Friday, May 7, 2010

to fail is a verb, not a noun

Carol Dweck has written a fascinating book, Mindset. She's the lady who found that praising kids for their intelligence made them perform worse on tests than those praised for their effort.

In one study, kids were given 3 tests. The first one was easy. The second one was very hard, so most kids failed. The third test was medium hard, so the kids should have done better again. But many didn't.

All kids who did well on the first test were praised. Praise along the lines of "you did well - you must be very smart" encouraged what Dweck calls "the fixed mindset", an either/or view of the world. When the second test 'proved' to these kids that they weren't so smart after all, either they lived down to that belief or they stopped trying. The kids who were praised for their effort "you did well - you must have tried really hard", perservered on all tests, and weren't worried by getting lower marks on the second, because they recognised it was a harder test.

Belief in innate ability (in this case, intelligence) robbed the kids of resilience in the face of failure. Dweck writes compellingly about the pervasive myth - and not just among children - that natural ability means you don't have to work to succeed - and if you don't have natural ability there is no point in trying.

I gather the myth says failure through not trying is better than the humiliation of trying and failing. You can fail a test or a challenge - to fail is a verb. But a fixed mindset encourages a more universal belief: "I failed this, therefore I am a failure." The term doesn't really work well as a noun.

I'm not sure how you can be 'a failure'. What's the definition? Maybe you could fail life, but we'll have to wait until the game is over before we judge, surely? If you're still breathing while you read this, the game is still on.

And if you set out to fail, and succeed at failing? What do we call that? I guess that would be an oxymoron.

This is post 2 of my 100 posts in 100 days challenge.

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