A for Effort

Last weekend, on a beautiful Spring Day, I stopped briefly to watch a scene unfold on a baseball diamond in the middle of Central Park. Two local teams faced off in a hotly contested Little League game (this is New York – everything is hotly contested!).

As one young boy got up to bat, I noticed his father pacing nervously near the dugout, yelling out instructions. When he finally struck out, costing his team the game, the young boy threw his bat against the fence in a fit of pique, and stormed off the field. The father tried in vain to console him. “But I already told you,” the boy admonished his father, “I’m no good at this! Forget it. I can’t.” Now I’m sure this young boy was good at lots of things, but in this moment, he felt like a total failure.

In her book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, Dr. Carol Dweck explains how a person’s mindset can influence behavior, and it has profound implications for how we raise our children and how we think about success for ourselves. According to Dweck, everyone has either a fixed mindset or a growth mindset. People with fixed mindsets tend to believe their achievements are based on innate ability. As a result, they are often reluctant to take on new challenges if it doesn’t come easily or naturally (see above). People with a growth mindset, on the other hand, believe they can develop the skills they need in order to achieve competence in any given area.

The danger in praising kids for being “smart” or “talented” (fixed qualities) is that we can unwittingly encourage a mindset which makes them fragile and actually undermines motivation to learn something new. Far better, according to Dweck, to encourage qualities of persistence and hard work, which will help them deal with the inevitable setbacks, delays and frustrations on the road to mastery. Praise the effort, not the reward.

Since reading some of Dweck‘s studies, I’ve noticed in some of my own clients – many of them high achieving – a similar fixed mindset. They may remain stuck in a situation at work for fear of making a mistake or looking stupid. “What if I’m no good in this new position?” “What if my proposal is shot down?” “But I have to get this promotion, everything depends on it!” I see so many people intent on proving themselves – in their relationships, in the workplace, even at play – that every situation becomes a test of their self-worth.

But remember when you didn’t have to prove that you were good at something right away? Perhaps when you first drove a stick-shift or learned a new language? There were hours of mind-numbingly dull repetition of motor skills before you gained even basic mastery. If you think that learning should be easy, think about the number of times a baby will have fallen on its behind before taking that wobbly first step. Toddlers don’t stop to worry about humiliating themselves when they do another face-plant, or to ask themselves Is it worth it? They just keep on going!

It’s all too easy in America to feel like a failure when at first we don’t succeed, because everywhere we’re sold on the message of effortless reward – that it should be easy. In Mindset, Dweck cites author Malcolm Gladwell, who noted that “as a society we value natural, effortless accomplishment over achievement through effort. We endow our heroes with superhuman abilities that led them inevitably toward their greatness. It’s as if Midori popped out of the womb fiddling, Michael Jordan dribbling, and Picasso doodling.”

Yet, the whole history of human achievement is littered with false starts, wrong turns and failed experiments. Just ask Thomas Edison. It’s been noted that NASA, in selecting people for astronaut training programs, will often reject those candidates with purely successful histories. Why? They want people who know what it is to deal with failure, because they are not afraid of making mistakes and are more likely to bounce back from adversity.

Indeed some of the most “accomplished” people in the world – Muhammed Ali, Vincent Van Gogh, Babe Ruth, Charles Darwin, Richard Branson, even the Beatles – were all thought to have had little aptitude in the their chosen field at one time or another. Maybe they weren’t the best, but they sure stretched themselves more than most.

Or, take Tyrone “Muggsy” Bogues as an example. At 5′ 3″, he was the shortest man to play basketball for the NBA from 1987 to 2001. If you were to ask Muggsy how he got there, I’m sure he would tell you of the thousands of hours of practice, drills and injuries that he had to endure before he was able to dunk the ball. Does this mean that anyone can be like him? Clearly, no. But it does mean that your ability is not fixed thing. With careful, sustained effort (and the right coaching) you can achieve more than you thought possible.

So what I say to my clients is this: If you’re struggling with work or trying to develop a new set of skills, ask yourself three questions daily:

1. Am I learning and growing?
2. Do I know more today than I did yesterday?
3. Did I put forth my best effort in this endeavor?

If the answer to those questions is yes, then rest assured, you are succeeding.

And isn’t that good news!