Growth Mindsets

Failure of top athletes to perform to their maximum potential in important sporting competitions has long puzzled observers and generated no end of research. Why is it that people so obviously gifted and teams with real talent fail to turn their ability into trophies? A recognition that the “hair-dryer” treatment is not always the most effective way to help an individual or team raise its game, has meant that sports psychologists are employed to help sportsmen and women maximise their performance.

One explanation of failure to perform to the level of one’s capabilities, is that some sports people are battling a fear of failure. Fear of failure is usually connected to perfectionism. Carol Dweck, a professor of psychology at Stanford University, approaches the problem in terms of two mindets. Some people have a fixed mindset. People who have a fixed mindset tend to think that they have a range of fixed abilities. They’ve learnt  all they can, and , therefore, if they fail, there is not much hope for the future, because clearly they are simply lacking in ability. On the other hand, those with a growth mindset see failure differently. They see failure as an opportunity to learn. An opportunity to improve and sharpen their abilities.

After Gideon’s famous victory with his army of three hundred men against an enemy of many thousands he still found that some were reluctant to support his cause. Judges 8.10 states that one hundred and twenty thousand enemy troops had already fallen in battle, leaving only fifteen thousand, as Gideon pressed for total victory. Yet when Gideon sought help from the people of Succoth and Peniel, they refused to be involved with his action, even to the point of withholding food from his men (Judges 8.4-8).

The most obvious explanation for their inaction is that they were frightened that Gideon might still be unsuccessful and they would be subjected to reprisals. Seven years of hardship and enemy occupation had scarred their psyche to the point that even resounding success could not persuade them that an ultimately favourable outcome was likely if not inevitable. They were captive, you might say, to a fixed mindset. 

Fixed mindsets are all too common in church world. Even though the stakes are nowhere near as high as they were for the people of Succoth or Peniel, many Christians appear to have a fear of stepping out in faith. Why? Presumably, in case they fail. And if they fail? That would prove the weakness of their faith. Or their inability in the first place. Or cause them to lose face. And if you have an outlook that says your faith / ability / confidence, etc., is fixed, then you find yourself locked into your own inherent weakness. Failure becomes the key that locks the door on future success.

But what if failure was the key to unlocking the door of future success? What if we developed a mindset which said “This is an opportunity to grow”? I think whole knew horizons of possibility would open up before us.

I would go further and suggest that Jesus and the apostles worked on the basis of a growth mindset in the way that they developed people. The disciples got it wrong time and again, yet on every occasion Jesus taught them something new and important. Their ignorance or inability was not fixed. They could grow out of it. Peter’s failure before the crucifixion became a doorway into a deeper appreciation of the grace of Christ.

You could sum up much of the content of Paul’s letters as “here’s what’s good, here’s what’s bad and here’s how you can become more like Jesus”. Growth mindset.

Failure isn’t the end of the world. With the right – biblical – approach, it can be the beginning of a better one.

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