The Martins worshiped their three-year-old Robert and always bragged
about his feats. There had never been a child as bright and creative as theirs.
Then Robert did something unforgivable—he didn’t get into the number
one preschool in New York. After that, the Martins cooled toward him.
They didn’t talk about him the same way, and they didn’t treat him with the
same pride and affection. He was no longer their brilliant little Robert. He
was someone who had discredited himself and shamed them. At the tender
age of three, he was a failure.
As a New York Times article points out, failure has been transformed
from an action (I failed) to an identity (I am a failure). This is especially
true in the fixed mindset.
When I was a child, I, too, worried about meeting Robert’s fate. In sixth
grade, I was the best speller in my school. The principal wanted me to go to
a citywide competition, but I refused. In ninth grade, I excelled in French,
and my teacher wanted me to enter a citywide competition. Again, I
refused. Why would I risk turning from a success into a failure? From a
winner into a loser?
Ernie Els, the great golfer, worried about this too. Els finally won a
major tournament after a five-year dry spell, in which match after match
slipped away from him. What if he had lost this tournament, too? “I would
have been a different person,” he tells us. He would have been a loser.
Each April when the skinny envelopes—the rejection letters—arrive
from colleges, countless failures are created coast to coast. Thousands of
brilliant young scholars become “The Girl Who Didn’t Get into Princeton”
or the “The Boy Who Didn’t Get into Stanford.”
Def ining Moments
Even in the growth mindset, failure can be a painful experience. But it
doesn’t define you. It’s a problem to be faced, dealt with, and learned from.
Jim Marshall, former defensive player for the Minnesota Vikings,
relates what could easily have made him into a failure. In a game against
the San Francisco 49ers, Marshall spotted the football on the ground. He
scooped it up and ran for a touchdown as the crowd cheered. But he ran the
wrong way. He scored for the wrong team and on national television.
It was the most devastating moment of his life. The shame was
overpowering. But during halftime, he thought, “If you make a mistake, you
got to make it right. I realized I had a choice. I could sit in my misery or I
could do something about it.” Pulling himself together for the second half,
he played some of his best football ever and contributed to his team’s
Nor did he stop there. He spoke to groups. He answered letters that
poured in from people who finally had the courage to admit their own
shameful experiences. He heightened his concentration during games.
Instead of letting the experience define him, he took control of it. He used it
to become a better player and, he believes, a better person.
In the fixed mindset, however, the loss of one’s self to failure can be a
permanent, haunting trauma. Bernard Loiseau was one of the top chefs in
the world. Only a handful of restaurants in all of France receive the
supreme rating of three stars from the Guide Michelin, the most respected
restaurant guide in Europe. His was one of them. Around the publication of
the 2003 Guide Michelin, however, Mr. Loiseau committed suicide. He had
lost two points in another guide, going from a nineteen (out of twenty) to a
seventeen in the GaultMillau. And there were rampant rumors that he
would lose one of his three stars in the new Guide. Although he did not, the
idea of failure had possessed him.
Loiseau had been a pioneer. He was one of the first to advance the
“nouvelle cuisine,” trading the traditional butter and cream sauces of French
cooking for the brighter flavors of the foods themselves. A man of
tremendous energy, he was also an entrepreneur. Besides his three-star
restaurant in Burgundy, he had created three eateries in Paris, numerous
cookbooks, and a line of frozen foods. “I’m like Yves Saint Laurent,” he
told people. “I do both haute couture and ready-to-wear.”
A man of such talent and originality could easily have planned for a
satisfying future, with or without the two points or the third star. In fact, the
director of the GaultMillau said it was unimaginable that their rating could
have taken his life. But in the fixed mindset, it is imaginable. Their lower
rating gave him a new definition of himself: Failure. Has-been.
It’s striking what counts as failure in the fixed mindset. So, on a lighter
note . . .
