Posts Tagged ‘failure’


First, please take a few moments to complete the following experiment before you read this article. Using the first finger of your dominant hand, please trace the capital letter “Q” on your forehead. There are only two ways of doing this experiment. You can trace the letter “Q” on your forehead with the tail of Q toward your right eye or you draw it with the tail toward your left eye. Some people draw the letter 0 in such a way that they themselves can read it; that is, they place the tail of the Q on the right-hand side of the forehead. Others draw the letter in a way that can be read by someone facing them, with the tail of the 0 on the left side of the forehead.


What an odd thing to ask someone to do. This is an exercise that was popularized by University of Hertfordshire psychologist Richard Wiseman who concentrates on discovering big truths in small things. For instance, Wiseman explains that the Q test is a quick measure of “self-monitoring” which is a theory that deals with the phenomena of expressive controls. Human beings generally differ in substantial ways in their abilities and desires to engage in expressive controls.

Fixed mindset. People who draw the letter Q with the tail slanting toward their left so that someone facing them can read it tend to focus outwardly. Wiseman describes them as high self monitors. Their primary concern is “looking good” and “looking smart.” They are concerned with how other people see them, are highly responsive to social cues and their situational context. Psychologist Carol Dweck describes such people as having a “fixed” mindset. Some of the characteristics of people with a fixed mindset are:


  • They have a fixed mindset about their abilities and the abilities of others. E.g., all talent is innate and static. You are either born intelligent or you are not. They do not believe people can change and grow.
  • They enjoy being the center of attention and adapt their actions to suit the situation. Ability is something inherent that needs to be demonstrated.
  • They are also skilled at manipulating the way others see them, which makes them good at deception and lying.
  • They offer external attributions for failures. They are never personally responsible for mistakes or failures. To them, admitting you failed is tantamount to admitting you’re worthless.
  • They are performance oriented and will only perform tasks that they are good at. For them, each task is a challenge to their self-image, and each setback becomes a personal threat. So they pursue only activities at which they’re sure to shine—and avoid the sorts of experiences necessary to grow and flourish in any endeavor.
  • From a fixed mindset perspective, if you have to work hard at something, or you learn it slowly, you aren’t good at it, and are not very smart. Performance is paramount. They want to look smart even if it means not learning a thing in the process.

Growth mindset. People who draw the letter Q with the tail slanting toward the right so they can read it tend to focus inwardly. In contrast, low self-monitors come across as being the “same person” in different situations. Their behavior is guided more by their inner feelings and values, and they are less aware of their impact on those around them. They also tend to lie less in life, and so not be so skilled at deceit.” Carol Dweck would describe such people as having a “growth” mindset.


Among the characteristics of people with a growth mindset are:

  • They tend to exhibit expressive controls congruent with their own internal states; i.e. beliefs, attitudes, and dispositions regardless of social circumstance.
  • They are often less observant of social context and consider expressing a self-presentation dissimilar from their internal states as a falsehood and undesirable.
  • They are generally oblivious to how others see them and hence march to their own different drum.
  • They believe the brain is dynamic and develops over time by taking advantage of learning opportunities and overcoming adversity.
  • They offer internal attributions to explain things by assigning causality to factors within the person. An internal explanation claims that the person was directly responsible for the event.
  • They take necessary risks and don’t worry about failure because each mistake becomes a chance to learn.
  • The growth mindset is associated with greater confidence, risk-taking, and higher academic and career success over time. Ability can be developed.
  • High achievement comes from hard work, dedication and persistence to meet a goal.

“If you want to demonstrate something over and over, it feels like something static that lives inside of you—whereas if you want to increase your ability, it feels dynamic and malleable,” Carol Dweck explains. People with fixed mindsets think intelligence is fixed from birth. People with learning goals have a growth mind-set about intelligence, believing it can be developed.

In one notable experiment, Dweck gave a class of preadolescent students a test filled with challenging problems. After they were finished, one group was praised for its effort and another group was praised for its intelligence. Those praised for their intelligence were reluctant to tackle difficult tasks, and their performance on subsequent tests soon began to suffer.

