Thank God It's Monday™ e-zine by Roxanne Emmerich
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Issue: 96
September 20, 2010
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Dear Roxanne,
I can't stand failure. I am honestly so terrified of it that I don't take risks I know I "should" take. But every failure takes so much out of me that I just play it safe at work. I know this isn't good for me. Do you have any words of wisdom to help me keep moving forward?

-- Phyllis E.

Dear Phyllis,
Oh, my heart goes out to you. Fortunately I have some very good science to offer--evidence that failure can be exactly what we need to move forward. Sound crazy? Read on, and let me know what you think!


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Our Friend Failure

New research is pinpointing how we learn and make decisions. To the brain, a new thought or idea is like a spider. If it is industrious enough, an intricate web of knowledge spins out from it. Snapshots of the brain taken during learning actually show neurons firing, growing, and forming new connections. This is fascinating in itself, but what's even more fascinating is that failure can trigger this.

That's right--failure can enhance your brain.

Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck has tracked and compared the brain waves of subjects with growth and fixed mindsets (see "Make Up Your Mind to Succeed"). When those with growth mindsets fail at a task, she detects them entering a more focused mental state as they try to figure out their mistake. And in subsequent trials, they improve. In effect, they've learned, and their brains have "grown." Those with fixed mindsets, however, never enter this focused state of learning and show little, if any, advancement.

Antoine Bechara, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at the University of Southern California, has taken Dweck's work a step further. He recently isolated two equally sized centers in the prefrontal cortex, one that he claims is responsible for the fear of failure and the other for the lure of success. It is between these, he says, that the debate between risk and reward occurs. These areas interact during the decision-making process.

"We always knew people could learn from their mistakes, but now we're finding out exactly how and where this happens," explains Bechara. "Basically, it all comes down to survival. In a normally functioning brain, failure is welcomed as an opportunity for learning and strengthening the species."

Dweck has been studying how people handle failure for 40 years. Her research has led her to identify two distinct mindsets that dramatically influence how we react to it. Here's how they work:

A fixed mindset is grounded in the belief that talent is genetic--you're a born artist, point guard, or numbers person. The fixed mindset believes it's entitled to success without much effort and regards failure as a personal affront. When things get tough, it's quick to blame, withdraw, lie, and even avoid future challenge or risk.

Conversely, a growth mindset assumes that no talent is entirely heaven-sent and that effort and learning make everything possible. Because the ego isn't on the line as much, the growth mindset sees failure as opportunity rather than insult. When challenged, it's quick to reassess, adjust, and try again. In fact, it relishes this process.

We are all born with growth mindsets--otherwise we wouldn't be able to survive in the world. But parents, coaches, and teachers often push us into fixed mindsets by rewarding certain behaviors and misdirecting praise. Dweck's online instructional program explains this in depth.


Beliefs of the "Fixed" and "Growth" Mindsets

Dweck says there are many little things you can start doing today to guarantee that your kids, grandkids, and even you never get derailed by failure. One of the keys is to replace fixed-mindset message with growth-mindset messages:

FIXED: "Intelligence is something you're born with. You have it or you don't."
GROWTH: "Intelligence is a potential that can be developed."
FIXED: "Looking smart is most important."
GROWTH: "Learning is most important."
FIXED: "After a failure, I try to avoid that task again."
GROWTH: "After a failure, I decide to work harder next time."

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The Proven Formula
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Uncommon Sense
Rethink Failure
Next time you fail at a task, consciously turn your inner messages of retreat into forward-moving messages of learning and growth.
Let me know how it goes!

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