“I never lose. I either win or learn.” – Nelson Mandela
Failure …or learning opportunity?
The number of people with whom I start working who equate not getting it right the first time as a “failure” surprises me. Surprises me because these already-worthy individuals seem quick – too quick – to (falsely) label themselves as not good enough. Surprises me also because by inaccurately categorizing their results, they not only waste time and energy entertaining a concept which I would argue doesn’t exist anyway, but they also create a missed opportunity to do even better next time.
What would it look like if the word “failure” were forever banished from our vocabularies and the only viable alternative would be “learning opportunity”? I bet there would be many more people being kinder to themselves, many more innovative solutions found and, overall, a much happier world.
Because the thing is, we don’t know what we don’t know until we know it. Might seem obvious, but how many of us expect ourselves to know what we don’t yet know and then get irritated with ourselves for not yet knowing it?
How High Achievers Fall Prey to Shame
Like the (many) times I shied away from learning German because I was afraid to – you guessed it – not get it right (read: sound stupid). But how, pray tell, could I have expected myself to ever learn that language if I don’t allow myself to just get started where I am – with all the mistakes that might entail?
And I’m sure I’m not alone. Many of us – especially High Achievers – are great at keeping our bars very high. Most of us would argue that this is exactly how we have gotten so far in our lives and careers in the first place.
Well, yes – and no. “Yes” because maintaining a focus on excellence is a noble goal and has indeed served us and our leadership. “No” when we take our drive for excellence to the extreme of demanding perfection (an illusion) from ourselves. In this extreme case where mistakes are forbidden, we can fall prey to shame (Should Have Already Mastered Everything) and that is just plain and simply not ok.
What to do?
“The more that you learn, the more places you’ll go.”
― Dr. Seuss
A Growth Mindset is for Real Leaders
That’s where a growth mindset comes in.
Learning offers both long- and short-term benefits to us as leaders and to the organization. The results are both impactful and lasting:
- We gain an opportunity to get new info and develop skills that can help solve stressful dilemmas – or even to fend off future stressors.
- Reflecting on what we’ve learned can increase our feelings of competence, confidence, and capability.
- Through learning, we connect to a greater purpose of continual growth and improvement, which fosters resilience.
- We learn to focus on solutions rather than problems, a mindset which can itself lighten our load and help attract better circumstances our way.
While not always an easy task, when we can see every situation – both those which work in our favor and those which don’t – as opportunities for learning, we are not only catching on to the gist of life, but we are also laying a firmer foundation for our leadership.
After all, real leaders, the ones who truly inspire, inspire others precisely because they know how to turn circumstances around to work for them and their teams. They have chutzpah.
So how do we get to this shift toward a growth mindset?
“I am always doing that which I cannot do, in order that I may learn how to do it.”
― Pablo Picasso
The Stages of Learning: A Real-Life Example
First, it starts with understanding what it means to learn.
Consider the Stages of Learning below:
Starting in the top-left box, first (as mentioned above) we don’t know what we don’t know. And why don’t we know it? Probably because we had never been exposed to or heard about this “new” subject.
As with my earlier example, having grown up in Kentucky, USA, I had no use for the German language and had not regularly been exposed to German speakers. So, I was completely unaware of how much I didn’t know when it came to speaking German.
Moving down to the bottom-left box of Conscious Incompetence, it can become painful when we become aware that we don’t know something. This is the stage where the rubber meets the road in learning. This is where I imagine many of us give up and/or start shaming (what a horrible “S” word!) ourselves for not already mastering something of which we just became aware.
Once I started practicing speaking German, I felt like a fool: there I was a grownup and probably sounding like a three-year-old in my sentences…To say this experience was humbling was putting it mildly. But here’s the thing: how in the world could any of us possibly learn German – or any other language – without first taking the necessary steps (like putting strings of basic words together)?
Practice, Stumble, Learn…and Practice Again
So, we practice these new skills, and we stumble and learn and practice again. And we continue in this way until we come to the bottom-right stage: that of Conscious Competence. Here, we are aware that, thanks to our efforts, we are getting better in this area. However, the fact we still need to exert effort here also indicates that we have not yet fully embodied the learning.
By this time, I was able to greet people and ask basic questions and order meals in restaurants in German. But it took some pre-thought each time (bits of sweat on my forehead were clear indicators).
