As a musician, I have always been exposed to the elements. Whether I was playing the French horn as a teenager, singing a role in an opera as a university student, conducting one of my choirs over or even teaching students virtually, there were always ears and opinions present. I have grown in confidence over the years, but even when I was a young student, it was necessary to put away shyness and play out loud. I may have played a wrong note or rhythm, but in the act of putting it out there, I enabled myself to grow through those mistakes and start learning.
We are all afraid to fail. Sometimes it matters a great deal, of course. No one wants the structural engineer of that new flyover to fail. However, even in day to day life, we can often shy away from situations that could lead to failure, worried that it will be followed by embarrassment or ridicule. I distinctly remember the final of spelling bee in 5th grade, even though that was a very long time ago. I was wiped out in the top three by the word business. I boldly said business. I was then told to sit down. You’d better believe I have never misspelled that word since. I don’t remember if I was embarrassed or laughed at, but I do remember the lesson. Do we ask this level of learning of our children? Do we model it ourselves as the adults?
Growth mindset is a way of thinking where we see possibility instead of limitation, and failures are a valuable opportunity for learning. We find inspiration in the success of ourselves and others, and judge our merits based on the work that gets us to the answer, instead of relying on the correctness of the answer only. This sounds great, but like that 14 year old French horn player, we have to make a confident noise to move forward. That’s the scary part of this. Worrying about the failure or the potential outcomes will keep us from creating opportunities to learn and grow. In the current context, I wonder how many different vaccines were thought up in labs around the world for COVID-19? Where would the work be right now, if the scientists had given up after the failure of the first one? How can we model a growth mindset and create that environment for the learners around us?
For my students and colleagues, here are some tips I have found for embracing failure:
- Understand the importance of productive struggle: True learning requires challenge, and learning to work through challenges is what ultimately fosters confidence and a growth mindset.
- Take risks in the company of others: Put aside the fear of failure and take the chances that will allow you to evolve.
- Cultivate grit: Never give up, no matter how hard the road gets.
- Replace the word failing with learning: Change your mindset about failure. It isn’t a roadblock, it is growth.
Go forth and sing, dance and play boldly, and when you inevitably fail along the way, reflect, grow and succeed.