Then Dweck asked the children to write a letter to students at another school, describing their experience in the study. She discovered something remarkable: 40 percent of those students who were praised for their intelligence lied about how they had scored on the test, adjusting their grade upward. They weren’t naturally deceptive people, and they weren’t any less intelligent or self-confident than anyone else. They simply did what people do when they are immersed in an environment that celebrates them solely for their innate “talent.” They begin to define themselves by that description, and when times get tough and that self-image is threatened, they have difficulty with the consequences. Politicians and businesspeople with fixed mindsets will not stand up to investors and the public and admit that they were wrong. They’d sooner lie then confess up to problems and work to fix them.

Michelangelo’s mindset. A great example of a growth mindset is the mindset of Michelangelo. When Michelangelo turned 13-years old, he enraged his father when he told that he had agreed to apprentice in the workshop of the painter Domenico Ghirlandaio. His father believed artists were menial laborers beneath their social class. Michelangelo defied his father and learned art and then went on to study at the sculpture school in the Medici gardens. During the years he spent in the Garden of San Marco, Michelangelo became interested in human anatomy. At the time, studying corpses was strictly forbidden by the church. You were threatened with damnation and excommunication. He overcame this problem by making a wooden Crucifix with a detail of Christ’s face and offered it as a bribe to Niccolò Bichiellini, the prior of the church of Santo Spirito, in exchange for permission to secretly study corpses.

Michelangelo’s masterpiece, David, revealed his ability to do what others could not: if other artists required special marble and ideal conditions, he could create a masterpiece from whatever was available, including marble already hopelessly mangled by others. Back in 1463, the authorities of the cathedral of Florence acquired a sixteen-foot-high chunk of white marble to be carved into a sculpture. Two well-known sculptors worked on the piece and gave up, and the mangled block was put in storage. They did not want to admit to failure. Forty years later, Michelangelo took what was left of the marble and sculpted David, the world’s most famous sculpture, within eighteen months.

Michelangelo’s competitors persuaded Junius II to assign to him a relatively obscure and difficult project. It was to fresco the ceiling of a private chapel. The chapel had already been copiously decorated with frescoes by many talented artists. Michelangelo would be commissioned to decorate the tunnel-vaulted ceiling. In this way, his rivals thought they would divert his energies from sculpture, in which they realized he was supreme. This, they argued, would make things hopeless for him, since he had no experience of coloring in fresco he would certainly, they believed, do less creditable work as a painter. Without doubt, they thought, he would be compared unfavorably with Raphael, and even if he refused to do it, he’d make the Pope angry and suffer the consequences. Thus, one way or another, they would succeed in their purpose of getting rid of him.

In every way it was a challenging task. He had rarely used color, nor had he painted in fresco. He worked hard and long at studying and experimenting with colors and in fresco. When ready, he executed the frescos in great discomfort, having to work with his face looking upwards, which impaired his sight so badly that he could not read or look at drawings save with his head turned backwards, and this lasted for several months. In that awkward curved space, Michelangelo managed to depict the history of the Earth from the Creation to Noah, surrounded by ancestors and prophets of Jesus and finally revealing the liberation of the soul. His enemies had stage managed the masterpiece that quickly established him as the artist genius of the age.

Michelangelo is a wonderful example of a person with a growth mindset. He ignored his father and marched to his own drum to become an artist; overcame the church’s adversity to studying corpses, took the risk of sculpting mangled marble into the world’s finest sculpture; and with hard work, dedication and persistence, painted the ceiling of the Sistine chapel.
To learn more about the creative thinking habits of Michelangelo and other creative geniuses read Michael Michalko’s Cracking Creativity (Secrets of Creative Genius).

My Favorite Mistakes

And where would Cinderella be had she not dropped her glass slipper? Cleaning the fireplace, that’s where. (By the way, did you know that the original Cinderella story had her wearing a fur shoe? A French writer made a mistake when he wrote the story down in 1697, confusing two homonyms vair, an Old French word for fur, and verre, which is French for glass. But it was a good mistake, making for much more romantic story, and much better fashion.)

Here are some of my favorite mistakes.

Coca Cola was the result of another delicious accident. In 1886 a pharmacist named John Pemberton cooked up a medicinal syrup in a large brass kettle slung over an open fire, stirring it with an oar. When he was done, he figured he had created a fine tonic for people who were tired, nervous, or plagued with sore teeth.

