One day, a teacher returning grades to her students decided to try something different. She went through the grades for her failing students and replaced the word “Fail” with the words “Not Yet.” After comparing the performance of her students at the end of the year, she found that something amazing had happened:
Her once-failing students were now outperforming their peers.
This story is an example of growth mindset, an educational theory pioneered by the researcher Carol Dweck. Growth mindset is simply the belief that you can get better at something with effort, regardless of your natural-born abilities. This mentality can apply to skills of any kind—social, emotional, mental, and physical—giving it the potential to improve virtually any aspect of your life.
The teacher’s example is a classic case. By anticipating success instead of proscribing failure, she was able to activate her students’ natural desire to learn and improve. By replacing “Fail” with “Not Yet,” she was really telling them, “Eventually, with hard work, you will succeed.”
This is not a revolutionary idea for some. The formula for success, according to a lot of very successful people, is hard work over time. Stephen King is one of the most commercially successful authors in history. Every one of his 50-plus novels has made the bestsellers list, and his stories have been turned into award-winning films. So how did King become so successful? In his own words, the secret to his success was deciding at the age of 19 that he would write for a living...and then dedicating several hours every day for the rest of his life to doing just that.
King’s approach is classic growth mindset—hard work in a defined direction. But could the secret to success really be so simple? Is hard work all it takes?
According to Dweck, not quite—we must also be willing to fail.
Trial and error is a crucial part of growth mindset. You simply can’t be better at something until you’ve been worse at it. This seems obvious, too—but the instinct to protect ourselves from failure is strong. Students are often terrified of being stigmatized for their perceived intelligence. They tell themselves that no answer is better than a wrong answer, and rarely ask questions for the same reason. This is why Dweck’s theory is so important for educators. It can be difficult to break students out of their fixed mindsets—but once you get growth mindset, it tends to stick.
You realize that you are in complete control of your learning process. You see that success is not just a calculation of luck—what you’re given—but of time—what you’re willing to give.