My 10-year-old daughter, Gracie, is smart. She’s “I get 100% on standardized tests” kind-of-smart. And while these smarts are wonderful and amazing, they bring with them their own set of issues to be worked out. I’ll never forget her coming home in 2nd grade, sobbing. “What happened?” I asked, bracing myself for a skinned knee or a tale of schoolyard bullying. Instead, Gracie held out a test paper, now polka-dotted with her tears.
“I…I…” she could hardly get out the words, “I forgot a period!” Sure enough, she had missed a single punctuation mark on her weekly dictation test. And she was inconsolable. Her perfect record was forever marred.
My husband and I laugh about her perfectionistic tendencies (I have no idea where those might come from…*cough*cough*) and we reassure her teachers on a regular basis that we don’t actually lock her in a closet every time she comes home with less than 100%. If you know our family, you’ve probably heard me tell her to go get in some trouble. “Have a good day, make good choices…get some detention, maybe?” She’ll look at me like I’m crazy and know that I’m joking—sort of. Having battled my own intense fear of failure, I want so much for my kids to have a different experience. I want them to be more free to fail, to try things, to have fun and not be so concerned about doing it exactly right all the time. But trying to figure out how to develop this can be difficult. How do we encourage their pursuit of excellence while also helping them learn to be gentle with themselves when they encounter failure?
I was a lot like Gracie as a kid. Always feeling like any little failure meant I had to turn in my “smart” card. I didn’t want to try things because it was too great a risk. What if I wasn’t good at it? My identity was wrapped up in being good at things. Who would I be if I couldn’t do it perfectly? So becoming a writer was maybe not the most predictable choice for me. There is no perfection in writing. It’s not a math problem with a definitive answer. There will always be someone who thinks (in the words of one of my very own Amazon book reviews), “This book was okay. I got it from the library and don’t regret it. But I wouldn’t go out of my way to get it again.” Gee, thanks. Not the worst review ever, but certainly not a ringing endorsement. And there was a day that a comment like that would have made me quit. If I couldn’t be perfect, I didn’t want to do it.
It is only now, in my 40s, that I am finally starting to understand how these ever-present thoughts have shaped me. In a fabulous book called, MINDSET, psychologist Carol S. Dweck calls this type of thinking a “fixed mindset.” This is the underlying belief that human qualities are fixed. Either you’re smart or you’re not, and failing at something is proof that you’re not. She says this type of mindset believes that “If you could arrange successes and avoid failures (at all costs), you could stay smart.” She contrasts the fixed mindset with a “growth mindset,” which posits that human qualities can be cultivated. This mindset believes that success is about learning, and failures are a necessary part of becoming what you strive to be. A person with a growth mindset values challenges. They pursue opportunities that stretch them. They risk failure. Growth mindset creates a love of learning and builds resilience. It’s pretty simple stuff, but I have found myself rejoicing that I finally have a vocabulary to talk about these thoughts that have been marinating in me for a long time. I was a fixed mindset kid. Gracie is a fixed mindset kid. Recognizing these mindsets in ourselves is such an important first step. Who doesn’t want to encourage a love of learning and resilience both in our kids and in ourselves? But how do we do it?
Being a writer has definitely challenged my fixed mindset tendencies, even before I could name them. It has pushed me to be vulnerable in ways I never could have imagined as that kid who frantically tried to protect her “smart” card. Writing for publication means opening yourself up to critique from other writers, agents, editors, and eventually, if we achieve the things we’re working toward…the book-reading world. What kind of mindset do we have as we send our work out? Do we see the failures as opportunities to grow? Do we seek to be challenged and stretched, even if it means we might be unsuccessful? My guess is that most of us here at Sub It Club do, at least to some degree. It is my suspicion that someone with a fixed mindset when it comes to writing wouldn’t last very long in the publishing world. There are far too many rejections. Too many setbacks. Too many NOs.
But if you are like Gracie and me, and have a tendency toward perfectionism, toward that fixed mindset, I think the first thing we do is call it out. We recognize it in ourselves. And then we work to change it. We tell ourselves that a rejection doesn’t disqualify us from writing. It doesn’t mean we stink. It doesn’t mean we should quit. We tell ourselves that this is how we learn. This is how we build resilience!
And eventually…hopefully…as we hold out that rejection, now polka-dotted with our tears, we start to embrace that one missed punctuation mark as an opportunity for growth.