The real value of failure and how to embrace it

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An unlikely title for a Head to post, but a vital topic for those like me responsible for high achieving girls whose fear of failure can prevent them from taking even the smallest of intellectual risks and ultimately limiting their overall level of success.

Last summer when I was shouting at my television screen willing Kath Grainger and Annie Wallace to win Gold at the London Olympics, I never imagined she would be our guest of honour at BGS’s inaugural Sports Awards’ Dinner on Monday. In every way she was extraordinary. Perhaps I should have expected that as clearly Olympians are extraordinary people, however it was her incredible generosity of spirit and genuine interest in every individual she met that made her a true giant in my eyes. Not only is she an astonishing sportswoman, but an astonishing human being. Every person she spoke to she inspired, with her unassuming style she not only made them feel special, but made them believe that they could achieve their dreams.

She spoke eloquently about her life and how she happened upon rowing. She told the story of how in her first year at University she was encouraged to row, by the start of her second year she went to the University boat club meeting to check which boat she had been selected for. As they read out the crews she listened intently for her name to be called, assuming she would be in the top four, but she was not, nor the second, third or fourth four – in fact she was not selected to row in any of the Edinburgh University teams. She took herself away and thought if I want this I need to really work at it. She went back to basics worked on her technique, put the hours in and quickly went through the boats and was rowing not just for Edinburgh University but by the end of next year had been selected for Scotland and then GB.

Her messages were simple. If you want something badly enough then you have to work incredibly hard, believe in yourself and go out and get it. Perhaps most tellingly that getting knocked back, failing and failing again is all part of achieving success. Rather than viewing failure as a negative and isolated experience, we need to recognise that it is an essential part of the overall journey to success. She cites her failure at not getting Gold at Beijing as being instrumental in her getting Gold at London. The words that perhaps resonated the most with me were – “If you are winning all the time, then it is too easy, you are not competing at a high enough level and you will not get any better. You learn more from losing than you do from winning. Losing propels you to the higher level; success keeps you at that level you are operating on”. It reminded me of Michelangelo quote – “it’s not that we aim too high and we miss but we aim too low and we reach it”.

Her words continued to resonate when I attended a conference about learning mind-sets this week. It was led by Professor Carol Dweck, a leading researcher in the field of motivation and Professor of Psychology at Stanford University. She argues that teaching people to have a ‘Growth Mindset’, which encourages a focus on effort rather than on intelligence or talent, produces high achievers in school and life. Parents and teachers can engender a ‘growth mindset’ in children by praising them for their effort or persistence (rather than for their talent or intelligence) and telling success stories that emphasis hard work and resilience. Failure should be seen as a first step in learning, it is not “I can’t do it”, it’s “I can’t do it yet”.  Those with a ‘growth mindset’ believe they will get there with effort and enjoy the challenge of dogged persistence. Those with a fixed mind-set believe they lack the talent or intelligence and without it cannot get there and give up. She believes that attributing poor performance to a lack of ability depresses motivation more than does the belief that lack of effort is to blame. Anyone who spent Sunday afternoon holding their breath whilst Andy Murray held his serve to take the Wimbledon Championship witnessed this ‘growth mindset’ in action.

In my years of teaching and now as a Head I spend my time getting girls to believe they can do it. Wanting them to aim high, be ambitious in their aspirations and then through hard work, determination and a pride in the challenge realise their ambitions. Kath Grainger epitomised this – she went from being rejected from Edinburgh University Rowing Club to winning Gold at the Olympics. She did not have more talent than other rowers just the capacity to work hard and a remarkable resilience. An impressive role model who inspired every person in the audience to believe they could do it and not fear if they fail at the first, second or third hurdle.

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