Why Failure Can Be a Blessing in Disguise
Do you think that you’d feel any excitement about watching a film where the characters had no conflict or struggles?
Harry Potter wouldn’t be one of the most popular franchises in the world if Harry didn’t have to facedown Voldemort. And without the long, hard journey wouldn’t The Lord of the Rings wouldn’t it just be a story of hobbits eating second dinners? Conflict, struggles, and failures make for the most interesting stories.
Last fortnight on the Wednesday Wellbeing column, we talked about growth mindset—the belief that you can improve your skills and intelligence—and how grades can mess up your motivation. We explained how fixed mindset, the belief that you’ll always be stuck with your Today, we’ll be talking about how thinking about yourself as the hero of your story will help you develop this all-important growth mindset.
When humans hear a good story, we’re hooked. In fact, we are hardwired to enjoy and retain information from stories. Social scientist Johnathan Haidt says “the human mind is a story processor, not a logic processor.” Back before writing had been invented, hearing and telling stories—often passed through generations—around the fire helped people learn about the world. We’ve evolved to love stories, to enjoy a great plot-line and root for the underdog.
We should see ourselves as the characters in our favourite films and books—capable of growing from hard times and failures.
This is a growth mindset; there’s great power in looking between where you are now, and understanding it’s a step on the way to where you dream of being.
Almost all popular stories, the most meaningful ones, involve characters confronting and overcoming challenges. However, when we are going through our own struggles, we don’t see ourselves as an up-and-coming underdog. Instead, we face our failures with a fixed mindset. This means we don’t see overcoming our struggles as a problem-solving journey that will be character-building. Instead, our fixed mindset tells us we’ll always be stuck being lazy, or shy, or (insert your own troubles here).
Neil Gaiman writes “Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.”
So see yourself as the valiant hero or heroine of your story. What is the dragon you want to overcome? Identify it and start thinking of yourself as the underdog hero who’ll achieve it.
Any good story has a hero who cultivates grit. Grit is defined as “working strenuously toward challenges, maintaining effort and interest over years despite failures, adversity, and plateaus in progress” by Dr Angela Duckworth in her book on the topic. Scientists have found that grit (a close friend of growth mindset) is a more essential ingredient to success than talent (which fixed mindset values most).
Had Mulan dressed up as a man before, or previously showed fighting talent? Nope. Did it stop her from joining an army of men and doing some hard-core training? Also nope.
Think of yourself as a character with the grit to overcome failures; who are changing because they are willing to put themselves in uncomfortable situations for a good purpose.
When you start viewing yourself as a gritty protagonist in your story, rather than a person who’s cursed with your flaws forever-more, you’ll find you experience some changes. Instead of not wanting to try new things because you fear failing at them, you’ll want to try them, and fail, and then try again. You’ll be putting up your hand to ask questions and get feedback on your progress.
We are overly vulnerable to other people’s criticisms with a fixed mindset; wanting to shut out every criticism rather than think about how taking them onboard might help us improve. We shut down because if someone finds fault with our work (or anything else we do), it feels like a personal attack—as though they are saying there is something wrong with us.
If you see each failure or set-back as a twist in your journey to becoming a more well-rounded person, it won’t seem like a disaster any more.
In fact, it will seem like an opportunity to become more interesting—someone that an audience would root for to succeed. Constructive criticism won’t seem so much like a personal attack, but like guidance showing you new ways you can challenge yourself to grow.
There’s a great joy watching as personal growth happens—whether it’s on a screen, or even better, in your own life.