We all love a 4.0 grade point average, a complete winning record for the season, or a flawless performance review at the end of the year. Perfection makes us feel comfortable and safe.
Growing up as a Taiwanese American, I often found myself struggling with perfectionism. My parents gave me a map with specific stopping points — and any detours would be a sign of failure.
There was no discussion about the benefits of failure. Everything was framed around avoiding it at all costs, and over time it became damaging to my mental health.
As a psychologist, I see this same pattern with a lot of my patients today: No one invites us to fail as a path to success.
In recent years, renowned psychologists like Carol Dweck and Angela Duckworth have been asking us to question how we think about failure, especially when it comes to leadership, teaching and mental health.
Current research suggests that we can approach failure with different mindsets, specifically a "growth mindset" or "fixed mindset":
- A fixed mindset holds the belief that we all possess specific skills and talents, and that no matter how much effort we apply, we can't change that potential. Possession of a fixed mindset means any struggle or failure is attributed to one's incapacity for growth.
- A growth mindset holds the belief that we all have unbounded potential for growth and evolution. It makes the simple act of trying enough to move things forward. Failure is simply a pitstop where you refuel your journey and redirect your approach.
The way you interpret failure determines whether or not you keep showing up and doing the work, or whether you shut down and give up.
It also impacts the risks and opportunities that we might take to achieve success. If you believe that there are not enough opportunities or resources out there for you, then taking a risk or making a mistake can feel like a big disappointment.
The most successful people reframe failure by facing their shame, recognizing how it plays into a fear-based fixed mindset, and working to develop a growth mindset.
Try it out for yourself: Think about a current situation in which you believe you have failed, then work through the four steps below:
1. Face your shame
Ask yourself how this failure has woven shame stories into your identity. Does it reaffirm a negative belief that you have about yourself?
If you haven't told anyone about this experience of shame, consider talking about it with someone who you trust and makes you feel safe.
If you've already shared your story with a compassionate listener, remind yourself how it felt to speak your shame out loud and consider what shame or embarrassment the conversation released you from.
2. Reframe the failure
Ask yourself these questions:
- How might you reframe this failure in light of a growth mindset?
- In what ways are you tempted to focus on a fixed mindset for this experience?
- Is the fixed mindset helpful in moving you toward your goals?
- What is possible if you were to focus on how this failure has helped you?
3. Notice the beauty of trying
Break down your goal into small, achievable and tangible steps. Did you notice a spark in your goal — curiosity, excitement or interest that can fuel you, instead of being fueled by fear of failure? Name the spark.
As you embark on action to move through failure, what kind of energy are you motivated by?
Take time to evaluate what happened after you took your first small, tangible action. What kind of feedback did you receive? Embrace feedback as a gift rather than as criticism of your value and worth.
Use this exercise whenever you need to process a failure or a setback. The more you do it, the more fluid your encounters with failure will be.
Remember, failure can be a tool to help hone your skills, understand your obstacles, and realize that you have it within yourself to stand back up and keep pushing.
Dr. Jenny Wang is a psychologist and author of "Permission to Come Home: Reclaiming Mental Health as Asian Americans." She is the founder of the Instagram community @asiansformentalhealth, in which she discusses the unique experiences of Asian diaspora and immigrant communities.