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  Reading: Honor Emotions, II




For all the discussion of different approaches to dealing with emotions, we still haven’t really discussed with one of the most important underlying questions of this part of the learning process: Do we will actually believe that setbacks are really good for us?

Better yet, think back to the last time that you failed at something: Maybe you goofed a memo to your boss or perhaps you said something stupid to a friend.

After the error, did you think to yourself: Great. Let me think about how I can be better? Or did you think to yourself: Shoot, I’ve always been bad at that.

Psychologist Carol Dweck has been studying these different responses, and in a series of studies, Dweck has shown that some of us are secret essentialists, members of what might be called the “Nature Camp.” In this approach, people believe that nature—biology, genes, DNA—are the key determents of success. People, then, are either smart or dumb, strong or weak, good or bad, and when we fail at something, we think: Shoot, I’ve always been bad at that.

In contrast, Dweck argues there are people who might be called nurturers. For them, any skill—surfing, math—can be developed. It’s a thing that we can sharpen. With practice and development, anything can be achieved. These sorts of people are optimistic, of course. But more than that, they see the worlds as a place where people can grow and change. In short, “Team Improvement” believes in progress, and when nurturers experience failure, they wonder: Great. Let me think about how I can better?

While Dweck’s work has been around for a while--and might be just as popular as Mischel's work--recent research shows that these view have a tremendous impact on how we approach learning, particular any sort of learning that requires challenge.

People in Camp Improvement, for instance, are far more likely to engage in mental doing, and studies show that people in Camp Improvement are more likely to quiz themselves. The same goes with parents who are in Camp Improvement: They spend more time doing academic work with their children. In a way, people in Camp Improvement are simply far more likely to believe in effort. For them, any challenge is an opportunity.

When I interviewed Dweck recently, she argued that our attitudes toward errors are often deeply social, and just a few words from a mentor or leader or parent are enough to spark a shift from Camp Nature to Team Improvement.

 Indeed, in early one study, some researchers praised kids for their performance with just the words: You’re so smart. Others praised kids for their effort with just the words: you’re so hard-working, and even that small difference was enough to make an impact.

More recently, Dweck has found that actions have a far deeper impact than words when it comes to these sorts of Camp Nature and Team Improvement attitudes. For instance, Dweck and a colleague showed not along ago that parents beliefs didn’t always transfer to their kids. More specifically, if a parent praised a kid’s effort that wasn’t always enough to promote a Team Improvement approach in the child.

What mattered more was how parents actually reacted when a child experience failure. Did the parents discuss the failure as a lack of ability like someone on Camp Nature might? Or did the parents discuss the mistakes in terms of a learning opportunity like someone on Team Improvement? If parents took the second approach, their kids were far more likely to be on Team Improvement. Put differently, if parents actively showed that failure provided growth, kids were far more likely to also believe the idea.

For individuals, some of the solutions when it comes to attitudes revolve around what we tell ourselves, and Dweck recommends changing your inner dialogue. Tell yourself not to worry about mistakes, to focus on improvement, to view gaffs and errors as chance to gain a skill or bit of knowledge. After a mistake, for instance, ask yourself: “What can I learn from this? How can I improve?” Dweck recommends.

For others like expert Angela Duckworth, the solutions are similar but a little different. A psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania, Duckworth recommends that people condition themselves to expect difficulty as they gain a skill. So if you make mistakes or struggle, think to yourself, as Duckworth does: “This is normal.”

In this regard, Sian Beilock goes even further, stressing that people do more to push themselves, to make sure that they put themselves in more situations where they might make a mistakes. “Don’t be helpless,” she argues. For someone who fears public speaking, that means doing more training in front of an audience. For someone who believes that they’re not a math person, try to do more math, even if it’s just calculating the tip at the restaurant.

This doesn’t mean that people shouldn’t mindlessly praise practice or effort. Mistakes aren’t inherently good. Neither is resilience, and Dweck argues that people should specifically connect praise and outcomes when they’re offering kudos. So tell people: “Do you see how your practice paid off?” or “Great job working hard and look at your great progress.”