Published January 25, 2013
"Peter, I'd like you to stay for a minute after class." Calvin teaches my favorite body conditioning class at the gym.
"What'd I do?" I asked him.
"It's what you didn't do."
"What didn't I do?"
"You kept me after class for not failing?"
"This," he began to mimic my casual weight lifting style, using weights that were obviously too light, "is not going to get you anywhere. A muscle only grows if you work it till it fails. You need to use more challenging weights. You need to fail."
Calvin's onto something.
Every time I ask a room of executives to list the top five moments their career took a leap forward — not just a step, but a leap — failure is always on the list. For some it was the loss of a job. For others it was a project gone bad. And for others still it was the failure of a larger system, like an economic downturn, that required them to step up.
Yet most of us spend a tremendous effort trying to avoid even the possibility of failure.
According to Dr. Carol Dweck, professor at Stanford University, we have a mindset problem. Dweck has done a tremendous amount of research to understand what makes someone give up in the face of adversity versus strive to overcome it.
It turns out the answer is deceptively simple. It's all in your head.
If you believe that your talents are inborn or fixed, then you will try to avoid failure at all costs because failure is proof of your limitation. People with a fixed mindset like to solve the same problems over and over again. It reinforces their sense of competence.
Children with fixed mindsets would rather redo an easy jigsaw puzzle than try a harder one. Students with fixed mindsets would rather not learn new languages. CEOs with fixed mindsets will surround themselves with people who agree with them. They feel smart when they get it right.
But if you believe your talent grows with persistence and effort, then you seek failure as an opportunity to improve. People with a growth mindset feel smart when they're learning, not when they're flawless.
Michael Jordan, arguably the world's best basketball player, has a growth mindset. Most successful people do. In high school he was cut from the basketball team but that obviously didn't discourage him: "I've missed more than 9,000 shots in my career, I've lost almost 300 games. Twenty-six times I've been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I've failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed."
If you have a growth mindset, then you use your failures to improve. If you have a fixed mindset, you may never fail, but neither do you learn or grow.
In business, we have to be discriminating about when we choose to challenge ourselves. In high risk, high leverage situations, it's better to stay within your current capability. In lower risk situations, where the consequences of failure are less, better to push the envelope. The important point is to know that pushing the envelope, that failing, is how you learn and grow and succeed. It's your opportunity.
Here's the good news: you can change your success by changing your mindset. When Dweck trained children to view themselves as capable of growing their intelligence, they worked harder, more persistently, and with greater success on math problems they had previously abandoned as unsolvable.
A growth mindset is the secret to maximizing potential. Want to grow your staff? Give them tasks above their ability. They don't think they could do it? Tell them you expect them to work at it for a while, struggle with it. That it will take more time than the tasks they're used to doing. That you expect they'll make some mistakes along the way. But you know they could do it.
Want to increase your own performance? Set high goals where you have a 50-70% chance of success. According to Psychologist and Harvard researcher the late David McClelland, that's the sweet spot for high achievers. Then, when you fail half the time, figure out what you should do differently and try again. That's practice. And according to recent studies, 10,000 hours of that kind of practice will make you an expert in anything. No matter where you start.
The next class I did with Calvin, I doubled the weight I was using. Yeah, that's right. Unfortunately, that gave me tendonitis in my elbow, which I'm nursing with rest and ice. Sometimes you can even fail when you're trying to fail.
Hey, I'm learning.
Peter Bregman is a strategic advisor to CEOs and their leadership teams. His latest book is 18 Minutes: Find Your Focus, Master Distraction, and Get the Right Things Done. This story originally appeared in the Harvard Business Review.