What are you afraid of?

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3933549608_1bf6c64afa_mOn my desk sits a rectangular, pewter paperweight.  Inscribed on it is a quote generally attributed to Robert Schuller, an American pastor and motivational speaker: “What would you attempt to do if you knew you could not fail?”

I think, for many of us, the answer to this question is obvious: Fly.  If I knew I would not fall to my death, I’d jump of my roof and fly.  That is what I would attempt to do first.  I think it would be pretty cool to move objects with my mind too.  Maybe I’d try that second.  In fact, I can list any number of super powers I’d like to have.

I don’t think, however, this is the direction Schuller intended for this particular conversation starter.  Forgive me.  I teach middle school.  I didn’t hear the context of the speech from which this quote was taken, but I have a strong feeling (extra sensory perception would be a good super power to have too, wouldn’t it?) that he was really talking about fear—specifically, the fear of failure.

Often, when we begin to examine our individual potential, for many of us it isn’t skill or knowledge or ability or our education that is preventing us from beginning an endeavor.  It’s fear.  Silly? Maybe.  But true none-the-less.

Carol Dweck explains this phenomena in her ground breaking book, “Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, How We Can Learn to Fulfill Our Potential.”  In it, she explains that generally speaking, people are of two mindsets: Fixed and Growth.

With a Fixed Mindset, we generally believe that as far as ability goes, some people are just born with it.  The belief is that smart, successful, high achieving people have a natural advantage.  They pick up on things faster and just generally have more skill.  Whatever it is, painting, math, computers, athletics, you name it.  If you’ve got the gift, lucky you, and when it comes to time to demonstrate your talent things just flow more easily and naturally.  Seen through the lens of the Fixed Mindset, effort, struggle and failure are the result of a lack of talent, ability, or smarts.

On the other hand, according to Dweck, those with a Growth Mindset believe that people are generally a work in progress.  Whatever it is, whether it comes easily or not, a person with a Growth Mindset loves a challenge.  For them, it’s okay to fail–as long as they learned something along the way and can then use that to improve for next time.  People with a Growth Mindset believe that, even if it doesn’t come easily or naturally, the challenge is worth the effort.  These people just love figuring it out.

To better understand into which camp you may fall, ask yourself: “When do I feel smart?”  Then consider the following possible responses:

“It’s when I don’t make any mistakes.”

“When I finish something fast and it’s perfect.”

“When something’s easy for me, but others can’t do it.”

“When it’s really hard, and I try really hard, and I can do something I couldn’t before.”

“When I work on something a long time and I start to figure it out.”

The first three responses are fixed mindset responses.  The last two are growth.

Perfectionists and procrastinators often fall into the Fixed Mindest.

If we really begin to think carefully about into which camp we each fall, for most of us, it’s clear that there is no real clear black and white.  Few of us are of only a Fixed or Growth mindset.  There are lots of shades of gray.  We each have areas in our lives where we feel it’s okay to fail, and other areas in which we feel it is definitely not.

“For twenty years, my research has shown that the view you adopt of yourself profoundly affects the way you lead your life,” says Dweck.

I believe one of the keys to reaching our full potential is to first identify the areas in our lives where, “failure is not an option,” examine those, and make conscious decisions about how well that attitude is serving us.

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One Comment

  1. And, remember, “failure” is not a bad thing. To fail is to learn. FAIL = First Attempt In Learning. The key is to flip the definition of failure on its head. Failure is a good thing. It means you’re doing something challenging. You are learning. As I tell my precious students, “if you’re not failing, you’re not trying hard enough.”

    Hugs and thanks for a GREAT post!