Raising the Stakes on Failure

As a child, my favourite game was learning. It’s what I called “play”, but my approach was always curiosity-driven, by design and undertaken to see how far my imagination could take me. My play was always about seeing if I could do things I had never done before and sticking with it until I could accomplish whatever it was that I had dreamt up. It wasn’t challenge for the sake of challenge, though. It was more purposeful than that. Rather, it was more exploratory in nature, as my own peculiar route to knowing the world and understanding myself.

When I was young, I was largely unaware that people saw the world or approached learning any differently to how I did. It took me the best part of five decades to grasp that the way I was wired was not very common. That knowledge was the first glimpse of an understanding that helped me grasp why I had always encountered such violent, vicious opposition to anything I proposed, in work settings. School and working life had been deeply painful, because of how people reacted to how I was inclined to navigate the world, acquire new knowledge and set sound courses through seemingly uncertain futures.

My late father and I used to have this exchange daily, after school:Dad: “Well, son, what did you learn today that you didn’t know yesterday?

If I proceeded to regale him with some new thing I had learned, he’d smile, satisfied and I would know I had pleased him. If, on he other hand, I responded with, “Nothing much,” in a typically surly, teenage way, he’d deftly remark, “What a waste of a day!”

This was a semi-serious game with us, but it underlined the parental expectation of continuous work, learning and improvement. As training to keep choosing a growth mindset, it was successful.

The tragic reality was that some days, I actually didn’t get the opportunity, at school, to learn a single, new thing. My day really had been wasted; in compulsory, meaningless, arbitrary, obedience exercises, rote learning, memorising facts simply to be able to regurgitate them in exams, or going over and over things I had already grasped, so that the less motivated, in my class, could catch up. I felt the loss of that learning time acutely and it frustrated me enormously. It’s one reason I would come home and play my guitar for literally hours, every afternoon. I still had my rock band to look forward to, on weekends. Guitar and music theory lessons were also on Saturday morning and I always learnt something new at those. I read “Guitar Player” magazine, “International Musician and Recording World” and “Elektor” electronics magazines voraciously. If school taught me nothing new that week, at least I could learn something about guitar playing, musical equipment and technology, guitar building or electronic design, in the evenings and at weekends.  

My dad saw my frustration and was my obliging taxi driver to all of these extra-curricular activities, even though he worked shifts and should have been sleeping. I never thanked him enough for those sacrifices. He understood, because he was also a keen learner, self-motivated and driven by sheer curiosity. On Saturday nights, if he could swap a shift, he would gig as a drummer with his dance band, pack up and go to work on the night shift at the steelworks, after the show, returning home in the morning, with his drum kit still in the car. He said we needed the money (which we did), but I’m sure he also needed to make music as much as I did. He was a passionate drummer.

We also had a family culture of improvising and making-do with what you had, instead of being stopped by what you didn’t have. If we didn’t have the tool we needed, we’d make one. This led to some ingenious, mysterious devices. I still have my father’s custom designed drum tuning key by my bed. It was made from some brass pipe, some sheet brass and some brass rod. It did the job for some forty years and will probably work for many years more.

Similarly, if we didn’t have the right materials, we’d see what we could repurpose from discarded objects. I remember making the frames of the kitchen cabinet doors from an old shipping crate. This focus on making progress relentlessly, with whatever was available, was a valuable lesson. I also learnt how much easier some tasks are, if you use the right tool.

To sum it all up, I think it’s fair to say that I entered education with some good, growth-oriented habits and an assumption that this was how everybody thought and behaved. You tried to do things you couldn’t do and inevitably messed it up, but when you knew better, you’d do better. Sadly, I couldn’t have been more wrong in my assumption and in my confusion, my desire to please and because of my unquestioning trust in my teachers and other authority figures, some insidious, fixed mindset beliefs began to take root, undermining my earlier growth-oriented ideas.

