Learning from Failure

19 September 2014 
24 Elul 5774 


As we begin another school year and prepare for the High Holidays, I am thinking about what author and psychologist Carol Dweck calls the “growth mindset,” described at length in her 2006 book, Mindset. Dweck’s research has found that people tend to view human qualities, such as intelligence, personality, and moral character, with one of two mindsets: a “fixed mindset”—these are traits that we are born with, and there is little we can do about them; or a “growth mindset”—these are malleable capacities that we can cultivate and develop through training, effort, and resiliency (I can actually get better at math, at basketball, at making good choices).  

A person who believes that talent or intelligence is fixed or innate will not work as hard or put in the effort needed, especially in the face of struggle or set-back, because he believes that there is little room for growth or change. On the contrary, people who believe they can grow and improve actually tend to grow, improve, and achieve more in all areas of life. What we believe about struggle, setback, and failure will determine how we will respond to and, ultimately, overcome difficulties and how we will thrive, even in the face of life’s and learnings’ challenges.  

I recently witnessed two different “growth mindset” moments here at Gann that illustrated the kind of educational culture we are striving to create.  

Last week I walked into a high level, senior engineering course where students were excitedly observing one group’s efforts to make a car they had constructed travel two feet in a straight line. Moments into my visit, I heard a student shout out, “We failed!” Another student reported to me that the entire class had failed days earlier to design cars that could complete the task and that they were in the “redesign process.” When one group’s car finally passed the test, the students celebrated as if they had just scored a touchdown on the football field,  high-fiving each other joyously. Contrary to receiving the “A” that so many high school students have come to expect, these students understand that deep learning and real success came only after they tried, failed, learned, and tried again.  

At our faculty meeting this week, teachers were invited to share pedagogical practices with their peers to learn from one another. In some schools, this might have been an opportunity for teachers to show off their competence to peers and supervisors. Instead, one of our teachers introduced his presentation this way: “I will be sharing something I tried that was an abject failure!” Willing to publicly expose his own imperfection, this teacher modeled a commitment to ongoing reflection and improvement and, as a result, he and his colleagues turned his setbacks into learning opportunities.   

I was particularly proud of this moment because we know that, if we want our students to take risks, to see failures as learning opportunities, and to develop the resilience and self-confidence to push through challenging times, we, as adults—teachers, parents, leaders—have to model this for them. We first need to examine our own mindsets if we are going  to cultivate a growth mindset in our children.   

If there is ever a time to do this, it is now with the start of a new year. Jewish theology and, in particular, the High Holidays offer us profound insights into the human condition and can help to develop in us our own growth mindsets. We are expected to reflect honestly on our failures and shortcomings—to confess them, take responsibility for them, and apologize for them. At the same time, our tradition teaches us that, while we might fall short, we are not defined by our short comings; while we might fail (sometimes even epically!), we are not failures. Our tradition gives us the gift of teshuva, of repentance, self-correction, personal change, and growth. To be human is to be imperfect, yet, miraculously, we are not fixed, limited, nor stuck in the past; instead, we are creative, changing, evolving creatures who have the God-given capacities to learn (often the most from our setbacks and mistakes), to do better tomorrow than we did today, and to continually become the people we aspire to be.  

I wish all of us a year of happiness, success, learning, and growth.  

Shabbat Shalom and Ketivah v’Chatimah Tovah,  

Rabbi Marc Baker  


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