My team and I worked tirelessly for three days to create an online middle school math lesson that would engage kids and excite them about math. At the end of three days, our lesson would be judged by real live students against lessons created by other teams. When it came time to present our lesson to the kids, we were nervous but excited. We had worked well as a team, really bonded over the past three days, and were proud of what we had created. Ten teams presented their ideas, and they were all fantastic! I felt gratified to work with people who put so much effort into writing creative and engaging online lessons. At the awards ceremony, we were sad to see we hadn't won first place, but still proud of our efforts. We knew we had a lesson that would engage kids in math, and felt we had put our best ideas to good use. Until the next, "surprise" award was announced. You can imagine our shock, dismay, and embarrassment when we heard our group called as winners of "The Worst Idea" award, and were then called to stand in front of our colleagues and accept the award. What an epic failure! How does one recover from such a humiliating setback?
Rebounding from failures is one of the most difficult tenets of the growth mindset. It is incredibly difficult to hear that your work has missed the mark, especially when you have worked so hard to put forth the effort to do your best. Hearing that there are areas in which you can improve can sometimes feel like a personal attack. Self-doubt creeps in. The fixed mindset whispers things like "Maybe I'm not good enough for this," or "They're wrong, I'm right. It's not my fault." Picking yourself up from a blow to the ego is a painful process, and one that takes a lot of courage, optimism, and resilience. What are some strategies we can use to rebound from professional failures, and emerge stronger than before?
First, be relentless in your quest for feedback. Understand that feedback is providing you with information about what your audience wants, and it is not a criticism of you as a person. Listen to the feedback, and ask probing questions. Make a plan to improve based on the feedback, ask others to review your plan, and hold yourself accountable for making those changes. Resist the urge to defend yourself or make excuses, even if you think you are right. It is difficult to hold back when you feel you have more information to offer, but sometimes, what you don't say is more revealing about your character than what you do.
Second, focus on what you can control. While you can't control what other people think, you can control your own reaction. Do you accept failure with grace and poise, or stomp your feet and make a fuss? Admittedly, I made a little bit of a fuss to my teammates, in the form of strongly worded emails where I rallied the troops against the system. What I learned from that poor sportsmanship was that expressing those negative emotions to my colleagues only harmed morale and made it more difficult to move forward. Remember to use relaxation techniques, such as square breathing or exercise, to control your own reaction. This will help you to develop agency and feel in control of your actions.
Next, reframe the failure. Sure, it's lousy to get "The Worst Idea" award, but reframing it to look for positive take-aways can help you let it go and move on. In my situation, I could have reframed the goal of the award, as something that was meant to show us what kids didn't like, so that we could learn how to avoid creating lessons like that in future work. Then I could really look deeply at how I could change my work products to be more like those that had been successful. Instead of feeling jealous, I could have become inspired by others by talking to them about their process and thinking of how to learn from them. I could have assumed that the intent of "The Worst Idea" award was to offer me feedback to improve the work, not to harm me as a person.
Last, ask yourself – what is the life lesson I can take away from this situation? How can I use this as a springboard to grow, improve, and evolve as a professional? My life lesson was that sometimes there will be disappointments and setbacks, but those setbacks do not define me as a person. I will always have the opportunity to grow, progress, and learn from my mistakes. There will certainly be more failures in my future, but knowing that I am not defined by those failures allows me to keep taking risks and reaching toward ever-higher aspirations.
About Janna Peskett
Janna Peskett is a life-long learner and teacher with nearly twenty years of experience in teaching math, developing curriculum, and delivering professional development. She has taught math at the Middle, Secondary, and College levels in both brick and mortar and virtual schools. She is passionate about sharing the message that intelligence is a malleable quality, and believes it is the key to closing the achievement gap and ending the cycle of poverty.
About Mindset Works
Mindset Works was co-founded by one of the world's leading researchers in the field of motivation, Stanford University professor Carol S. Dweck, Ph.D. and K-12 mindset expert Lisa S. Blackwell, Ph.D. The Company translates psychological research into practical products and services to help students and educators increase their motivation and achievement.
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