Doing hard stuff: Why kids need to fail

“Failure made me look forward to the next game. If I had a bad game, I couldn’t wait for the next day, when I could brush off the failure and try to do better.” —Gary Carter in Still a Kid at Heart: My Life in Baseball and Beyond

The book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success by Carol S. Dweck made me look at the people around in a whole new way. The results of her studies show people approach life in one of two ways (or a mix of both): with a fixed mindset or a growth mindset.

As Benjamin Barber says it, people are learners or non-learners.

People living in a fixed mindset believe their abilities, like intelligence or talent, are inherited and fixed. They evaluate their intelligence and believe it cannot be changed. They give up on music lessons because they don’t believe they inherited the “gift” of musical talent. They document their abilities, but they don’t spend any time developing them.

When people choose to live in a growth mindset, they work at developing their abilities through perseverance and hard work.

People who live in a fixed mindset believe that when they fail at something it means they are a failure. They don’t want to be seen to fail; they perform routine, repetitive tasks they know they can manage instead of risking more challenging tasks at which they might fail.

When growth mindset people fail, they use it as an impetus to work harder and to try new approaches. Their resilience leads to success.

When I read the quote at the top of this post, I know Gary Carter had a growth mindset; his failures led him to the Baseball Hall of Fame. Thomas Edison had a growth mindset; his failures led him to lightbulbs and other fantastic inventions. J.K. Rowling had a growth mindset; her many rejections led to my favourite Harry Potter books.

Sometimes we inadvertently encourage a fixed mindset in others when we measure success only in terms of winning or losing, or when we try to protect our children from the pain of failure. When soccer teams don’t keep score so no team “loses,” or when schools hold “leaving ceremonies” instead of graduations, the result is a washout of mediocrity.

We definitely encourage a fixed mindset when we see intelligence and talents as inherited and fixed. When math teachers believe students either “get” math or not, and sport coaches favour a certain physical build over a determined athletic spirit, they pass over gold mines of potential talent.

The good news is that the first step to progressive change is accepting that we have a problem. We can ask ourselves, “Do I want to stall myself, or my kids, or other people kids, in a fear-filled miasma of mediocrity? Or do I want to keep growing and getting better and taking on new challenges even if it sometimes hurts when I fail along the way?

We can teach our kids that to fail is to succeed because that means they are out there doing something. We can teach them to feel the pain and then extract lessons from their failures. We can teach them that a single failure doesn’t define them and that there’s always room for growth.

We can teach them to do the hard stuff with excitement and not a fear of failure.  

“If you only go through life doing stuff that’s easy, shame on you.” —Patricia Miranda




2 thoughts on “Doing hard stuff: Why kids need to fail

  1. Lynne

    What an amazing post! It certainly got me thinking as I am trying to change and am frustrated at how difficult some things are and how I don’t “get” other things (your music example was bang on). Although I think there are some things that people are naturally better at but that should not preclude one from trying. I also love the quote at the end of the article about living like you know the happy ending. I plan on sharing this! This is awesome! (Maybe you could do a reflection on this some Sunday)

    1. Arlene Somerton Smith Post author

      One of my favourite quotes is: “Hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard.” For sure, we all have differing abilities, but history is littered with stories of talented people who failed and other people who succeeded because of hard work. That’s much more fun!


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