To Succeed or Not to Succeed, That is The Question

Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D. was in private practice for more than thirty years. He is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in the states ...Read More

“To follow, without halt, one aim: There’s the secret of success.” Anna Pavlova(1885-1931), Russian Ballerina.

To clarify, “Isn’t it better to work hard and succeed than to fail? Let’s discuss this.


There are two theoretical mind sets, or ways of thinking about success.

One is the fixed ability mindset in which you begin an easy task thinking that, “This is easy and I am brilliant and, so, I can do this.”  However, if a task is hard your thinking is, “Why bother doing this?” In this way, you are not engaged in the task and risk nothing. Therefore, your self esteem remains intact.

The second is the incremental mindset in which you believe that ability is something that can be nurtured and helped to grow. In this, you begin a task thinking to yourself, I can succeed if I gradually learn as I go, doing things step by step until it’s done. However, “If I try and fail, then it is totally my fault.” In this scenario, one’s self esteem will suffer because there is no one but yourself to blame.

A recent study, led by Yu Niiya, Ph.D., was published in the journal, “Self and Identity.” In the research, two groups of college students were selected based on the fact that getting A’s was important to their self esteem. One group was identified as believing in their fixed abilities. They attributed their A grades to their inherent intellectual capacities. By contrast, the other group were incrementalists. They believed that effort was responsible for their high grades. In other words, gradually study and anything can be mastered. They attributed their A grades to hard work.

All of the students were told they were about to take an SAT type of exam. All of them strongly believed they would do well on the exam. They were told that they were going to listen to a music CD while taking the exam and they could choose between two of them. One CD was presented as enhancing the ability to perform. They were told that the other CD was known to interfere with performance.

Which CD do you think most of the students chose? Logic says that all would have chosen the CD that enhances performance. However, logic doesn’t prevail here! Those who believed their abilities were fixed chose the performance enhancing music. The incremental students selected the CD known to interfere with achievement.

A similar experiment was done that did not involve listening to music. Nevertheless, those thinking in terms of incremental achievement, chose to self-handicap. Once again, they seemed to choose defeat. Why?

The answer:

Basically, if your thinking is incremental, you will tell yourself that you didn’t study, prepare, read, and take the time to learn how to complete the task. You must take responsibility for the failure and it feels awful. The failure is your fault and no one else’s. It simply feels too threatening to blame yourself. Therefore, you tell yourself that any number of other factors are to blame for your failure: 1. “I failed because I was too busy to prepare, 2. We had a quarrel at home and I couldn’t concentrate, 3. I had a hangover from the party last night, 4. The music CD is to blame for my lack of concentration, etc.”

For those who are fixed thinkers, no self blame is necessary because you can tell yourself that a task is beyond your ability and no amount of effort will change the outcome. While this way of thinking is discouraging, at least you do not have to feel responsible.

Recently, I was talking to a friend who is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker. He and his family are moving to another state and he is thinking of quitting the social work profession even though he’s had a successful career. He’s despairing of the fact that he will need to recertify for his licensing in the new state. He is convinced that taking this new social work licensing exam is beyond his abilities and he will fail. He’s a fixed thinker. He chose social work in the first place because he was certain that psychology was too hard for him.

Believing in the incremental theory, an approach I have always subscribed to for myself, I advised him to study for the new exam, even join a study group, of which there are many, and, when he feels he is ready, take the new qualifying exam. In other words, I told him that he would learn and grow from this experience and do quite well on the exam. In other words, I presented him with incremental thinking.  As it turned out, I was right.

Do you undermine your opportunities for success? Do you refuse opportunities for success because you tell yourself you cannot succeed?

I await your responses.

Allan N. Schwartz, PhD

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