Failing with Grace

Learn how to learn from your mistakes


Several years ago, one of my sons went nearly an entire Little League season without a hit. He stepped up to the plate again and again, and nothing. He could draw a walk like no- body’s business, but he was incredibly reluctant to swing and miss. It became painful to watch, not only for me, but also for most of the parents, coaches and other players. But as the season progressed, he dug in and started to swing. He went from the king of walks to the king of strikeouts, pop-ups and ground-outs. Somehow, through all of the mistakes and missed swings, he just kept at it. Finally, at his last at-bat during the last game of the season, he got on base, and the crowd went wild. It was just a single, but oh, what a single.

I think back on that difficult season as a gift, because it taught him the value of passionate persistence - what’s now being called grit in the education field. Our instincts and experience generally tell us that dedication and persistence really do pay off, and that notion has gained a strong basis in research and an increasingly prominent place in conversations about education.

Indeed, grit isn’t just an important quality for lifelong success – it may be among the most important. University of Pennsylvania researcher Angela Duckworth defines grit as the disposition to pursue long-term goals with passion and perseverance. Duckworth’s research shows that grit is a reliable predictor of success in and beyond school, and her work – for which she received a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant in 2013 – focuses on the ways such perseverance can be measured and encouraged.

The key to encouraging a “gritty” approach to life’s challenges is to adopt what another researcher, Stanford University’s Carol Dweck, calls a growth mindset. A growth mindset, as Dweck writes in her book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, "is based on the belief that your basic qualities are things you can cultivate through your efforts. Although people may differ in every which way - in their initial talents and aptitudes, interests or
temperaments – everyone can change and grow through application and experience." The effect of adopting a growth mindset allows us to view a failure as something we cannot do yet, rather than something we cannot do at all, as it would be if we believed our abilities were fixed.

In schools, the presence of a growth mindset among students has been demonstrated to boost overall motivation and achievement, narrow race-related achievement gaps and narrow the gender gap in math. Moreover, in schools, a growth mindset can be taught.

Some schools (though none of which I am aware of in Providence) have programs developed by Dweck and others that foster understanding of how learning works and how measures of intelligence and achievement can be improved. Even pursued informally, understanding how we learn as a way to improve learning itself can have powerful effects. I encourage you to read Mindset for much more on this topic.

At home, there’s a great deal more that we can do to foster grit and a growth mindset. We can, and should, nudge kids to take on challenging experiences, and to be present as they make mistakes and have a hard time. As hard as it can be, try to welcome frustration, and model what it looks like to persevere through it. This may mean talking about your own failures and challenges in your life. Above all, let go of the idea that kids are supposed to be great at most of what comes their way. Mastery -whether it’s of cursive, or riding a bike, or geometry, or getting that bat on the ball - really does require varying degrees of time and effort. Mistakes and missteps are reasons to keep going, not reasons to quit.

To get started, here’s some wisdom from author Neil Gaiman: “If you are making mistakes, then you are making new things, trying new things, learning, living, pushing yourself, changing yourself, changing your world. You’re doing things you’ve never done before, and more importantly, you’re doing something.” Rather than viewing “mistakes” as not to be avoided but as meaningful measures of progress, learning and growth can have powerful results for your kids – and yourself – in school, work and life.