Well-intentioned parents have unwittingly left their kids defenseless against failure. The current generation of millennials (born between 1980 and 2001) grew up playing sports where scores and performance were downplayed because “everyone’s a winner.” And their report cards had more positive spin than an AIG press release. As a result, Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck, PhD, calls them the “overpraised generation.” Fortunately, once you understand the situation, there’s some quick corrective action that can be taken. And even if you’re well past your child-rearing years, her advice will help you better withstand setbacks.
Dweck has been studying how people handle failure for 40 years. Her research has led her to identify two distinct mind-sets that dramatically influence how we react to it.
Here’s how they work:
A fixed mind-set is grounded in the belief that talent is genetic–you’re a born artist, point guard, or numbers person. The fixed mind-set 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 mind-set 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 mind-set 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 mind-sets. (Otherwise, we wouldn’t be able to survive in the world.) But parents, coaches, and teachers often push us into fixed mind-sets by rewarding certain behaviors and misdirecting praise. Dweck’s book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, and online instructional program, brainology.us, explain this in depth. But she 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.
Never compliment a child by saying “You’re so smart” or “You picked that up so quickly.” Instead, praise effort or strategy by saying “That was clever of you to take that approach” or “I’m proud of your persistence.” Listen for similar remarks from teachers and correct them.
Instead of “You’re a natural,” say “Practice is really making you better.” Instead of inquiring “Did you win?” ask “Did you give your best effort?” Explains Dweck, “Talent isn’t passed down in the genes; it’s passed down in the mind-set.”
At the dinner table
Instead of the standard “How was your day?” (which everyone dreads anyway), ask “What did you learn today?” or “What mistakes did you make that taught you something?” Describe with zeal something you’re struggling with. “Instill a passion for learning,” says Dweck.
In making plans for the future
Don’t just ask about goals; ask about the plan for reaching those goals.
Don’t permit children to refer to themselves as losers, failures, stupid, or clumsy. “Never let failure progress from an action to an identity,” says Dweck. Likewise, don’t label your kids. Don’t say this one is the artist, and this one is the computer geek. Anyone can be anything.
If you encounter skepticism, ask the child to think of areas in which she once had low ability and now excels, or to recall a time when she saw someone learn something or improve in ways not thought possible.
Instead of letting salary, benefits, and status define job satisfaction, ask yourself if you’re still learning. If the answer is yes, then you’re fortunate to have a job that encourages a growth mind-set. View its challenges as opportunities rather than stress. If you’ve stopped learning, then consider looking either for new avenues of growth or for another job.
Blame never resolves anything. It’s merely the fixed mind-set insisting that you’re right. The next time you’re tempted to blame, says Dweck, remember that “the whole point of marriage is to encourage each other’s development.”
When feeling down
People who are depressed tend to believe that’s just the way they are. Instead of viewing yourself as a failed end product, think of yourself as a temporarily derailed work in progress. “We usually think of personality as something very stable,” says Dweck, “but we’re finding that even core parts of it can be changed by shifting mind-sets.”
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