I hate failing.
I can’t stand failure. Well, that’s not entirely true. I can stand it just fine, when it’s other folks who are failing. I can be encouraging and remind people that failing is part of the learning process, and I genuinely mean it when I say it. I truly understand and believe that failure is a vital part of how human beings learn and grow. I recognize the value of failure.
And yet I loathe it when it happens to me.
It’s because, for me, success and failure are about validating that I am who I think I am, that I’m capable of doing whatever I believe I can do, and that in being able to do those things, I must possess qualities that I value, like intelligence, creativity, and good judgment. When I succeed, I feel worthy, and when I fail, I feel unworthy.
Have you read Carol Dweck’s book “Mindset?” If not, you really should. Dweck’s research examines the way that our upbringing, specifically the way that we are praised by others, influences how we perceive ourselves as either a fixed mindset or a growth mindset. People with a fixed mindset have more rigid views of their skills and abilities. It’s as if they classify their own personal qualities as absolute certainties:
- I’m smart.
- I’m athletic.
- I’m attractive.
Those who live with a growth mindset see their own character traits more as skills or abilities than concrete qualities:
- I’m a hard worker.
- I’m a good problem solver.
- I’m a good learner.
Dweck found that individuals with a fixed mindset were less resilient than those with growth mindsets. When presented with a situation in which they failed, the fixed mindset people in the study were more likely to give up, while the growth mindset people persisted.
I was raised to be a fixed minded individual. My parents, teachers, and others in the community were always telling me how smart I was, how articulate I was, and how mature I was for a boy my age. And while your first reaction in reading this might be to think about how that would give me a big ego, that’s not what a fixed mindset is about. The specific repeated praises of me being so smart, so well spoken, so mature did give me a level of confident, but more importantly, they gave me identity markers that I thought amounted to who I actually was.
Flash forward to my junior year in high school, when, for the first time ever, I was in a math class that I couldn’t easily understand. I had always earned A’s and B’s in math classes, and all of a sudden here I was, at a loss to understand the concepts of pre-calculus. I went to my guidance counselor, ashamed to admit that I was failing at a class. She told me that I had already met my minimum math requirements in order to graduate, and that I could drop the class if I wanted to. So of course I did.
At the end of that semester, when I got my first C ever in chemistry class, I returned to the guidance counselor. No worries, she said. You can take a different science class and still meet your science requirement. And so I did.
By avoiding those tougher classes, I was able to meet all my requirements and graduate third in my class. I was still smart. Thank goodness.
The pattern, however, was now established.
It was all subconscious, of course. I never realized the behavior model that had been created, but it had been created, and I lived with it for twenty more years. I did whatever I felt I was good at, and did those things at a high level, and anything that I couldn’t do at a high level, I simply didn’t do. I abandoned anything that made me feel like I wasn’t smart or successful.
In college, when I declared as a hospitality management major in the business school, I got A’s and B’s, until I had to take Business Statistics. Another freakin’ math class. And I failed. We were allowed to re-take it one time, but had to earn at least a C to stay in the major. Three weeks into my second attempt, I knew I wasn’t going to cut it, and I dropped the class and switched to Liberal Arts. I got a B.A. in English-Teaching, and graduated with a 3.5 GPA. Still smart!
I entered graduate school to get a Master’s in Secondary Education, and it was great. I was talking with people who were passionate about teaching, who wanted to change the world one young mind at a time. In that program, we had to teach full-time, unpaid, as interns. It was hard, but I had a good mentor, and I was loving it. At the end of that year, my advisor required us to write a thesis about some aspect of education from our internship experience. A paper? No problem! I’d written so many by that point. What was one more?
But it was a problem. I don’t know why, but I had major writer’s block for this paper, which had never been a problem for me before. It was the day of the deadline, and I still hadn’t finished it. I was sitting in the kitchen of my apartment, at a loss for what to do, trying to cobble together the thoughts that I knew I should have after a full year of teaching, but they just didn’t come. The paper was about 75% there, but it was definitely unfinished. And I lost my mind.
I’m not exaggerating. I had a breakdown. I wrote this stream of consciousness that came to me in the moment of hysteria, and I printed it out at 11:30 at night, and I drove it to my advisor’s house, babbling out loud to myself in the car like a madman the whole way, and left it on his front doorstep at midnight. Then I drove home in silence. I had never felt more ashamed of myself.
My advisor called the next day. “Paul, this paper… it’s not really what I would expect from you. Are you okay?”
I told him about the stress, and what had happened to me the night before. I told him that I didn’t know what else to do. He was so kind to me. He offered me an incomplete, which meant that I could re-write the paper and submit it later, or he said that I could take a B on the internship, which I know sounds fine, but in grad school getting a B is like getting a D. Technically, you have passed, but it’s not good.
“Please just give me the B” I answered. “I just don’t think I can handle anything else right now.”
At this point, you might be wondering what any of this has to do with losing weight. The answer is: everything.
Imagine what it’s like to be a hypnotist who, up until now, has been unable to use hypnosis to lose weight. Just like I was the English major who wrote so many papers, yet had this one time where I couldn’t finish a paper, now I’m the hypnotist who has been practicing for over fifteen years, who has hypnotized over 20,000 people, and yet I can’t seem to do it for this important personal reason. The only upside so far is that I haven’t ended up babbling in my car like a madman.
When you operate from a fixed mindset, failure makes you question your very identity. Am I smart? Am I successful? Am I a good hypnotist? Because if I am, then I should be able to do this, right? Yet here I am, obese for all fifteen-plus years of my hypnotism career.
Here’s the wonderful thing that I learned from Carol Dweck’s book: mindset is adaptable. If you’re a fixed mindset person, you can switch to being a growth mindset person. You can practice thinking differently, and you can shift your behaviors. You’re not stuck, if you don’t want to be.
Which is why I’m still here, working on this project. Because while I do believe that I’m smart, I now care more about being gritty, about being a person who perseveres. And while I do believe that I’m successful in many regards, I care more now about being successful on my own terms than being successful in the eyes of others. While I’m not in school anymore, I’m still on Earth school, and that’s for my whole life, and there’s still lots to learn and lots to do, and why shouldn’t it be fun and fascinating and serve others along the way?
I know this was a crazy long post, and if you’ve read it all, I’m grateful. I hope it brings something useful into your awareness. I hope that, if you’re struggling with something, you can see that you’re not alone. Whatever failures you’ve had, you’re still going, and you can get where you want to be. If I can help, I will.