by Sonya Mohamed
It’s not subtle, but it’s such a consistent message it’s easily missed. Its pervasiveness and frequency make it almost invisible to us. It’s like the freeway noise that eventually fades into the background once we become used to it, but is always there. "It" is the idea that the time has come and gone for us to learn new things. We're taught that learning new things when we're young is easy, but we’re old now. Now it's difficult, maybe even impossible, and definitely a waste of time.
When we’re young, we’re encouraged to dream big and pushed to learn new things. Then curiously, and quickly, the pendulum swings to the opposite side. We receive positive reinforcement to cultivate the skills we’re showing promise in and discouraged from everything else. That messaging usually intensifies as we grow up, eventually becoming a pillar of our belief system. On a very deep level, we start to believe we simply can’t learn new things or improve at the things we didn’t immediately excel at. Then the problem becomes compounded. The belief that we can’t learn new things creates a fear of trying new things. All of a sudden, we're terrified of failure.
Have you seen this before? What does it look like in your life? For me it was resisting my partner's encouragement to get on the road bike that’s been in our garage, unridden for almost two years. I’ve known how to ride a bike since single-digits but I couldn’t get myself (and my delicate ego) to try this slight variation. I said that I was afraid of getting hit by a car, or falling, or whatever sounded convincing at the time. That wasn’t it though. I was afraid of not being good at it. I like being good at things, I’ve been praised for my athleticism my whole life and I didn’t want to jeopardize that identity. I was afraid of failing, especially publicly.
The fear of failure creates a world that shrinks around us instead of a world blossoming with opportunities and possibilities. Carol Dweck, world-renowned psychologist and author of Mindset, refers to these as fixed- and growth-mindsets. She explains that a fixed-mindset comes with the belief that our intelligence, talents and abilities are all fixed. They’re static. What we’re born with is what we’ve got and success comes effortlessly to those who are blessed with natural gifts. Can you see the danger inherent in that mindset? It’s not hard to understand how it creates fear and embarrassment around failure. It kept me off that bike for two years.
Eventually, I saw what I was doing and the self-limiting net I was tangled in. So a couple of weeks ago, I finally stopped resisting Sebastian's invitation to try out the road bike. I did what almost everyone does their first time clipped-in on a road bike. I fell over. Stopped at a stop sign, I leaned right, didn’t get my foot unclipped and fell into a big scary spikey succulent plant. A nearby motorist even drove by, stuck his head out his window and said loudly, “I saw that!”- It was perfect. It was learning. It was no big deal, really. I wasn’t hurt, got right back up, and didn't fall again (although I'm sure I will again at some point). I actually find it hard not to smile and giggle when I think of what I must have looked like slow-motion toppling into that succulent bush.
The lesson is, without failure, there's no learning and there's definitely not space for innovation. We can’t learn to be resilient without failure. Even if we live our lives carefully, documenting our successes and avoiding failure wherever and whenever possible, failure will find us. And if we don’t learn how to fail, brush it off and keep moving forward, it will paralyze us. That’s where the growth-mindset comes in. It’s Dweck’s bread and butter and what she adamantly advocates for in all levels of education. Encouraging a growth-mindset means praising practice and hard-work instead of natural ability. Natural ability is just the starting point. Success is realized through practice and dedication, not natural ability.
The fear of failure begins to dissolve and a love for learning emerges from the growth-minset. To love learning is to be comfortable with not knowing everything. For some reason we all hate admitting that, but once we do everything becomes an opportunity rather than a source of anxiety. The reality is, it's you stopping you. So, get out of your own way - because you're going places.