The fixed mindset was initially alien, to me. Then, as now, I couldn’t understand why some people believed your gifts and abilities were those dealt to you at birth and that you couldn’t do very much to change a person’s inherent nature. Sure, you could teach them, but only in the sense of unlocking some innate talent already within them. The concept of becoming something new and remarkable, simply by dedicating yourself to putting the work in to achieve that, was a foreign idea to them. Many of these people were teachers, who wanted only to sift the so-called bright and intelligent from the ordinary. The ordinary were sidelined, while those of us considered promising were encouraged to gradually reveal the gifts the teachers had already decided we did and didn’t have, more fully. This is why I was considered to be good at Maths, English and Science, but not Art. I hadn’t yet put any work of substance into painting and drawing, consumed as I was with music.

If you think about it, telling children that their intelligence, talent and abilities are gifts bestowed upon them by a benevolent God might make them feel special, privileged and fortunate, but it also negates and devalues any work and effort they had put in, to be able to claim those talents and abilities as their own. Intelligence, in my view, is how you look if you follow your curiosity, with diligence and bother to learn something in the process. But all that work counts for nothing, in the fixed mindset. That leaves you with two huge problems.  

Firstly, you have to explain why you were chosen to receive these gifts and the usual conclusion you reach is that you must be worthy and superior to ordinary people (which is an absurd, but wholly understandable conclusion to reach, given you must negate any and all work you put in).

Secondly, you have to find ways to maintain your status as a gifted individual, but without doing any apparent work in order to do so. Work is for losers, in the fixed mindset, because they need to work. The gifted mysteriously “just know” and absorb information from the ether, by osmosis, because, well, they are one of the chosen ones. It’s hog wash, of course, but if you are forced to deny the work you put in to appear talented, then how else do you live up to the myth? My tactic was to work alone, in secret (a very lonely and isolating way to learn, without peer support and solidarity), but having to make it look easy in class, repudiating all my own hard work, so that teachers could regard me as some kind of genetically endowed miracle. You begin to live a lie.

Privileged people always do this. They seek to justify their good fortune on the basis of some imaginary genetic superiority. At the same time, they’re discouraged from doing what it takes to earn good fortune. Why work for it, if it’s a gift you deserved to receive?

Actually, there is a third huge problem. If the abilities you demonstrate are thought to have come easily to you, jealous people, without those accomplishments, will despise you for making them feel bad and wonder why your abilities didn’t come easily to them. It won’t seem fair, to them. They’ll bully you and ostracise you. This, too, is very alienating, isolating and lonely.

To compound the insult of denying the work you put into learning things, praise becomes an unwelcome, if well-meaning, feature of your existence. The more you are praised for your giftedness, the less you can reveal how hard you worked for those “gifts” and the more precarious your position in the pecking order, because while others are working hard to catch up, you can’t admit to doing anything to stay ahead, or even to maintain parity with your peers. Instead, you start concentrating on how to keep people thinking you’re smart, rather than continuing to learn in order to really be smart. This is obviously dysfunctional behaviour.

Failure, when it eventually comes, is devastating. Instead of encouraging you to put more effort into learning, the message you get is that you were not worthy after all, having been unmasked as an imposter. This, too, is thought to be a permanent and unchangeable character flaw, in the fixed mindset world view. Suddenly, you’re just no damn good and worse, have been deceiving everybody all along. Your character is comprehensively assassinated. This failure, or the fear of it, can lead to you never trying, for fear of being found wanting. The stakes have been raised to extremes. You spend your time making sure people know you have unlimited potential, while never actually testing yourself to become the things you assert you could be, if only you could be bothered. It’s a fraudulent existence.  

Ironically, if you could commit to doing the required work, without the fear that every mistake you make, while you learn, will be gleefully seized upon and publicly proclaimed as iron-clad proof of your evident inability, you could probably overcome any perceived failure and get better. However, if you’re locked into the rules of the fixed mindset game, you can’t reveal any chink in your purported invulnerability. The shame would be unbearable. The humiliation would be unsurvivable.

