Maybe It’s About Avoiding Failure

Those of us who are afraid to learn are often unknowingly suffering from a fixed mindset. This way of thinking assumes that people are born with a static set of qualities and talents that never change. If we aren’t immediately successful at something, we just don’t have what it takes. Yet this sort of thinking is extraordinarily unhelpful, as it prevents us from exposing ourselves to new skills and knowledge. Fixed mindsets are particularly common in people who fear failure, have low self-esteem, or excuse themselves by pretending to be too busy. For them, failure isn’t a natural part of learning, but a damning indictment of one’s abilities. They fail to recognize that mistakes are as natural as breathing, and that learning well necessarily involves failing, and failing repeatedly.

However, if we adopt a growth mindset wherein the possibilities for development and expansion are endless, we find that we are much more open to learning, as well as failure in learning. Some common issues that people face when trying to learn new things include not forming their goals properly, and failing to discover good resources to study. While both of these issues are surmountable for those with a growth mindset, they become impossible to overcome if you have a fixed mindset that refuses to consider more than one option. As such, cultivating a growth mindset is essential to learning new skills and acquiring more knowledge.

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Maybe it’s all about avoiding failure

The fixed mindset rears its head in all matters of fear and failure. The inner monologue seems to go like this: “If I fail it will mean that I’m a bad person, and I can’t bear that. It’s better that I don’t even try at all than try and fail.” This only has the effect of sabotaging any positive effort and dooming it to failure before we even begin to learn.

This particular obstacle can partner up with the previous one—when we feel pressured into a challenge we don’t feel equal to, we can unconsciously avoid, delay or pull back from our learning in an effort to never be judged a failure. If others’ expectations of us are high or unreasonable, procrastination can be something of a self-preservation tactic, designed to spare us from not performing up to scratch.

But what’s so bad about failure, really?

If we can uncouple our sense of self-worth from our performance, failure will no longer threaten us. Failure isn’t something we are, it’s merely something we do. A low tolerance for failure (or for poor performance, or bumbling around unskillfully) gives us a clue that we may be operating from a fixed mindset. Author Stephen McCranie said, “A master has failed more times than the beginner has even tried”—and it’s true.

Many of the most successful people today have suffered miserable failures before they experienced success. The founder of e-commerce giant Alibaba, Jack Ma, is worth $36 billion today. However, as a college graduate, he was rejected for over thirty jobs, including one at KFC. Speaking of KFC, Colonel Sanders himself was rejected 109 times before someone would believe in his chicken recipe.

Other big names like Walt Disney and Howard Schultz, the founder of Starbucks, similarly faced hundreds of rejections. Yet, their persistence ensured that they would eventually be successful.

The fact is that failure is not only possible, it’s likely. It’s necessary. The massive proliferation of success stories deludes us into thinking that failure is only for the incompetent, that the successful are fated to be so. But in truth it is our failures that teach us what we need to turn the tide.

When you were a baby, you didn’t simply get up one day and start walking perfectly. Instead, you bumbled along over a period of time, sometimes falling over, sometimes needing a little help, sometimes trying a new technique or reverting back to crawling. You would not have learnt to walk any faster if you had been judgmental of yourself, or condemned any fall as a “failure.”

When you resist failure, you are in fact resisting learning itself, since the two are inseparable. As Albert Einstein once said, “A person who never made a mistake never tried anything new”. A person who is learning a new dance choreography may try to do a complicated move forty times before mastering it. However, if they shy away from those forty “wrong” attempts, they never get it right.

If you have a fear of failure, there are a few ways to tackle it:

● Get to the root of what failure (and success) actually means to you
● Work at redefining this definition for yourself, so that you truly accept failure as a necessary and valuable part of the learning process
● Deliberately set out to fail. Make a plan to play around without any goal of how your efforts should look. Try things out, mess around and try to see what doesn’t work—the idea is not to perform and be perfect, but to grow, learn and experiment
● Constantly remind yourself that you have value whether you succeed or fail, that who you are has nothing to do with your achievement on any one task
● Try giving yourself mini rewards and accolades along the way, to mark your successes as “checkpoints” on the road to mastery. This will remind you that you are learning, even when you feel like you’re not making progress

On the other hand, some people may unconsciously fear success. Why? It comes down to pressure again. “If I perform well on this, then I set a new precedent and everyone will expect even more from me, and I don’t want that.” Again the antidote is to disentangle your identity from your performance, and relinquish your focus on the outcome in favor of optimizing the process it takes to get there.

Closely connected to the obstacle of fear of failure is low self-esteem, or the idea that we are worthless, useless or somehow not as good as everyone else. For those suffering from both, failure isn’t just a sign of incompetence, it is confirmation of what they suspected all along. If you sincerely believe that you will fail, or even that you are not deserving of success, then you will never really try wholeheartedly, and even if you do succeed at something, you will not acknowledge or enjoy it.

As an example, a student may consistently do poorly at exams not because they are unintelligent or incapable of hard work, but because they don’t really believe they are the kind of person who deserves good things in life, or they think success and achievement are really for other people, and not them. Without even knowing it, they may jeopardize themselves, undermining their attempts even before they start, downplaying their achievements and setting up self-fulfilling prophesies that confirm their beliefs about themselves.

