suggest. If her description resonates – we have rich themes to reflect on – about what we are up to instead of ‘learning’ and why ‘not-knowing’ alarms us.
OUR INTERNAL PROCESS WHEN LEARNING:
The first area to give our attention to is to identify our internal process in learning and performance environments: What is really on our minds, and what forces drive us in situations where learning is apparently available?
In fact, learning is rarely our primary driver: our contact with a subject, task or teacher is often driven by more primitive and existential concerns: Are we adequate? Are we wanted? Are we deficient? Will we be loved or rejected, celebrated or shamed?
If such questions are loud – and they are for many of us - others’ responses matter more than is good for us. Instead of being available to learn, our quest is for admiration, reassurance or acceptance. This tends to paralyse us in immediate time: we are so concerned with how this moment will go and what it will say about us that gaining in skill or knowledge recedes almost completely.
To understand this more fully, we need to bear something in mind about the social context of much learning. Before it is anything else, a classroom or workplace is a social space. Anything in us that is humanly unresolved will arise there: We may move toward human others to impress or to belong, or speak for the relief of expression, in hope of affirmation, or the pleasure of sensing we are heard or feeling real; we may be there to bond, to relate, to look impressive, to be part of a little tribe of humans gathered close – and maybe, after all those hungers have been satiated, some small element in us will take something in.
Our need and hunger for approval are so visceral, so constant, so unrelentingly how it is to be us that we rarely even see it. And mostly others miss it too, and cannot help us.
THE NEED FOR SECURITY AND LOVE
All this is understandable, yet hugely crippling. We fail to learn not because we are bad or lazy or stupid, but because something in us is profoundly insecure. So what are we aiming at when we are transfixed by the need for approving reflection. What is it that we are sane and wise to want?
True security among human others is precisely what ‘fixed’ growth mindset people do not have. We have not ‘landed’ yet – not fully, and we do not feel sufficient. This worries us, rendering our characters, bodies and cells jumpy, guarded and cautious, and making us acutely sensitive to human feedback at every turn. Learning and growing involves the vulnerability of failure, but moments of failure feel traumatic and wounding to us. Without, a secure sense of self to fall back on, we can’t bear to flounder. We experience it as an existential threat, and this is terrifying.
To develop optimally, young children need intense reassurance about how wonderful they are. They need to be celebrated and admired, and they need to experience that they are wanted. Until we feel celebrated and secure in basic ways like this, argued Heinz Kohut, we can’t help being unduly concerned with how the world responds to us. So those of us for whom these needs weren’t resolved as children, continue to orbit around them as adults.
Those with a growth mindset are not so fragile: They convey a basic, life-long security we do not possess: to us, they seem to come at things ‘pre-loved’. Their essential right to be here is not in question, nor that the world is fond of them and likes their presence here. And so to them a task which engages them is simply that: a thing to wonder about, explore, and perhaps accomplish.
SOFTENING A FIXED MINDSET
We can see that the preoccupation Dweck associates with the fixed mindset - our wish to seek praise and avoid failure – depletes us hugely. Yet the instinct that lies behind it is utterly sane: our healthy human desire for love, acceptance and belonging. Living from the fixed mindset does not achieve these things: it keeps us permanently dependent. We need to find a wiser and more loving way to be:
‘the damage I have done to myself fades/when I sit firmly in this world...’
I want to look at three routes to loosen a fixed mindset:
Understanding how it functions and what it costs us...
Clarifying – and learning to experience more directly – the fear, anxiety and hunger for approval that drive our resistance to failure
Cultivating the existential security, patience and love that will help us to grow
Even learning about the two mindsets can release us to some degree from our ‘fixed’ habits. Dweck’s growth mindset people demonstrate that it is possible to luxuriate in being wrong, and to experience ‘failure’ as an ally. Her work encourages us to enter experience with an acceptance of our current limitation and a faith in our future potential - to be hungrier for what we do not yet know, and engaged by what lies beyond us.
Sometimes we have outgrown ourselves and do not know it: many of us are already more flexible and capable of surviving failure than we realise. We may find, once we understand the processes in play, that territory that once seemed toxic is now bearable. (Failure is actually remarkably un-dramatic when we are not attacking ourselves for it, finding it humiliating, or taking it personally. It becomes a fact to respond to: information about a process we are engaged in rather than proof of our fundamental inadequacy.)
Clarifying and Experiencing the Emotions and Fears Beneath our Hunger for Approval
But we may also work more deeply, by looking at the fears and anxieties that run beneath our quest for approval. We can learn to be less compelled toward praise if we can learn to tolerate those moments in which we are scared, vulnerable, and uncertain of whether we are loved, wanted or worthy. This capacity – if we can bear it – can release us from our compulsive and restless quest to cover over our pain.
Cultivating Security and Love
If it is optimal to feel pre-loved and secure in order to learn, those of us with fixed mindsets will only be free to grow and learn more wholeheartedly as we develop such ground. What might being pre-loved feel like? It is hard for us to imagine how strengthening this is, but we can try: If we already knew these things - that we were loved, that we had humans to go home to who were ‘behind’ us, that we belonged and were wanted on the planet, and that we had the capacity to grow and thrive – if those threads were settled or resolved for us, might we then be easier in ourselves and freer to flail and flounder as we grew? It seems we would.
For the insecure, trusting that we are held in a loving world that wants us will be hard to come by. But this is not all or nothing. We can at least begin to perceive and accept ourselves – as we are and not as we imagine we must be. We can aim to provide for ourselves and achieve with others the kind of faithful, accompanying patience and holding love that will allow us to bear failure. If we realise this even to some degree, and reach a point where shame or ignorance does not humiliate us or shake us to our foundations, we will begin to taste the freedom of the growth mindset, and discover how life is immeasurably richer when we can take on, with resilience and ‘fail-forward optimism’ the harder jigsaw puzzle we know we may fail to complete.
Allowing ourselves to be seen and known for who and how we actually are invites us into a different kind of belonging. If we can respond to this invitation, we can live more naturally and more freely – in realistic relationship with both our deficiencies and our potential, and no longer preoccupied by shame. We will achieve a more dynamic life of deeper joy.
(my new workshop on our 'longing for recognition' on Sat May 20 explores this theme more richly - now booking, concessions available if needed)