I’m terrible at this new hobby of mine, and I love that fact. Whether as individuals or teams, we can benefit from our failures as much as from our successes if we approach challenges with a growth mindset. Here’s what that is, why it’s important, and how to develop one.
When No One Is Watching
I head out the door soon after the sun is up – that way I’m less likely to be seen.
It helps that there’s a ball field within a short walk of my house. The time commitment is small and logistics are simple: ten-minute walk with my bag, twenty minutes of failure, and then ten minutes back.
The backstop behind home plate is ideal. I use small carabiners to hang a large square towel on the chain link. In the center I’ve pinned an orange circle cut from an old T-shirt. I walk out to the pitcher’s mound – it’s almost exactly 20 meters away. From that distance, my improvised four-foot square target seems a little small. The bulls-eye in the center, about the diameter of a large dinner plate, appears even smaller.
I dump ten tennis balls on the grass, warm up my arms and shoulders with some swinging and stretching, and then get to work. In my bag are several lengths of thick, braided cord, each about four feet long, woven out of different materials. Today I used the one made of jute. It took me about three hours to braid last week. The first one I made from a ball of hardware twine (sisal) took much longer and was way messier.
One end of the cord has a small loop through which I place my right middle finger. I pinch the other end with my thumb and index finger so that the rest of the cord dangles below my hand. I nestle the first tennis ball in the split-braided pouch at the bottom, and stretch the line taught.
My shepherd’s sling is now loaded and ready. It’s much like the one David famously used in his battle against Goliath. I’m trying to learn how to use one.
A Sling and a Miss
I can blame my archeologist friend for this. Recently he got me involved co-authoring articles about an undocumented Roman battle thousands of years ago. That generated interest in the fighting tools used by both sides, particularly the sling. If I was going to be writing about slings, it made sense that I get some hands-on experience with them.
David used smooth stones, which can be deadly. In skilled hands, a sling can be as lethal as a fire arm. I’m just trying to hit a target without hurting anybody (including myself), which explains the tennis balls.
I give the sling three underhand swings to accelerate it to throwing speed, then release my thumb grip. The tennis ball arcs into the sky, spinning rapidly as it ascends, then falls. It glances feebly against the chain-link backstop with a disappointing metallic tinkle. It’s about five feet high and to the right. Miss.
The sequence repeats nine more times: load, swing, release. Nearly all of them are misses, though a few come close. After ten tries, I collect the balls, return to the pitcher’s mound, and go again until I’ve made 40 shots.
Today I hit the square three times, a success rate of only 7.5% according to the spreadsheet I built to track my progress. In 11 practice sessions and 670 throws so far, I’ve only recorded two bulls-eyes, more due to luck at this point than skill. Many more of my attempts have sailed completely over the backstop. But I’m getting there.
Why share this story of my futile efforts with the sling? Part of it is about the benefits the come with the challenge of learning any new skill. But part of it also relates directly to leadership. Here’s what I mean.
Learning and Growing
Nurture the mindset. On the individual level in the working world, to succeed at increasingly higher levels requires growth, and growth necessitates an ability to adapt, learn, and improve. Many of those opportunities to learn and adapt come in the face of failure.
In her excellent Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, author Carol Dweck differentiates between two different mindsets. One is a fixed mindset, in which we tend to believe that our abilities and talents are limited to what we were born with. If all we are right now is all that we can ever be, our attitude becomes one of defending our status. We avoid challenges and obstacles where we risk failure, we ignore or reject criticism, and we feel threatened by the success of others. People with this mindset, Dweck says, will fail to reach their full potential.
On the other hand, those with a growth mindset believe that there is always room for improvement, and that growth comes from embracing challenges, seeking feedback, and finding inspiration in the lessons and successes of others. In her words:
When people believe their basic qualities can be developed, failures may still hurt, but failures don’t define them. And if abilities can be expanded – if change and growth are possible – then there are still many paths to success.
– Carol Dweck, Ph.D., Mindset
Seek knowledge. To get better at slinging, practice is only part of it. As with many pursuits, seeking knowledge and finding inspiration from others is another part of the formula. I’ve watched dozens of slinging videos on YouTube, followed tutorials for making my own slings, and joined an online forum where I’m learning a great deal from generous people who are willing to share their knowledge and insights.
