Making Mistakes Matters Pt. 4: Mindset and ‘grit’ are a better predictor of success

My Dad learning the hard way, having his leg stump uprooted by Wes Hall, one of the great West Indian fast bowlers

My Dad learning the hard way, having his leg stump uprooted by Wes Hall, one of the great West Indian fast bowlers

This is the last of four articles on why we need to change our attitude towards failure, celebrating the launch of my new company PeakFlow.Zone and the first anniversary of the publishing of a book I had a hand in writing: Enabling Genius: a mindset for success in the 21st century.  The first article covered the personal and organisational benefits of flow.  The second article outlined the organisational benefits of embracing failure.  The third article focused on the global impact of the scientific method.  This final article focuses on the personal characteristics of ‘grit’ and mindset.

A characteristic of top performers is something called ‘grit’.  This is defined as someone’s capacity for setting long term challenging goals and sticking to them.  People with high levels of grit persevere despite the barriers blocking the path to their objectives.  Over a long period, it is inevitable that we will make mistakes.  So what marks the best people out is their attitude to these failures.  They do not given in, they learn from them and come back fighting even harder.

A measurement of ‘grit’ was developed by Angela Duckworth, a US psychologist.  She showed that grit was closely correlated to US measures of intellect and whether you survive at the US military academy, West Point.  This institution has embraced the measurement culture.  They gather a whole slew of metrics to help predict who would likely be the best students at the end of training. However the grit measurement was far more accurate at predicting the best students, than all the combined West Point metrics.

The second related characteristic is mindset, a term coined from Carol Dweck’s research.  Her work is based on an experiment where students were initially asked to tackle a series of challenging problems, some well beyond their current capability.  Having run this first test, the same group were asked whether they wanted to try more ‘hard’ problems or a more achievable set, based on their current capability.  This answer split the group into those with a ‘fixed’ (went for easier questions) and ‘growth’ mindsets (went for more hard questions).  Long-term follow-up studies have shown the latter are more successful, even though their initial capabilities were no better going into the tests than the fixed mindset group.

The theory suggests that those with a fixed mindset believe their basic abilities, intelligence and talents, are fixed, inherited characteristics.  They can go up to a limit and no more, so they try to appear clever all the time by never tackling something they might get wrong.  Those with a growth mindset believe their talents can be developed through persistence and see failures as opportunities to learn.  They don’t necessarily believe they can be Einstein, but this does not matter, they still believe they can improve if they persevere.  So aside from the lesson that those with a growth mindset will work hard despite setbacks, the work also suggests, we should praise effort, not results when providing feedback.

So we have four elements showing we can enable our genius if we change our attitude to failure:

  • Firstly, we can personally and organisationally benefit from spending more time in flow. This can only occur when we push ourselves to the limit where we just might fail.  And if we do, we learn from it so we can generate even more flow.
  • Secondly, creating a culture that accepts we make mistake and embraces these as opportunities to learn, can lead to significant improvements in overall organisational performance.
  • Thirdly, the history of science and the process it follows, has generated huge (mostly) positive change.  The basis of science is to constantly challenge the current status quo and when failures in current theory are found, it creates opportunities for even better science to be developed.
  •  And finally, we should learn from the gritty top performers with growth mindsets, who feel challenged by the errors they make, and compelled to show the world that this is just a temporary setback, another hurdle to be overcome to meet their goals.