Failure Is An Option

In an excerpt from her new book on failure, McArdle unpacks the research of psychologist Carol Dweck:

While many of the people she studied hated tasks that they didn’t do well, some people thrived under the challenge. They positively relished things they weren’t very good at—for precisely the reason that they should have: when they were failing, they were learning.

Dweck puzzled over what it was that made these people so different from their peers.

It hit her one day as she was sitting in her office (then at Columbia), chewing over the results of the latest experiment with one of her graduate students: the people who dislike challenges think that talent is a fixed thing that you’re either born with or not. The people who relish them think that it’s something you can nourish by doing stuff you’re not good at.

“There was this eureka moment,” says Dweck. She now identifies the former group as people with a “fixed mind-set,” while the latter group has a “growth mind-set.” Whether you are more fixed or more of a grower helps determine how you react to anything that tests your intellectual abilities. For growth people, challenges are an opportunity to deepen their talents, but for “fixed” people, they are just a dipstick that measures how high your ability level is. Finding out that you’re not as good as you thought is not an opportunity to improve; it’s a signal that you should maybe look into a less demanding career, like mopping floors.

Yuval Levin highly recommends McArdle’s book:

We conservatives value markets and like to argue that they make for far better means of obtaining and applying knowledge than the a priori certitudes of technocratic know-it-alls. But we are not always ready to contend with what that commitment to decentralized, dispersed, trial-and-error learning really means: It means lots and lots of errors, and lots and lots of failures, and it requires us to constantly keep in mind that these errors and failures are what make success possible.

That sort of humility doesn’t come easy, especially if you’re the person doing the failing.