Unconscious Competence: The Realm of Mastery
In practicing even more, we come upon Unconscious Competence. Here, we’re at mastery. In fact, the learning has become so much a part of us that we don’t have to think at all about acting upon what we have learned. We just do it. It’s who we are now.
While I cannot say that I have mastered German (yet), I can say that I have experienced the pain of seeing the gap between my current skills and what I wanted them to be, practicing like crazy (with all the mistakes and hard learnings that are a natural part of that process) and coming out the other side to Unconscious Incompetence.
And it feels like heaven. Truly “owning” those once-coveted-now-embodied skills makes all the seeming “losses” worth it. Because now we can see what the reason for them was: to learn, to get better so we can attain mastery.
“Intellectual growth should commence at birth and cease only at death.”
― Albert Einstein
What it Means to Live a Growth Mindset
We’ve seen why focusing on learning can be important, we’ve even looked at what the stages of learning are. But how, exactly, can one live out a continuous learning mindset?
Here are some ways.
#1. Stretch your strengths.
We all have strengths, of course. But when we use them in the same way every day, we risk stifling our development. Think of skilled athletes – they don’t hone in on one specific muscle to build 24/7, but rather, they typically make strength-building a whole-body approach.
Likewise, we might consider how we can use our strengths in as many ways possible. Think outside of the box here – literally. Instead of imagining strength building as a strictly inside-the-office activity, we can expand into a concept HBR calls strength solving: basically, relearning how to apply our unique strengths to support others and problem-solve outside of our daily grind.
Have leadership skills gained from years of on-the-job expertise? What if those skills were re-channeled into mentoring emerging women leaders, or offering professional advice to an up-and-coming non-profit? Get creative with this and see where the adventure leads…
#2. Shake up how you see “learning.”
What if I said that “unlearning” is just as important as “learning”? Say what?! Indeed: Unlearning is about releasing what is familiar and swapping it for something fresh and unknown. Discard that useless mantra “It’s always been done this way.” It’s nearly the exact opposite of the Growth Mindset we are touting here – especially when the very level of learning that got us to where we are can also keep us from soaring higher.
For instance, early in our careers, we might have become accustomed to saying “yes” to everything. As we all know, that can’t last forever! So, we may need to unlearn agreeing to everything and develop new strategies for setting boundaries.
Think about life during these last few years, when virtually all of us had to unlearn significant aspects of our lives to adapt to the new and unknown. It wasn’t always easy or pleasant, but it did show us the amazing resilience of the human experience.
Today, consider identifying a few of your skills and common behaviors to determine if it might be worthwhile to “unlearn” them as you make way to meet a greater good.
#3. The world is your classroom – show up and learn 😊
Not a single one of us needs to wait for a formal learning opportunity to engage in. Our life, our daily work is our classroom.
That team meeting scheduled for today? Use it as a chance to sharpen communication skills.
Facing a dilemma figuring out how to meet a critical deadline? Leverage the moment to develop problem-solving skills, in real time.
Have a tough decision to make? Consider it a confidence-building exercise.
So often, we think of learning as a stand-alone practice. Yet, as HBR’s Liane Davey reminds us, we can learn and get work done at the same time. A win-win.
#4 Practice makes progress.
Please throw the words “failure” and “perfection” out the window and focus on “practice” and “progress” instead – however small it may appear at a time. Just like Mr. Miyagi had the Karate Kid do, the more we consistently practice, the more we progress.
“An organization’s ability to learn, and to translate that learning into action rapidly,
is the ultimate competitive advantage.” – Jack Welch
A Growth Mindset – it’s for Organizations, too!
And, on a larger scale, when many leaders within a company can heed the recommendations above, they are creating a learning culture. This is the only one which can help them navigate the roller-coaster ride which today’s world creates for any organization looking to thrive.
And it all starts and ends with fostering a Growth Mindset.
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Colleen Slaughter, Proud Executive Coach to the UN World Food Program, the 2020 Nobel Peace Prize Winner
As an Executive Coach for Women in Leadership and Transformational Facilitator, my intention is to help leaders in positions of high influence to understand their worth at a profound level.
Supporting women leaders to truly thrive and step into their greatness, while succeeding in male-dominated industries and spaces is my native genius.
My technique and approach show you how to achieve incredible career success without compromising any part of who you are and what makes you magnificent.