Two Books on the Rewards of Failure: Mindset and Designing Your Life

The Yet-to-Be-Named Generation Goes to College
August 31, 2016
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Two related books sit on this week’s Washington Post non-fiction bestsellers list: Carol Dweck’s, Mindset, originally published in 2006, and a book released this month, Designing Your Life: How to Build a Well-Lived, Joyful Life, by Bill Burnett and Dave Evans. It’s not exactly coincidental that all three authors teach at Stanford University.

Dweck, the Lewis and Virginia Eaton Professor of Psychology, looks at the ability to increase human intelligence in those who possess a “growth mindset” and therefore believe intelligence to be elastic. Her colleagues, Burnett and Evans, teach in Stanford’s renowned Design School. Their book, which is based on their co-taught course, Designing Your Life, (the single most popular course taken at the university) serves as a guidebook for applying design thinking principles to the development of an on-going holistic life process. For Stanford students, this course is designed to help them use creative decision-making to find a fulfilling post-graduation path. The new book that comes out of the course applies to anyone at any life stage contemplating career and lifestyle questions.

If the MOOC is one way to democratize knowledge, both books mark a turn toward making course concepts from elite universities readily available to the public. These books suggest that a positive, open-minded and creative approach to learning, work, and wider living yields greater fulfillment than life philosophies that do not embrace a generative attitude toward opportunities and setbacks.

There is a strong kinship between these books and related ideas coming out of the wider positive psychology movement. If the University of Pennsylvania is the epicenter of positive psychology as the result of the popularization of Marty Seligman’s work and that of his former student, Angela Duckworth, the Stanford professors are making their university the West Coast branch of that movement, a subset of positive psychology that sees intentionality and growth as core principles of happiness — perhaps a more creative West Coast take on the field. Both success and failure are thus necessary parts of a generative process for human development. Dweck locates this process in a behaviorist model that understands the individual to have the capacity to choose between a growth mindset open to risk and failure, and a low-risk fixed mindset that aims to avoid challenges. Burnett and Evans apply design thinking to a creative process for developing and maintaining a life philosophy by which choices for future directions are reflected upon and “built” through “ideating” and “prototyping” a number of possible directions until a good solution arises.

For Dweck, growth derives from positive action that is taken in response to risk and the failure that often results in the learning process when a learner enters new territory. Her research, as chronicled in informal narratives throughout the book, shows that students who see challenges as part of learning are more inclined to embrace difficult learning experiences and overcome setbacks when they arise. Likewise, growth mindset students who see intelligence as the result of hard work, rather than natural gifts, exhibit more intellectual curiosity and growth than those with fixed mindsets who self-identify as smart. Fixed mindset students resultantly work more to preserve that self image than to embrace the risk associated with learning challenging new things.

The education world is buzzing with support for Dweck’s concept of growth mindset as a cornerstone of the sort of positive attitude necessary for success in school and beyond. Educational theory and practice is also looking more and more seriously at design thinking not only as a creative process, but as a metacognitive ethos one can bring to the learning process. Following the business world’s interest in design thinking as a model for more generative ways of thinking through entrepreneurial challenges, education is also beginning to embrace design thinking principles in STEM curricula; many a collaborative “Maker Space” is popping up in colleges and K-12 institutions alike. Yet Burnett and Evans offer a unique application of the design thinking process beyond business and STEM contexts. Taken by students in majors across the university, the Designing Your Life course is a process through which students figure out what they want to do with their lives by breaking down a process of self discovery into five stages that reflect the creative process designers use to think through design challenges. Such a process requires a high tolerance for uncertainty and the potential failure of prototyped options. Now that process is laid out in the their book for the general public.

First, the Life Design process entails a curious attitude that thrives on playful exploration. It also demands that one is willing to have a bias to action, meaning that a well-designed life is one in which many possibilities are tested — sometimes leading to better ideas, sometimes leading to failure, but always leading to change. And when one is stuck, a successful life designer will reframe a perceived impasse — look at it from another angle — in order to see if the right problem is even being addressed. And all of this requires a metacognitive attitude that brings constant attention to knowing it’s a process. Such awareness allows one to let go of end goals and instead focus on the possibilities of the present. Finally, good life designers know that great ideas are born in a process by which thinking individuals ask for help from a supportive affinity network because each and everyone needs support in seeing their ideas to fruition.

Perhaps the most compelling correspondence between these books rests on the emphasis each puts on the growth-oriented individual’s dogged resistance to failure. Creative life designers and those with growth mindsets tend to be, as Burnett and Evans put it, “immune to failure.” This doesn’t mean that people with growth attitudes do not experience emotional responses to setbacks; it suggests instead that they brush off failure and tenaciously apply a creative approach to remaining open and curious to what comes next.

Shouldn’t all schools and workplaces adopt a culture that supports the development of generative attitudes toward learning, work and life? Mindset theory, first embraced in K-12 teaching and learning, is creeping upward into higher ed, while design thinking is moving downward into K-12 from design colleges and business contexts. These developments suggest that the attitude a learner brings to the exploration of ideas matters a great deal.

In the grand scheme of composing a generative and fulfilling life, growth emerges when challenges are taken on with curiosity and determination. Dweck, and Burnett and Evans, don’t offer a sure road to success, but they do map out related processes for developing a growth-oriented ethos for conducting one’s life. Greek philosophy’s occupation with artful living and human flourishing echoes through these books, as does John Dewey’s interest in applying creative and reflective thinking to human conduct. Wherever an individual is in regard to life and career choices, these books offer some clear advice on the benefits of taking risks, even if doing so leads to failure. Like good teachers, they provide a map, but the individual is responsible for a mindset that creates options for where that individual ends up going.

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