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Making mistakes is how humans learn. Here's how to embrace a growth mindset and start finding opportunities in failure.

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When I embarked on a new career in coding early last year, ‘get good at failing’ was a piece of advice that struck a chord with me. With it, my advisor – a senior developer whom I respect very much – encouraged me to be transparent in areas I lacked experience and to embrace mistakes as learning opportunities. Sounds straightforward, right? Then why did this seemingly logical path to success instill a sense of anxiety?

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As I got thinking about my relationship with failure over the years, I realized I had come to fear mistakes and vulnerability. To ‘get good at failing’, it was necessary to challenge that fear and embrace setbacks as necessary stepping stones to success.

I believe we all start out knowing that it’s okay to make mistakes, as curious, clumsy little ones, stumbling to take our first steps and exploring the world through open eyes. Intrinsically, we know it’s okay to fall or trip up on the way to learning something new. We’re not born viewing mistakes as failures; that’s something we learn along the way. But when does that happen?

In his popular TED talk, 'Do schools kill creativity?', culture and education expert Sir Ken Robinson makes a compelling case that this negative attitude towards mistakes is entrenched within our education systems. Robinson goes on to reflect on how this can be harmful as we grow up and begin to enter the workplace:

‘What we do know is, if you're not prepared to be wrong, you'll never come up with anything original. And by the time they get to be adults, most kids have lost that capacity. They have become frightened of being wrong. And we run our companies like this. We stigmatize mistakes. And we're now running national education systems where mistakes are the worst thing you can make. And the result is that we are educating people out of their creative capacities.’

How do we unlearn this stigma associated with mistakes as adults in the workplace? What’s more, how do companies benefit from employees getting good at failure?

What is growth mindset thinking?

As I read more on the subject of failing, I began to understand that reframing failure was central to Carol Dweck’s research into the psychology of success. The ability to embrace the possibility of mistakes as an opportunity to learn more is core to developing what Dweck labels as a ‘growth mindset’.

If a mistake leads to learning and growth, then it shouldn’t be viewed as a failure. Instead, embracing a challenge and overcoming it should be regarded as a success. This is how adopting a growth mindset creates a resilient, adaptable approach to work.

Research backs this up. Following a two-year study, Google reported that psychological safety is by far the most crucial dynamic found in high-performing teams. In other words, the freedom to make and learn from mistakes. Team members need to feel safe expressing their opinions, asking questions, and taking risks, all behaviors associated with growth mindset thinking.

Moreover, Dweck’s research found that there are negative consequences when employees don’t feel safe making mistakes. These folks are less committed and feel less supported than folks at growth-mindset companies. They’re also less innovative, and regularly kept secrets due to a fear of failure.

By embracing a growth mindset, organizations can help lift psychological safety, thus enabling an environment for both teams and individuals to flourish.

Three misconceptions around growth mindset thinking

To gain a deeper insight into growth mindset thinking, I found it useful to understand some common misconceptions.

Misconception #1: Embracing mistakes sounds like toxic positivity

Toxic positivity is the belief that people should be positive in all scenarios, often leading to difficult emotions being suppressed or rejected. This would lead to mistakes being glossed over and ignored, rather than embraced. With growth mindset thinking, mistakes shouldn’t be overlooked but explored and treated as learning opportunities.

Embracing mistakes in this way doesn’t stop us from being transparent about things that have gone wrong. Instead, the aim is for us to approach mistakes with curiosity. How did the mistake come about and can we avoid it happening again? What is the impact? What can we learn?

This approach promotes a culture in which people feel encouraged to be open and ask questions, which not only aids in learning but can also inspire other valuable traits, such as the sharing of new, innovative ideas.

Misconception #2: No punishment equals no accountability

Mistakes are not, by default, punished as part of growth mindset thinking. However, this doesn’t equate to a lack of accountability. Viewing learning and reflection as forms of accountability is key to this type of thinking.

At my company, Automattic, the following quote is printed in our internal field guide’, specifically on a page titled ‘Made a Mistake? It’s OK – We’re Human, Too’:

An executive had just started working at Andrew Carnegie’s company, US Steel. The new guy ruined a million-dollar project and humbly asked the boss if he would be fired. Andrew Carnegie said ‘Fire you? We just spent a million dollars training you! ’ – via TVtropes.

Here, it’s clear that the ‘new guy’ is expected to show growth following his mistake and that the cost is viewed as an investment. The only way to truly fail under growth mindset thinking would be to keep making the same mistakes repeatedly, with no learning or reflection.

By reducing fear of retribution, individuals are less likely to keep secrets when mistakes happen, instead becoming more likely to ask for help when needed.

Misconception #3: An individual either has a growth mindset or not

The ability to grow and change is an integral part of Carol Dweck’s research. Anyone’s mindset can evolve and adapt to different needs.

It’s worth noting that no one has a pure, 100% growth mindset. Individuals usually display a mixture of growth and fixed mindsets in different areas of life, which change over time.

Individuals currently displaying a fixed mindset in any area have the power to shift. Similarly, individuals displaying a growth mindset should be mindful of triggers that cause them to shift to a fixed mindset. Identifying such triggers, and coming up with action plans to combat them, can be valuable.

Encouraging growth mindset thinking in the workplace

It wasn’t difficult for me to understand or agree with the theory behind growth mindset thinking. However, unlearning a fear of mistakes and transparency in areas I lack knowledge continues to be a challenge. You don’t get good at failing overnight. As with anything that contributes toward growth, reframing failure is a continuous effort and journey.

I also know it’s not uncommon for others to share similar fears to mine. The workplace, in particular, is an environment that can exacerbate these feelings.

For employees to harness a growth mindset, a culture must exist where they feel safe to take risks and to be wrong. This is hard to achieve, and there’s no one easy way to do it. Some ideas include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • Ensure team members can both receive and solicit regular feedback in a format that feels comfortable to them.
  • Find ways to reward learning, progress, and effort, not only results. 
  • Advocate for the power behind incremental growth. Breaking down big goals into small, incremental steps can make challenges easier to overcome and successes more frequent.
  • Promote learning in public, whether that be through sharing blog posts, participating in open-source projects, or similar.
  • Encourage the sharing of retrospectives following wide-reaching mistakes. Retrospectives can then be used as learning opportunities for others and include reflections on how to avoid the same mistake happening in the future.

By embracing mistakes as learning opportunities and creating an environment where vulnerability is welcome – that is, ‘getting good at failing’ – individuals and organizations can gain a lot. It encourages higher team performance and creates a culture where new ideas thrive and move forward.

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