Why do some people wilt when faced with setbacks? Why do others thrive in the same circumstances?

Imagine you’re given a puzzle to solve in a certain time. It’s not too hard. But it does challenge you. You complete it on time. You’re pleased. Now you take on a harder puzzle. This one demands mental skills you’ve not studied or previously encountered. You’re stumped. You fail to solve the puzzle. Time’s up.

How do you react to your failure? Your reaction, say cognitive scientists, tells us a lot about whether you will wilt or thrive in the face of life’s inevitable setbacks.

Some among us – and we’ve all done this at one time or another – react to such failures by saying, “This is a waste of my time, I’m bored, I’m just not very good at this.” Others, however, respond, “I can do this, I’m getting this now, this is interesting.”

Two radically different responses to the same failure. Keep in mind that neither group solved the puzzle. Both groups failed. But that’s not the point, say researchers.

The point is why we respond so differently to our failures. It’s not because of our abilities. It’s not because of our interest either. We’re both capable and engaged in solving the puzzle. So, why the difference?

The answer is simple, yet life-changing, according to Ken Bain in his newest book, “What the Best College Students Do.”

Those who wilt see intelligence as a fixed trait, whereas those who thrive believe that you can expand your smarts with effort. If we believe we’re born with a certain level of brainpower and nothing changes it, then failure to solve the puzzle worries us that we’re just not as smart as we had hoped. We’re confronted with a challenge to our view of ourselves as smart. And so we want out. We often quit.

If, on the other hand, we see effort as mattering more than intelligence, then everything changes. If we see intelligence not as some fixed quality but rather as a collection of abilities that can be improved with effort over time, then we just want to get better at solving puzzles. We no longer care whether we “look smart” to ourselves or others. And that makes all the difference.

Psychologists distinguish between “helpless” and “growth” mindsets. The former believe they just can’t do something because they “aren’t that smart.” The latter feel that they can master new skills and grow their abilities if they try. When they fail, they look for new strategies. And they thrive in the face of setbacks.

Why do many believe that intelligence is a stable, fixed trait that we can’t do anything about? Some say our culture contributes to this false notion. IQ tests and praising smarts instead of effort both probably instill the idea that we’ve either got it or not. In other words, we’re conditioned to believe life depends on our innate level of intelligence, not on how hard we work at growing and stretching our cognitive abilities. On this view, intelligence is a ladder and your place on the rungs is stuck for life.

Can we come up with a better, more encouraging, and more realistic metaphor for intelligence? How about a tree with countless branches, with unique and interconnected limbs representing the many capabilities within each of us to flourish in different ways? On this tree of intelligence, we still maintain standards and we still strive to achieve them, but we are less driven by the desire to compete with others for the best grades or the highest test scores.

This change in attitude toward intelligence can alter our sense of self as well. We’re less inclined to value ourselves based on where we rank or which rung of the ladder we’ve ascended. Instead, we’re more inclined toward intrinsic motivation, the kind that seeks to achieve personal bests rather than winning competitions with others. The only competition is with ourselves. This intrinsic motivation will feed our appetite for learning and grow our minds. Failures then become a kind of nourishment for our own intellectual development, not judgments about our worth or status. Embracing our failures in this way, we become lifelong learners on the vast and flourishing tree of knowledge. We grow our knowledge. We embrace failure to think better.

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