My Success Is Your Failure
Last summer my husband and I went to a dude ranch, something very novel
since neither of us had ever made contact with a horse. One day, we signed
up for a lesson in fly fishing. It was taught by a wonderful eighty-year-old
cowboy-type fisherman who showed us how to cast the fishing line, and
then turned us loose.
We soon realized that he had not taught us how to recognize when the
trout bit the lure (they don’t tug on the line; you have to watch for a bubble
in the water), what to do when the trout bit the lure (tug upward), or how to
reel the trout in if by some miracle we got that far (pull the fish along the
water; do not hoist it into the air). Well, time passed, the mosquitoes bit, but
not so the trout. None of the dozen or so of us made the slightest progress.
Suddenly, I hit the jackpot. Some careless trout bit hard on my lure and the
fisherman, who happened to be right there, talked me through the rest. I had
me a rainbow trout.
Reaction #1: My husband, David, came running over beaming with
pride and saying, “Life with you is so exciting!”
Reaction #2: That evening when we came into the dining room for
dinner, two men came up to my husband and said, “David, how’re you
coping?” David looked at them blankly; he had no idea what they were
talking about. Of course he didn’t. He was the one who thought my
catching the fish was exciting. But I knew exactly what they meant. They
had expected him to feel diminished, and they went on to make it clear that
that’s exactly what my success had done to them.
Shirk, Cheat, Blame: Not a Recipe for Success
Beyond how traumatic a setback can be in the fixed mindset, this mindset
gives you no good recipe for overcoming it. If failure means you lack
competence or potential—that you are a failure—where do you go from
In one study, seventh graders told us how they would respond to an
academic failure—a poor test grade in a new course. Those with the growth
mindset, no big surprise, said they would study harder for the next test. But
those with the fixed mindset said they would study less for the next test. If
you don’t have the ability, why waste your time? And, they said, they would
seriously consider cheating! If you don’t have the ability, they thought, you
just have to look for another way.
What’s more, instead of trying to learn from and repair their failures,
people with the fixed mindset may simply try to repair their self-esteem.
For example, they may go looking for people who are even worse off than
College students, after doing poorly on a test, were given a chance to
look at tests of other students. Those in the growth mindset looked at the
tests of people who had done far better than they had. As usual, they wanted
to correct their deficiency. But students in the fixed mindset chose to look at
the tests of people who had done really poorly. That was their way of
feeling better about themselves.
Jim Collins tells in Good to Great of a similar thing in the corporate
world. As Procter & Gamble surged into the paper goods business, Scott
Paper—which was then the leader—just gave up. Instead of mobilizing
themselves and putting up a fight, they said, “Oh, well . . . at least there are
people in the business worse off than we are.”
Another way people with the fixed mindset try to repair their selfesteem after a failure is by assigning blame or making excuses. Let’s return
to John McEnroe.
It was never his fault. One time he lost a match because he had a fever.
One time he had a backache. One time he fell victim to expectations,
another time to the tabloids. One time he lost to a friend because the friend
was in love and he wasn’t. One time he ate too close to the match. One time
he was too chunky, another time too thin. One time it was too cold, another
time too hot. One time he was undertrained, another time overtrained.
His most agonizing loss, and the one that still keeps him up nights, was
his loss in the 1984 French Open. Why did he lose after leading Ivan Lendl
two sets to none? According to McEnroe, it wasn’t his fault. An NBC
cameraman had taken off his headset and a noise started coming from the
side of the court.
Not his fault. So he didn’t train to improve his ability to concentrate or
his emotional control.
John Wooden, the legendary basketball coach, says you aren’t a failure
until you start to blame. What he means is that you can still be in the
process of learning from your mistakes until you deny them.
When Enron, the energy giant, failed—toppled by a culture of arrogance
—whose fault was it? Not mine, insisted Jeffrey Skilling, the CEO and
resident genius. It was the world’s fault. The world did not appreciate what
Enron was trying to do. What about the Justice Department’s investigation
into massive corporate deception? A “witch hunt.”
