Tag Archives: carol dweck

Season of Giving (Exams)


The end of November launches a holiday season in these United States, but for those involved in formal education it is also a season of papers, projects, and examinations.  Thanksgiving break does provide a break from classes, but not from work, as our youngest daughter bemoaned on her short trip home from college.  There is no rest for the wicked.  There are turkey sandwiches, sure, but no rest (yet).

Law school is particularly relentless.  The killer combination of a single grade-determining final exam and a pernicious grading curve that pits all-star students against one another for a handful of A’s produces a motivation that is not helpful for proper digestion.  If you want to experience stress with all of your senses, visit your neighborhood law library.

During this season of final exams, popular metaphors include heads down, noses to grindstones, shoulders to wheels, and so on, but not much related to actually looking up.  Unless looking up information or in desperation count.  From my seat in a law school, while I strongly recommend long hours and hard work, I also advocate periodically looking up for a little perspective.  Specifically, the following perspective:

Carol Dweck famously teaches the advantage of a “growth mindset” as compared to a “fixed mindset.”  For the latter, final exams are personal evaluations (i.e., I am good at this or bad at this; smart or stupid; etc.), but for the former, the exams merely reveal information helpful for growth and improvement (i.e., How can this make me better?).  And in case you are wondering, growth mindset leads to greater success than is ever possible with a fixed mindset.

This is a season of giving—professors giving assignments/exams, and students giving their very best effort—but the frenzied effort from the students is misspent if motivated by fear of failure as defined by a letter or number.  Instead, everyone is better off if the heroic efforts are motivated by the capacity to grow and learn.

Study hard, my friends, and look up long enough to remember that you are here to learn and not to be graded like cattle.  And learn well.  A real break will be here soon.

Not Yet

“Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.”
– Winston Churchill

The State Bar of California released its July 2015 bar exam results over the weekend, which impacted the lives of a large number of people that I know and love. California is famously the last state to release results and the one with the lowest passing statistics (and this year’s was the lowest July pass rate in three decades). This combination produces enhanced euphoria for some and a particularly hard punch in the gut to others. It is a weekend of tremendous highs and tremendous lows, and with friends in both places, I never know exactly how to feel. It is easy to celebrate the good news, but it is those who are hurting who maintain center stage in my mind.

I try to do all the right things: Give time, then reach out, then wait patiently, and then, when engaged, try to be helpful. As a former pastor, grief counseling is familiar territory.

Truth be told, the answer in the end is simple and involves climbing back on to the bicycle or horse or whatever metaphor you prefer to have fallen from and go at it again. “If at once you don’t succeed…” is technical truth, but it takes time to hear it without punching someone.

There is more. Success after failure is even sweeter. I recall an old article that identified resilience as a key characteristic of the most spectacular figures in history who overcame great challenges and failures on their unforgettable journeys. Of course failure can destroy a person, too. But it doesn’t have to.

Dr. Carol Dweck of Stanford University tells of a high school in Chicago that gives the grade Not Yet as opposed to Fail. I know this makes some people scream, “Kids need to learn how to fail!” Exactly, and then they need to learn how to get back up again. That is the genius of Dr. Dweck’s groundbreaking research on the importance of mindset when facing failure, which she describes as having a “growth” mindset instead of a “fixed” mindset.

How do you respond to failure? Those with a fixed mindset typically take it personally (e.g., “I’m a failure.”) or blame some external factor (e.g., “It’s your fault that I failed.”). Those with a growth mindset respond with “Not Yet” and determine how to improve to reach the goal.