Having other people call you “brilliant” imposes an external obligation on you to be outstanding all the time. You’re never permitted an off day, without raising doubts and suspicions about your character and abilities. You’re expected to stay at the top of the class, while maintaining an air of breezy indifference and contempt toward trying hard. If you are making quiet, extraordinary efforts in the background, desperately to maintain your advantage, you have to hide it. You become a closet learner, but the fun and play of it has all gone. Now, you learn in a cold sweat panic, looking over your shoulder, afraid of doing badly in public.

Sometimes, you can’t hold it all together. You’re overwhelmed. However, while you’re falling apart, everyone else assumes you’ll be fine. They believe you can overcome any challenge with ease, when in reality you are really struggling. Being friendless and isolated, with everybody else cast in the role of deadly rival, you find yourself unable to ask for the help you need, for fear of confirming that your failure and struggle is unarguable, hard evidence of your deep, incorrigible character flaws. Nobody can admit you’re just an ordinary person that works hard at being able to understand things quickly. You get no credit for that. Rather, your hard times are seen as the Gods casting you aside, once and forever.

Is it any wonder that anybody trapped in a fixed mindset environment, with all of its judgemental assumptions, begins to feel like trying hard and possibly failing are too dangerous and painful to contemplate? It’s a recipe for taking good learners and turning them into paranoid, passive, inactive placeholders; subsumed by avoidance and self-justification strategies; spending all of their time and energy fiercely protecting their position and privileges, instead of working diligently, each day, to become the best person they can be, mastering things they love doing.

Talent and abilities are not gifts, which magically from the sky. They always require application and effort. Sometimes, not much effort, but more frequently, a great deal of effort.

The problem with the fixed mindset is that it reduces to perpetual judgement of you as a person. It’s possible to be both underrated and overrated at the same time: underrated for your sheer effort and overrated for the assumption you can easily do anything you choose. It makes you withdraw from people, when you assume they’re judging you and regarding your so-called gifts with jealousy.

In the fixed mindset, which carries on unabated in the world of work, long after you leave school, you are made to feel shame for not living up to other people’s expectations of how accomplished you ought to be, but without showing you have put any effort into attaining that standard. It’s the worst kind of emotional blackmail and abuse. It turns you away from just enjoying learning and playing, towards constantly proving yourself and defending your position in the judgemental hierarchy. Essentially, it’s insidious pressure to live life on other people’s terms, not your own.

In most work settings, you will find you get precious little credit for any personal progress you make. You’ll be expected to pull rabbits out of hats routinely, even while feeling like a rabbit in the headlights. Nobody will have any faith in your ability to learn your way into a demanding role, or your speed at being able to do so. Even so, you’ll find yourself having to learn and improve anyway, on your own time, just to keep your job.

If you’re anything like me, you’ll find yourself putting lots of love into everything you do, but meeting with cold, brutal, harsh, snap judgements about your character and worth, when you present your finished work. They say wealth flows from energy and ideas, but I have living proof that it doesn’t. Your energy and ideas are so easily and capriciously squandered by those with fixed mindsets.  

Most senior positions impose the added burden of, at every moment, having to prove you still make the grade and are worthy of what you’ve earned, with almost no recognition of the extraordinary efforts it took to get there. Failing to make the grade, of course, demolishes your self-worth and self-confidence, but it can also reduce your income. It’s like a life sentence. 

We, as a society, raise the stakes on failure until it becomes too risky to leave your comfort zone.  

When I was a teen, there was a professional daredevil, my age, who lived about fifty miles away. Like Evel Knievel, he jumped busses with a motorbike. Every time he jumped some incredible number of busses and survived, more were added. The assumption was that he had magic powers and could jump the busses, no matter how many there were. Eventually, the stakes were raised to the point where each jump had a very high probability of ending in death, permanent disability or extremely painful injury, with life-changing consequences. He knew it. Any rational person knew it. At that point, he just couldn’t take the risk any more. Audiences, saddistically, wanted more world records and when he couldn’t jump any more busses, he probably felt they would consign him to the role of cowardly has been. Sadly, he committed suicide, alone in his hotel, aged just twenty, prior to a performance he was due to give. The stakes for failure had been raised so high, he had no other way out. Do you even know his name?

