Romolo Tavani/Shutterstock
Source: Romolo Tavani/Shutterstock

Nikki Giovanni wisely said, "I really don’t think life is about the I-could-have-beens. Life is only about the I-tried-to-do. I don’t mind the failure, but I can’t imagine that I’d forgive myself if I didn’t try.” A new study from the Department of Psychology at Stanford University confirms that parents who view failure as a negative and detrimental event, unwittingly send messages to their kids that someone's intelligence is set in stone. 

All too often, the fear of failure seems to paralyze people of all ages from taking chances and having an openness to new experiences. When was the last time you bit off more than you could chew, knowing that you were likely to fail . . . but charged ahead by reminding yourself, "nothing ventured, nothing gained"? If fear is holding you back, hopefully this blog post will inspire you to take the plunge and try something new.   

Do You Believe That Intelligence Is Fixed or Malleable? 

One of my biggest pet peeves is the belief by some that "intelligence" is somehow genetically predetermined or fixed statically in place. First of all, there are so many different types of intelligence. Second, because of neuroplasticity, it's always possible for anyone to change his or her mindset and cognitive abilities with persistence and practice. 

Along these lines, the latest study by psychological scientist, Kyla Haimovitz, and mindset expert, Carol Dweck, found that the more negatively parents' attitudes were about any type of failure, the more likely their children were to see their parents as being more obsessed with performance as opposed to the learning process.

The April 2016 study, "What Predicts Childrens Fixed and Growth Intelligence Mind-Sets? Not Their Parents Views of Intelligence but Their Parents Views of Failure," was published in the journal Psychological Science

For this study, Haimovitz and Dweck, were curious to establish how parents' attitudes about failure trickled down to influence their children's "intelligence mindsets." An intelligence mindset is someone's belief of whether intelligence is fixed or malleable. 

Across the board, the researchers found that, "parents who see failure as debilitating focus on their children’s performance and ability rather than on their children’s learning, and their children, in turn, tend to believe that intelligence is fixed rather than malleable."

Haimovitz and Dweck emphasize that parents convey their views about whether failure is positive or negative in how they respond to their children's setbacks. A few days ago, I wrote a Psychology Today blog post based on a new study of elite-level athletes which found that the performers who became "super champions" all had a rocky road to success. What differentiated the "super champs" from the "almost champs" was how young athletes learned to cope with setbacks. This study on athletes dovetails seamlessly with the recent findings from Stanford on parents' perceptions of failure. 

In most cases, having overbearing parents who put too much pressure on their child's athletics—and didn't let their children navigate failures through trial and error—inadvertently sabotaged the odds of their kid being a champion. The same seems to be true in both sport and life. As Haimovitz. explained in a statement,

"It is important for parents, educators, and coaches to know that the growth mindset that sits in their heads may not get through to children unless they use learning-focused practices, like discussing what their children could learn from a failure and how they might improve in the future."

"Isn't It Nerve-Racking to Post Something You've Written on the Internet?" 

As I was reading the new study by Dweck and Haimovitz this morning, I was reminded of a conversation I had with my 8-year-old daughter the other day about being a "writer" and posting new Psychology Today blog posts on the internet most days of the week.

My daughter is just realizing the vastness of the "world wide web" and how it works. Googling my name along with some random word, whenever she gets her hands on an iPad, has become a favorite pastime for my daughter when we're in the car. If she finds something I've written, she'll start reading it out loud and asking me questions about the topic. It's a fun game we play.

Anyway, recently she asked me, "Isn't it nerve-racking to put something you've written on the internet for the whole world to read? Aren't you scared that people are going to judge you?"

My initial reaction was to say, "Yes, it's sort of terrifying, but, the process of researching, writing, and sharing ideas with readers is a labor of love. It makes me feel so good that the rewards outweigh any fears." I also told her that writing doesn't come naturally to me, but that I love the challenge and work really hard every day to become a better writer... but that it's always going to be a work in progress. Just like mastering my tennis serve is a never-ending process.  

I also explained to her candidly, that, "In our family, my older sister (her Aunt Renée) was extremely "book smart" when we were growing up. My sister got perfect scores on all of her tests and exams." On the other hand, I told my daughter, "I was terrible at taking standardized tests, which is why I went to Hampshire College, which doesn't have grades or tests. I believe that judging people's intelligence based on some random score on an exam is highly overrated." 

I elaborated by telling her a story of how my sister, Renée, read War and Peace in the fourth grade—but that when I was that age I was always on the tennis court, listening to pop music, or hanging out with my friends. I told my daughter that I would get ants in pants if I had to sit still, and hated reading books when I was a kid. But explained that luckily her grandparents encouraged me to run free. And that my father once said to me, "Renée may have a lot of 'book smarts,' Chris. But you've got a lot of 'sports smarts.' Your ability to display 'athletic genius' on the tennis court is your gift."

My daughter plays a lot of tennis these days, but likes to read as well. I told her that she has equal amounts of all types of "intelligence" and that labels are counterproductive. At the end of the day, every individual is totally unique and "free to be... you and me."

My Guinness World Record hangs in a dark alcove of my daughter's bedroom. Although I don't discuss it much, she realizes the hard work it represents. So, I told her, "I learned as an athlete that in order to succeed and become the best that I could be, I had to fail again and again—but always keep trying. Inevitably, every time I raised the bar, and took on a new athletic challenge, I would have to fail first in order to ultimately succeed and break a record."

I explained that when I retired from sports—because I was getting too old to run as long and as fast as I could when I was young—that I decided to reinvent myself as a writer. I made a half-joke that part of my drive was to prove to myself (and my father) that I wasn't just a "dumb jock" and that I'd always felt kind of insecure about my "book smarts" (which is true). But, I said, "The good news is that I'm living proof that it's never too late to reinvent yourself. With lots of practice, practice, practice... anything is possible." I reminded her that even though I got terrible standardized test scores as a kid, it didn't stop me from becoming a writer as an adult and that intelligence is never fixed. 

Then, I said, "getting good grades is awesome, but it's not the be-all and end-all. One of the unexpected blessings of not getting good grades for me was that nobody ever thought I could succeed as a writer later in life. So, it took all the pressure off and has allowed me to pour my heart into writing without worrying about rejection or criticism." Because I'm not an academic or intellectual, I have the liberty to "wing it" as a writer. I don't expect to win any Pulitzer prizes and I'm not trying to impress my peers. There's freedom in that. I told her that my drive has always been self-motivated and intrinsic, and what that meant...

Lastly, I explained to my daughter why my overarching life philosophy is inspired by Alice Walker, who said, "Expect Nothing. Live Frugally on Surprise" and recited the poem. For me, pragmatic optimism in both sports and daily life has allowed me to take chances and try new things fearlessly. I view all of my failures as opportunities for growth. Hopefully, reading this blog post will inspire you to put your fear of failure on the back burner and try something you've been afraid to do, right now.

In closing, below is one of my favorite TED lectures, "The Power of Believing That You Can Improve," by Carol Dweck. This lecture emphasizes the importance of believing that mindset is never fixed and that intelligence is malleable throughout our lives.

To read more on this topic, check out my Psychology Today blog posts, 

© 2016 Christopher Bergland. All rights reserved.

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