Jack Welch, the growth-minded CEO, had a completely different
reaction to one of General Electric’s fiascos. In 1986, General Electric
bought Kidder, Peabody, a Wall Street investment banking firm. Soon after
the deal closed, Kidder, Peabody was hit with a big insider trading scandal.
A few years later, calamity struck again in the form of Joseph Jett, a trader
who made a bunch of fictitious trades, to the tune of hundreds of millions,
to pump up his bonus. Welch phoned fourteen of his top GE colleagues to
tell them the bad news and to apologize personally. “I blamed myself for
the disaster,” Welch said.
Mindset and Depression
Maybe Bernard Loiseau, the French chef, was just depressed. Were you
As a psychologist and an educator, I am vitally interested in depression.
It runs wild on college campuses, especially in February and March. The
winter is not over, the summer is not in sight, work has piled up, and
relationships are often frayed. Yet it’s been clear to me for a long time that
different students handle depression in dramatically different ways. Some
let everything slide. Others, though feeling wretched, hang on. They drag
themselves to class, keep up with their work, and take care of themselves—
so that when they feel better, their lives are intact.
Not long ago, we decided to see whether mindsets play a role in this
difference. To find out, we measured students’ mindsets and then had them
keep an online “diary” for three weeks in February and March. Every day
they answered questions about their mood, their activities, and how they
were coping with problems. Here’s what we discovered.
First, the students with the fixed mindset had higher levels of
depression. Our analyses showed that this was because they ruminated over
their problems and setbacks, essentially tormenting themselves with the
idea that the setbacks meant they were incompetent or unworthy: “It just
kept circulating in my head: You’re a dope.” “I just couldn’t let go of the
thought that this made me less of a man.” Again, failures labeled them and
left them no route to success.
And the more depressed they felt, the more they let things go; the less
they took action to solve their problems. For example, they didn’t study
what they needed to, they didn’t hand in their assignments on time, and they
didn’t keep up with their chores.
Although students with the fixed mindset showed more depression,
there were still plenty of people with the growth mindset who felt pretty
miserable, this being peak season for depression. And here we saw
something really amazing. The more depressed people with the growth
mindset felt (short of severe depression), the more they took action to
confront their problems, the more they made sure to keep up with their
schoolwork, and the more they kept up with their lives. The worse they felt,
the more determined they became!
In fact, from the way they acted, it might have been hard to know how
despondent they were. Here is a story a young man told me.
I was a freshman and it was the first time I had been away from
home. Everyone was a stranger, the courses were hard, and as the
year wore on I felt more and more depressed. Eventually, it reached
a point where I could hardly get out of bed in the morning. But
every day I forced myself to get up, shower, shave, and do whatever
it was I needed to do. One day I really hit a low point and I decided
to ask for help, so I went to the teaching assistant in my psychology
course and asked for her advice.
“Are you going to your classes?” she asked.
“Yes,” I replied.
“Are you keeping up with your reading?”
“Are you doing okay on your exams?”
“Well,” she informed me, “then you’re not depressed.”
Yes, he was depressed, but he was coping the way people in the growth
mindset tend to cope—with determination.
Doesn’t temperament have a lot to do with it? Aren’t some people
sensitive by nature, while others just let things roll off their backs?
Temperament certainly plays a role, but mindset is an important part of the
story. When we taught people the growth mindset, it changed the way they
reacted to their depressed mood. The worse they felt, the more motivated
they became and the more they confronted the problems that faced them.
In short, when people believe in fixed traits, they are always in danger
of being measured by a failure. It can define them in a permanent way.
Smart or talented as they may be, this mindset seems to rob them of their
When people believe their basic qualities can be developed, failures
may still hurt, but failures don’t define them. And if abilities can be
expanded—if change and growth are possible—then there are still many
paths to success.