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Growth Mindsets - Learning through failure

El Capitan teaching people to fail and learn

During my time as an MBA student at the University of Colorado, I was lucky enough to read a book written by Eric Ries titled “The Lean Startup”. This book introduced a radically new way to look at failure. Eric discusses often times how lean businesses should race towards failure, how failure can be used as a point of measurement, used to pivot or iterate your business towards a more successful future outcome. Eric suggests that you should fail fast and fail often, ensuring that you learn from all of these failures, adapt, and pivot to attempt a new route to success. He discusses this concept in his elegantly posed cycle of a, Build -> Measure -> Learn ->, Feedback loop. The idea is that you should build a product, test it out (measure it’s success), and then learn from what the measurement says. Then, you will modify or change your product or idea, build it again, measure again, and learn again.

So, what does starting a lean company have to do with youth development and experiential learning?

Simply put, learning a new skill is the process of applying Eric’s Build, Measure, Learn Feedback loop. Before we are capable of communicating as children, we have to first babble and fuss. We then measure the success of achieving our desired outcome with that babble and fuss. Finally, we realize that just making incomprehensible noises, will not get us the goldfish that we so greatly desire. We begin practicing making sounds that are different than babbling and fuss. We measure which sounds are more likely to get us our goldfish, then we learn that we need to recreate those specific sounds in that specific method to communicate that we wanted goldfish. The entire process of learning our basic communication skills, is completely rooted in this same Build, Measure, Learn, Feedback loop.

So, what does this feedback loop have to do with Growth Mindsets?

Firstly, I will define the two main types of mindsets that we are all capable of holding. We can have either a Growth Mindset or a Fixed Mindset. The big difference in these two things is how absolute we feel the world around us is. People with fixed mindsets, see problems and failures as absolute meaning markers to what our weaknesses are. People with growth mindsets, see problems and failures as a part of the process to developing a new skill or ability. The growth mindset thinker will see opportunity in struggle and feel opportunity from obstacles.

Let’s put this into an example. A person is attempting to learn Spanish for the first time. They are approaching their first practical test, a 2-minute conversation with a native Spanish speaker, covering a subject that they had prepared the week before. Let’s say that the conversation goes poorly, about 30-seconds into the practical test our participant has frozen, forgetting every vocabulary word that had been practiced the week before.

If this person had a fixed mindset, this is failure for them. They will move forward believing “I am bad at speaking Spanish, maybe I can read and translate it, but I cannot speak it”. This, fixed mindset, person will go throughout the remainder of the program only focusing on the reading and translating lessons. Their fixed perspective of being incapable of speaking the language will stick with them, causing them to be less willing to participate in the speaking exercises. This will compound the effect of them not being capable at speaking the new language and will continue the feedback loop that they are not good at speaking the language. This person did not use the Learn part of the feedback loop to pivot and practice the part of the skill they needed to develop.

Now, if this same person had a growth mindset, things might occur a little bit differently. The same scenario occurs, a person with a growth mindset freezes and forgets all of the vocabulary necessary to pass their practical speaking test. With their growth mindset though, this person looks back at what occurred. They realize that they forgot all of their vocabulary and became a little nervous, causing them to freeze and not be able to communicate. The entire next week, this person spends extra time reviewing vocabulary, as well as practicing speaking the vocabulary to a family friend or parent for 5-10 additional minutes a day. The person with a growth mindset did not see their failure as a meaning marker to an inability. They saw their failure as an opportunity to develop and practice a new skill.

Growth Mindsets can have profound impacts on a person’s day to day life. If we are capable of applying this, -> Build -> Measure -> Learn ->, feedback loop to our mission of developing and acquiring skills for success, our minds will instantly move from a fixed, stagnant thought process, to one where growth and opportunity run rampant. Gandhi said, “Joy lies in the fight, in the attempt, in the suffering involved, not in the victory itself”. If we can learn to find joy in the process, opportunities in obstacles, and the benefit of learning from failure, there is no upward bound to our potential to succeed.

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