[Note: Much of the research that I cite in this article comes from the Heath brothers’ excellent, highly recommended book Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard]
Failure is not failing. Failure is a part of the learning process.
I received an email today that made me think deeply about failure, especially with regard to habits and habit change. Failure, to many, is an end-all. Either you succeed, or you fail. Either you exercise 6 times a week, or you don’t. Either/or, success/failure.
But that’s not how success works.
Here is the email I received:
The stuff you do isn’t that impressive to me. I have no problem going up to pretty girls and talking with them. I can find great deals and I can network with people.
What I don’t have is an income that I can live off of. I eat healthy half the time but unhealthy the other half. I made good progress towards my goals for the GRE at first but now I’m helping my sister develop a business, work on a business for myself, and working on learning spanish. I’m not making progress on studying for the GRE now.
Also, I’ve gotten so caught up in an exercise plan at the gym and trying to figure out how I will afford a gym membership that I have stopped making myself workout even that small 3 minutes a day you had me start.
I feel like a failure.
This reader feels like a failure because he isn’t achieving the (way too numerous) goals he is setting at the same time. He believes that, because he can’t succeed in becoming perfect in all of his goals at one time, he is a failure.
His problem isn’t in failing. It’s in his mindset. And here’s the good news: mindset is changeable, and by changing his mindset, he’ll be able to ratchet up his success faster than he ever thought possible.
Carol Dweck, a professor at Stanford, has spent her life studying the two learning mindsets: the fixed mindset and the growth mindset. People with a fixed mindset believe that their capabilities are predetermined and unlikely to change—their intelligence and capabilities are dealt at birth, and they are stuck with it. People with a growth mindset believe that, given enough effort and work, they can change. They believe that any skill is learnable, given enough time and effort.
Dweck’s research is very clear—in order to achieve success, in order to achieve your full potential, you have to adopt a growth mindset.
What are some common traits of people who follow a growth mindset? They value effort, not skill. In one famous experiment, Dweck and her team traveled to New York City classrooms, giving puzzles to two sets of fifth graders. The kids tended to do very well on these (easy) puzzles, and were praised afterwards. The two groups were given identical exams, but were praised differently: one group was told “You must be really smart at this” while the other group was told “You must have worked really hard.”
A small change, right? Just a single line of praise.
Shortly after, the same students were asked to do another set of puzzles, and given the option of choosing to take a set of easy puzzles or difficult ones. The difference between the simple line of praise had a huge effect: over 90% of the students that were praised for effort opted to take the more difficult test, while the majority of students praised for intelligence chose to take the easy exams.
That’s right. A simple line of praise for intelligence (rather than effort) made students extremely likely to take the easy way out.
Now, let’s take a look at failure. For some, failure is an all-or-nothing game. When some people set a New Year’s resolution to go to the gym, and miss a couple days, they see it as a failure. This is part of the fixed-mindset mind: either you succeed, or you fail.
Those with the growth mindset, however, see a failure as a chance to succeed. They know that all new habits will have ups and downs–be it a new diet, exercise, flossing, or anything else. The goal is to get back on the horse and try again.
Successful learners understand this, and they build the expectation of failure into their plan.
IDEO is one of the most famous and influential design firms in the world. Their products include the first ever Apple Mouse. They know the creative process better than anyone else in the world.
With so many successful products, you would expect their design process to be airtight, right? Wrong. Their method of creation is designed specifically to account for failure. An expectation of failure built right into their design process!
One of IDEO’s designers created a project mood chart, to model how a team will feel about the design of a project from beginning to finish. At the beginning of a new project, the team is filled with hope—and thus, their enthusiasm is high. At the end of the project, when it is close to completion, the team is confident—and the enthusiasm level is high. But between these two points is a dip, a valley of low enthusiasm labeled “insight.”
At the beginning of any project–be it a creative project, or the creation of a new habit–there is a lot of hope and enthusiasm. Between the beginning and the successful conclusion, however, there will be periods where the project feels doomed to failure, where you have to fight through and keep tweaking until you can reach that successful “confidence” peak. And it is at this stage where fixed mindset learners fail and growth mindset learners prevail.
“] [source: http://leadchangegroup.com/hope-is-a-strategy/With IDEO’s chart, they are building the expectation of failure. Both the team and their clients understand that, in the middle of a project, success seems distant and unlikely. But, by creating this graphic, by visualising it, they are showing the team and their clients that this is a normal part of the creative process. You have to fail before you can succeed.
Failure is not failure. Failure is part of the change process. You must fail before you can succeed. The correct term is actually learning, not failing.
Failure as Fodder for Habit Change
Take a moment and reflect on the growth vs. fixed mindset. When was the last time you tried to institute a new habit? Did you try to go on a diet? Did you try to start exercising? Perhaps begin meditation, or stop feeling emotional, or something else?
For me, I’m currently trying to follow the Paleo Diet, a diet based on basically meat and vegetables and no carbs. I’ve tried dozens of times in the last two years to cut carbs out of my diet, without lasting success. I often go a week or two eating perfectly, and then give into temptation on a single day, and then keep eating poorly and forget about the diet.
However, each time, it’s gotten a little better. I’ve made an effort to try and get back on the diet faster. Whereas, last year I cheated for 6 months (ugh), this year, my cheating periods have gradually gotten smaller—from two weeks to two days to, most recently, two meals.
It’s a learning process. I know that making the switch to Paleo won’t be a smooth process. But what I can do is try to improve each time. Each time that I eat Paleo, I am building the habit. I understand that perfection is impossible, and I will cheat at times. I expect to fail—and I’ve already created a plan to get back on the horse when that failure happens. It works like this.
Eat Paleo meal for breakfast.
Eat Paleo meal for lunch.
Eat Paleo meal for dinner.
If I cheat at any time, and notice it, STOP EATING IMMEDIATELY.
If I cheat and don’t realize I’m cheating until after the meal, fast for the next meal—and eat a proper Paleo meal thereafter.
A simple reaction plan has helped me continue to get back on the horse when I start to fail.
Your Turn: Can You Build a Habit Through Failure?
Now, over the next few weeks, I’m going to be talking a lot about habits. Habits are the basis of who you are. 90% of what you do is automatic, so if you create successful habits, you will become successful. So let’s start now.
You answered above the most recent habit you’ve tried to institute.
I want to help you achieve your goals. What are the habits you find most important to you? What do you think is the highest leverage habit that you could institute in your life.
Tell me in the comments what that habit is, and what you’ve done to try and achieve it. Have you met with success or failure? What has held you back from success?
I’ll give you individualized feedback on each success and failure. I want to help you reach your potential. All you have to do is let me know in the comments:
1) What habit you want to develop
2) What was the result last time you tried to do it
3) What held you back?
Let me know below. Let’s change your life—one habit at a time.