He and his assistant mixed it with ice water, sipped it, and proclaimed it tasty. They wanted some more, and the assistant accidentally used carbonated water to mix the second batch. Voila! Instead of medicine, these men had created a fizzy beverage one that is now consumed around the world.

Today people guzzle 1 billion drinks a day from the Coca Cola company (they make more than Coke). Even more encouraging for us everyday screw ups: This new beverage wasn’t an instant success. In the first year, Pemberton spent $73.96 promoting his new product but managed to sell only $50 worth.

Yellow sticky notes, officially known as Post it Notes, got their start in 1968 when a 3M researcher tried to improve adhesive tape. What he got was a semisticky adhesive not exactly what you want out of tape. Even so, he knew he had something cool he just didn’t know what to do with it.

Four years later, another 3M scientist was getting frustrated. This scientist was a member of his church choir, and he kept dropping the bookmarks stuck in his hymnal. What he needed was something that would stick without being too sticky something just like that weak glue his colleague had accidentally created. In 1980 the Post it Note became an official product and a huge hit.

(Another 3M scientist came up with a cool substance called Scotchgard, which helps prevent dirt from staining fabric. But that wasn’t what she set out to create: Scotchgard grew out of an attempt to make a synthetic rubber to be used in airplane fuel lines. One day some of the new substance spilled on her assistant’s canvas shoe, and they couldn’t get it off. As the tennis shoe grew older, it got dingy everywhere except where the substance had spilled. It took three more years of tinkering, but they had their Scotchgard.)

Rubber got its name when English scientist Joseph Priestley discovered that a wad of it was good at “rubbing out” pencil mistakes on paper. But the rubber really hit the road literally when someone figured out how to stabilize it for use in boots, tires, and the like. The problem was that rubber melted if it got too hot and shattered if it got too cold.

A colorful character named Charles Goodyear tried to fix this problem in several ways, but it wasn’t until (according to legend) he accidentally dropped a blob of rubber and sulfur on a hot stove that he found something that worked. Goodyear denied this was a mistake, but the point is that he had the savvy to know he was on to something good.

Rubber shortages during World War II prompted the U.S. government to look for a synthetic rubber. It seemed like a good idea to try to make this substitute for rubber out of something plentiful, and researchers eventually settled on silicon, the second most common element on Earth. An inventor at General Electric added a little boric acid to silicon oil and developed a gooey, bouncy substance.

This substance failed as a substitute for rubber, but after the war it became an extremely popular toy known as Silly Putty. Apollo 8 astronauts later used it to stabilize their tools in zero gravity. (The astronauts carried their Silly Putty in sterling silver eggs.) Today, Binney & Smith (the company that makes Silly Putty) produces 20,000 eggs’ worth of Silly Putty a day.

Wilson Greatbatch came along, people with irregular heartbeats had to control their pulse using a sometimes painful external device invented in 1952 by Paul Zoll. The external pacemaker was about the size of a small television, and administered life saving jolts of electricity, which sometimes burned the skin.

Greatbatch, a medical researcher, was working on a device to record irregular heartbeats when he accidentally inserted a resistor of the wrong size. He noticed that the circuit pulsed, stopped, and pulsed again just like a human heart.

After two years of tinkering, Greatbatch had made the first implantable pacemaker. He later invented a corrosion free lithium battery to power it, and millions have benefited.

Penicillin is another famous example of a mistake turned good. In 1928 scientist Alexander Fleming noticed that mold spores had contaminated one of the bacteria samples he had left by an open window. Instead of discarding his ruined experiment, Fleming took a close look and noticed the mold was dissolving the harmful bacteria. And that’s how we got penicillin, which helps people around the world recover from infections.

This brings to mind a powerful quote by scientist Louis Pasteur, “Where observation is concerned, chance favors only the prepared mind.”
(Michael Michalko is the author of Thinkertoys: A Handbook of Creative Thinking Techniques; Cracking Creativity: The Thinking Strategies of Creative Geniuses; and Thinkpak: A Brainstorming Card Deck. His new book Creative Thinkering: Putting Your Imagination to Work has just been released.