In the Myers-Briggs taxonomy, I’m an ENTP. Those are pretty rare, it happens. The consequence of that rarity is that, rather than being valued for being scarce, you tend to take punishment for being wired the way you are, from people that just don’t get how you think. You spend most of your time butting your head against walls, trying to convince avowed doubters that your vision is true, no matter what the idea happens to be. The relentless, constant conflict, in your working life and the personal attacks that arise because you can see what others cannot, due to your exercising your learning abilities and growth mindset, depletes you physically, assaults you emotionally and adversely impacts your health. It’s hard to be growth-oriented when others are not.

Working colleagues, past and present, have been more successful than me, partly due to luck, but mostly due to their sheer hard work. I cannot take anything away from their outstanding efforts and achievements. In all honesty, though, my situation is also due to me withdrawing effort, on some fronts, to save face. Among the many things, in various spheres of my life, which I avoid doing to prevent criticism, I’m pretty sure my job would be much easier, for example, if I wrote more software prototypes. Unfortunately, there came a point in my career where it just wasn’t possible to play with software and make mistakes any more, without some fixed mindset trophy hunter or other taking those learning efforts, full of blunders made while I groped around with the new software, and using them as proof that I’m some kind of clown, not worth listening to. Because non-ENTP people find my way of thinking about problems so unsettling, I feel they’d love to find a way to silence me, because I’m inclined to challenge their conservative assumptions. My many failures, which would undoubtedly accompany my efforts to learn to write with some of the newer, open source, software libraries, would be all the leverage they’d need. The stakes for failure have been raised too high for me to experiment and play with software, in public and yet I used to earn a living as a programmer.

I resent that situation. It consigns me to being all about unrealised potential instead of realised accomplishments. That isn’t fair. I might not be the most eloquent, fluent software author, but I can assure you that, with time and effort, I most definitely could be. That’s the point of this article. If you work hard enough at anything, you can master it. In any case, I could write well enough to at least express abstract software product ideas as tangible, runnable code. There just isn’t a safe way for me to do that in my working environment. It’s not safe to fail. There’s nowhere to play and I’m denied the tools. Buying the tools at home is currently beyond my means. Also, I contribute unique skills, as an ENTP, that nobody else does, which are valuable and important, if not always acknowledged and appreciated. Realistically, making my contributions in that area adds far more value, in the long run. I’d still make better progress with software prototypes I coded myself, though. Hard proof leaves opinionated doubters without a leg to stand on. It would be nice to add that string back to my bow.

As a society, we could choose to place less emphasis on those we assume to be born prodigies and on the myriad examinations we inflict on students to pass final judgement on the worthiness or otherwise of perfectly capable life-long learners. We could do more to recognise effort, progress and hard-won accomplishments. We could have more faith in people’s motivation to keep learning and improving, rather than demanding proof of reaching a certain standard, a priori. We could recognise that brilliance never comes easily and that potential is just the residual evidence of having cared about continuous innovation and self improvement.

These days, I’m more interested in doing things I love, which contribute to my progress toward becoming a better me. If I’m going to fail, it will be on my own terms. Failure is just a way point on the journey, not the terminus. My art, for me, is a playful exploration into what might be possible, when I apply media to substrates. I like to play. I always have.

Failure is an event, not an immutable characteristic.

About tropicaltheartist

You can find out more about me here: https://michaeltopic.wordpress.com/. There aren’t many people that exist in that conjunction of art, design, science and engineering, but this is where I live. I am an artist, a musician, a designer, a creator, a scientist, a technologist, an innovator and an engineer and I have a genuine, deep passion for each field. Most importantly, I am able to see the connections and similarities between each field of intellectual endeavour and apply the lessons I learn in one discipline to my other disciplines. To me, they are all part of the same continuum of creativity. I write about what I know, through my blogs, in the hope that something I write will resonate with a reader and help them enjoy their own creative life more fully. I am, in summary, a highly creative individual, but with the ability to get things done efficiently. Not all of these skills are valued by the world at large, but I am who I am and this is me. The opinions stated here are my own and not necessarily the opinion or position of my employer.
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