To fix the problem, the instinct may be to praise yourself for what you achieve. Teachers often resort to over-the-top compliments and admiration to get a student to believe in themselves, but this can backfire. As long as a person believes their value as a human being is tied into their performance on a task, they will never possess true self-esteem (or any sense of their own inner drive and motivation). An authentically confident person is able to say, “I did poorly on this task. That’s OK. I’m going to try harder next time” and never once assumes that they are lazy, bad, stupid or untalented.

On the other hand, a confident person will also approach their achievements in the same way: “I did well on this task. That’s great, but I’m going to keep going,” without ever thinking that they are finished with learning for good and can now rest on their laurels. Again, it’s the difference between a growth and fixed mindset.

Sometimes, focusing on the final goal can be debilitating, since it only reinforces how far you have to go. Instead, if low self-esteem is tripping up your learning, try as much as possible to forget about the end goal, at least for a while. Make smaller targets or create objectives that are related to your effort and not the outcome.

For example, tell yourself that you will spend an hour on your new venture each day, or read a chapter, or work on one section of your project. These goals are always achievable, whether you succeed or not. Goals like “get an A,” “beat my previous time” or “win such and such award” are trickier because you are not always in control of whether these will be fulfilled or not. You are always in control, however, of how much effort you make and the attitude you have when you pitch up to learn.

More effective goal formation

Having said that, goals are still important. However, it’s worth thinking about different kinds of goals, and the different functions they could serve. You’ve probably heard that it’s wise to make SMART goals—i.e. those that are Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant and Time-Sensitive. This means that it’s better to say, “To improve my conversational English, I’m going to learn fifty new English phrasal verbs by the end of the month” instead of “I’m going to get better at English.”

Goals, however, can go further than this. We’ve seen that it’s easier to achieve process goals (“I’m going to study ten hours”) versus outcome goals (“I’m going to pass with a distinction”), but a goal is more than just a marker you set in the future. It’s a commitment, and a conscious decision for an intention that’s important to you.

Your objective can be anything you want it to be; you could, for example, simply set the goal that you will face all the challenges you encounter in a new learning module with patience and determination. This is a goal about the meta-learning process itself, rather than the specific content you’re studying.

Goals always work best when they tap into your deeper motivation. We’ve seen that its harder to work on a thing that you don’t genuinely care about. Goals need to speak to your inner desires, and the reason why you are learning in the first place. It can be useful to imagine how you will be different once you have learnt what you need to learn or acquired the skills you want to acquire.

Becoming better at anything is so much more than just acquiring certain skills or bits of knowledge—it also comes with a shift in perspective and attitude. Perhaps a more global, creative or compassionate worldview. Perhaps the maturity to not be freaked out by mistakes. Perhaps the experience gained from having to be patient and trusting as the learning unfolds. The ability to take responsibility, to be proactive, to dig into what the goal really means for you….

If you can understand the motivational engine behind your goals, you know how to tap into that when learning is difficult. Whether you’re simply trying to learn something small and quick, or attempting a grand project that will take many years, your aim is essentially to transform who you are now into the version of yourself that is proficient in this area.

What will that look like? And what will that take? Find out what your motivation is and you have won half the battle!

Style, format, and sources

Some barriers to your learning are obvious—the information you need to take onboard is simply presented in a confusing way that hinders your understanding, rather than helps it. If you’ve ever had a terrible lecturer at university, you’ll know what a big difference presentation can make!

Unhelpful learning environments can undo all your hard work. Think about the effect of constant interruptions, distractions, an environment that is too hot or cold, noisy, not bright enough, not private, or not comfortable.

Think also about the form your learning materials take—are you relying heavily on text-based materials when you’re a more practically oriented, hands-on learner? Are you using poor quality or outdated tools or practicing with exercises or instruments that are too advanced for you?

Especially if you’re embarking on self-teaching, you need to pay special attention to supporting your learning in every way possible. Invest time and energy into getting the right materials, tools, software, ingredients, teachers, and so on that you’ll need to do your best.

Often, you’ll find that discovering these support materials only takes minimal effort. Depending on the type of resources and the specific topic you’re trying to learn about, a few Google searches might well suffice in pointing you to productive tools for learning. However, keep in mind that popularity does not necessarily mean utility, and learning is not one size fits all. The fact that many people have tried or even found a particular resource helpful does not mean you will too. Instead, focus on descriptions and make informed choices based on them.

If one mode of learning isn’t working for you, you don’t need to force yourself along—try something different. Ask a different teacher, source study guides or online forums, watch YouTube videos or get a practiced expert to show you in person. Listen to audiobooks or take notes according to your own learning preference. The more you mix things up, the better (we’ll explore this more later in the book).

If you’re not doing well with some study materials, you might find you can learn a lot by designing your own improved materials, or supplementing as you see fit. Whatever your area of learning, use plenty of imagery and metaphor, mnemonics, video and audio, presentations or podcasts, webinars, tutorials, hands-on practice, mind mapping diagrams, summarizing or even compiling a lesson to teach others. The important thing is that you proactively take charge of your own learning. If you encounter difficulties, become curious about why, and find a path around it.

If you’re disorganized, spend an afternoon devising your own protocols that are completely unique to you. If you’re unimpressed with your teacher or trainer, get another one, or seek out a few different teaching perspectives.

Sometimes, you learn best when you are forced to forge your own path. Be glad when you have the opportunity to really puzzle your way through a challenge—it’s often the knowledge you attain while struggling that is best anchored in your mind.