Their demonstrated ability with the sling inspires me to keep at it. I remind myself that they were once as inept at this as I am currently.
Embrace dis-ease. I do my slinging in the morning – fewer people out there to watch me do this odd thing that I’m clearly not very good at. With others watching, I feel ill at ease, but I remind myself that this dis-ease is a good thing: we can’t afford to get too comfortable. If we are unchallenged, we aren’t learning, and if we aren’t learning, we are stagnating, or worse, falling behind.
It reminds me of one my favorite quotes:
The world owes all its onward impulses to men ill at ease.
The happy man inevitably confines himself within ancient limits.
– Nathaniel Hawthorne
The edit I’d make to Hawthorne’s observation is that it’s not an either/or matter. The best combination is to learn to be happy about, and because of, the dis-ease that helps us grow.
Learning to sling is one way to help me:
- Nurture my own growth mindset
- Find value and inspiration in the achievements of others
- Embrace the healthy discomfort that comes with growth
Ideally, I’ll remember and transfer those values and attitudes I am reinforcing in my sling training into other parts of my life.
Just as it’s good for us to continually learn new things, if we want a high-performing team we should encourage the same with the people we lead. There are several things we can do to make the experience better.
Reduce the pressure. While I’m out practicing, if a curious kid on a bicycle stops to watch, it throws me off. Their interest in my odd behavior adds pressure. More often than not, the next shot goes wild. Researchers call this the audience effect – the presence of others has an impact on our performance.
If we are doing something we are good at, knowing that others are watching can inspire us to greater achievement – we want to look good. But when we are attempting to learn new or complex tasks, our brains are already fully occupied. Adding an audience compounds the challenge because we don’t want to look bad. Fear of being judged leads to mental overload that can cause us to choke. It’s why I practice in the morning.
To help our teammates master a new skill, it can help to provide physical space and privacy, and seek ways to minimize distractions.
Forgive failure. Over the course of a practice session, my shots tend to get progressively better. The first might be wide right, the second wide to the left, and the third wide right again, but maybe not quite as much. All off them are failures in that I’ve missed the target. Yet by observing and adjusting from each missed attempt, I’m becoming progressively less bad.
With our teammates, if we can set conditions that allow for failure and adjustment, we enable progressive adaptation and learning. On the other hand, if we immediately punish failure, we will make them reluctant to risk failing again, and end up stunting the growth process.
Praise the effort. Another insight that Dweck offers has to do with how we give feedback. In one example, researchers had two groups of students attempt to solve ten questions from an intelligence test. Both groups performed equally well, but researchers praised their performance differently. With half, they focused on the ability – “You got a really good score.” The other half received praise that focused on their effort – “You must have worked really hard.”
The group praised for their ability was essentially pushed into a fixed mindset. They chose not to take on a challenging new task that would help them learn, for fear that it would expose their limitations. The group praised for their effort, had adopted a growth mindset. They readily accepted the new challenge, and when they struggled with the task, they interpreted the difficulty to mean that they should apply more effort, or try new strategies.
When both groups took a subsequent test, those praised for their effort had learned from the earlier challenge and significantly outscored those who focused on ability.
What does this look like in the work place? Maybe we praise people for taking the initiative, for working through a tough setback, for learning something new, or for being receptive to constructive criticism.
Growth Mindset – The Takeaway
There is always talk about finding “talent” to add to our teams, but if that talent comes with a fixed mindset, it may be limited, defensive, and jealous. If our hope is to produce high-performing teams, those are qualities that may do more harm than good.
Under the right conditions and with good leadership, we can encourage a growth mindset among the teammates we already have. And in the process, we can end up building a stronger team, too.
These are the things I hope my efforts to learn slinging will reinforce. One day, if I keep up this growth mindset, I’ll be able to hit the target like this guy.
Today, if you stood directly in front of me when I am slinging, you’d probably be pretty safe.
But give me a few more weeks of private failure, then watch out!