Of Mice and Mindsets
Before you read the rest of this, watch this video of a Russian mouse with a great attitude:
That mouse would be a failure in most schools.
Unless they’re using something like standards-based grading (SBG) that allows students to reassess skills that they didn’t ace the first time, most schools and universities don’t value performance that’s preceded by failure. We expect excellence the first time, we select for it, and we punish people who don’t measure up. So even though the mouse eventually got the biscuit, it doesn’t matter because it’s only the first attempt that counts.
Sadly, that mouse would also be a failure in most workplaces.
Unless they’re unusually progressive, most offices expect 100% success from employees and have little tolerance for failure. We expect external failures—places where the outside circumstances didn’t go our way—but have no room for internal failure. Even if it’s a new project that nobody’s ever done before, we expect wins and punish losses. Failing at a task is dangerously close to being a failure, and nobody wants to be a failure.
This leads to risk aversion. Most of us wouldn’t bother even trying to steal the cookie, because it looks too hard and the probability of failure is pretty high. The costs of failure are huge. The costs of not even trying are pretty low. So we don’t try.
But what happens when you watch the mouse?
You want it to succeed. It’s agonizingly close to getting the biscuit, but then it gives up. Apparently. Or maybe it’s just sitting there on top of the shelf, looking at things from a new angle. After a protracted space of time spent motionless, the mouse jumps back down, grabs the cookie, and nails it on the first try. It learned something from those initial failures and it succeeded in the end.
Why do we care so much about initial success? Why do we give it so much weight in our estimation of value? The fixation isn’t universal—everyone knows that you have to throw a lot of basketballs, play a lot of scales, and draw a lot of stick figures before you get very good at sports, music, or art—but it’s still prominent.
Think of five things in your life that you do really well. Could be part of your profession (counseling people in pain, calculating amortization, making proper Hollandaise sauce, driving an 18-wheeler, writing a grant proposal) or part of your home life (getting out stains, changing diapers, making dinner, fixing clogged toilets, hosting parties) or something to do with a hobby (throwing bullseyes in darts, climbing mountains, making beaded necklaces, making great beer, skiing black diamonds) or whatever else comes to mind.
How many of those five things did you do really well from the beginning? Did you have initial success in any of them? I didn’t. I got in trouble for not practicing music, was told that I couldn’t draw, was called ungraceful and fat and ugly and not welcome in dance class, burned my first attempt at chocolate sauce, fell on my face when trying to skate, accidentally erased some important computer disks back when 5.25″ floppies were the norm… you get the idea. Not a lot of initial success for me.
How many of us are still seeing the first person we ever kissed? Doing the first career we tried?
I was reading Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers last night, and he talks a lot about how most truly excellent practitioners are people who received a ton of opportunity for practice early on—they got a chance to earn their 10,000 hours of practice on the way to expertise. It’s an excellent point, and the thing I want to add is this: most of the outliers he talks about failed at things. A lot. They just had the opportunity to keep trying without being punished for it.
They were mice that had a chance to practice long enough to get the biscuit.
Let’s start by trying to notice the places in life where we fall into the initial success model. There are spots where we afford equal weight to later successes, and there are spots where initial success is so important that we shouldn’t change our habits (as the saying goes, “if at first you don’t succeed, don’t take up skydiving”).
But I wonder how things would change if we adopted more of a growth mindset and looked more at the outcomes and less at the path and time it took to reach them.
I’ve long believed that the truest measure of a teacher comes not from their star students but from their middling ones. The really good students—the ones who succeed on their first try—probably will do pretty well with any teacher. But the middle ones require more help before they get it, so they’re a better way of seeing how well a teacher teaches. They’re the mice that fell a bunch of times but still got there.
Next time you’re teaching, try to look for the future cookie-robbing rock star mice inside your students, and see whether you can let go of initial success long enough to help them find the goal a little later. As with so many things, after a while “who got there first?” stops feeling so important, and what really matters is what we do once we all arrive.
And man, I am impressed by that mouse.