Chapter 32: Words of Wisdom: Failure Is Not an Option
In the movie Apollo 13, Ed Harris portrays NASA flight director Gene Kranz as he successfully guides the crew of a damaged spacecraft to safety. In a famous scene during which Kranz and his staff are attempting to overcome some extremely daunting challenges, Harris shouts, “Failure is not an option!” This singular statement perfectly articulated the determination of Kranz to bring the Apollo astronauts back to Earth.
This “failure is not an option” credo was perfect for the life and death situation that NASA was facing. Failure meant that the astronauts on Apollo 13 would never come home, and that outcome was unacceptable. Attending college, on the other hand, shouldn’t be a life or death experience, though it sometimes might feel like one. Failure, though never the intended outcome, can and sometimes does happen. Sometimes failure manifests itself in election results for a student government post, in a test score, or even in a final grade.
Throughout my life I have had many failures. In high school I drove my parents and teachers crazy because of my lack of academic achievement. I even managed to get an F- in Spanish on my report card. When I told my mom that it was a typo she responded, “So you didn’t get an F?” “No,” I said, “I definitely earned the F, but there’s no such thing as an F-.” To this day I’m not so sure that my reply was accurate. I might have earned that minus after all.
My failures in high school led to only one acceptance from of all the colleges I applied to attend. Furthermore, I was not accepted to the school’s main campus, but to their branch campus. During my first semester there my effort wasn’t much better than in high school, but since my parents were now paying for my education I did enough work to avoid academic probation. It wasn’t until my second semester that I found my niche as a Religious Studies major and started getting good grades, moved to the main campus, and eventually graduated with honors.
Since graduating from college, my career path has taken me into higher education as a Student Affairs administrator. This career has exposed me to many great theories regarding student success, and many of them gave me insight into my own college experience. But it was Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck who appeared to be thinking of me when she wrote the following about fixed mindsets in the introduction to her book titled Mindset: The New Psychology of Success:
Believing that your qualities are carved in stone—the fixed mindset—creates an urgency to prove yourself over and over. If you have only a certain amount of intelligence, a certain personality, and a certain moral character—well, then you’d better prove that you have a healthy dose of them. It simply wouldn’t do to look or feel deficient in these most basic characteristics. (Dweck, 2006)
This statement was a revelation to me. I finally understood my problem throughout high school and even in college. I earned good grades because I liked Religious Studies but never really challenged myself inside or outside of the classroom. My problem was that I had a fixed mindset about academic success. I believed that a person is either smart or they’re not, and nothing could be done to significantly change that. I also believed that I was one of the fortunate ones to be “gifted” with an abundance of intelligence.
One might think that having confidence in your intelligence is a whole lot better than thinking that you’re stupid, but the result was the same. My fixed mindset was holding me back because it led to a paralyzing fear of failure. Since as far back as I could remember, my family, friends, and teachers were always telling me how smart I was, and I believed them. But that belief was a double-edged sword. High school and college offered many occasions when self-confidence in my inherent intelligence could be threatened. If I fail on this test or in this course it means that I’m not the smart person I thought I was. If I fail, my family and friends will find out that they were wrong about me.
However, there was a way to avoid all of the risks of academic rigor. I could just not try. If I didn’t try I would get bad marks on my report card, but those wouldn’t be true indicators of my intelligence. By not putting forth any effort, my intelligence would never be disproven. I would always be able to say to myself and others that, “I could do the work and be a straight A student, but I’m just not interested.” Looking back on this time in my life, it is clear to me that this wasn’t a conscious decision to save face. It was fear, not logic, which was guiding my behavior.
After reading Mindset I have made a conscious effort to identify and thwart any remaining fixed mindset thoughts that I continue to hold. Dweck’s book acts as a manual for rooting out fixed mindset thoughts, because she explains that the idea of fixed mindsets is only half of her mindset theory. There is another kind of mindset, and she calls it growth mindset. Dweck writes that, “This growth mindset is based on the belief that your basic qualities are things you can cultivate through your efforts” (Dweck, 2006). Dweck goes on to explain that we can choose to have a growth mindset about any type of ability, whether it’s math, art, athletics, or any other skill that one wishes to cultivate.
I put this theory to the test not long after reading the book. A few years ago I attended a meeting only to find out that it wasn’t any ordinary meeting. During this meeting we would be brainstorming solutions to a specific problem. This was going to be a true brainstorming session, led by a facilitator trained in the science of soliciting uninhibited ideas from an audience. As soon as I heard the word brainstorming I froze. I have always hated brainstorming. I’m the type of person that likes to think things through two or three times before expressing an opinion. My fear of failing at this task in front of my coworkers paralyzed my mind. I couldn’t think.
That’s when it hit me. This was fixed mindset thinking. My belief in my brainstorming inadequacies was preventing me from even trying. So I flipped this thinking on its head and decided the best way to improve my brainstorming abilities was to clear my mind and start firing out ideas. I gave it a shot, and though the ideas didn’t come out at the prolific rate of some of my colleagues, I had never before had such a positive outcome and experience while brainstorming. Through this experience I found that I really could choose to have a growth mindset, and that this choice produces a greater chance of success. With a greater chance of success comes a smaller chance of failure.
Nevertheless, when it comes to academic success and success in all phases of life, failure is always an option. Though it can be painful, failure can lead to great learning and progress when a specific failure is analyzed through the lens of a growth mindset. By focusing more on effort than on outcomes anyone can learn and grow, regardless of their skill level. Therefore, to make the most of their time in college, students must seek out challenges that will stretch their abilities. These challenges can take many forms and they can occur in a variety of settings, both inside and outside of the classroom. When seeking out challenges there is always the possibility of agonizing defeat, but out of that defeat can be the seeds of great success in the future.
C. Dweck, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success (New York: Ballantine Books, 2006).
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Foundations of Academic Success: Words of Wisdom. Edited by Thomas Priester. Essay authored by Nathan Wallace. Located at: https://milnepublishing.geneseo.edu/foundations-of-academic-success/chapter/failure-is-not-an-option/ License: CC BY: Attribution.