If You’re Not Outside Your Comfort Zone, You Won’t Learn Anything

Harvard Business Review

JULY 29, 2016
You need to speak in public, but your knees buckle even before you reach the podium. You want to expand your network, but you’d rather swallow nails than make small talk with strangers. Speaking up in meetings would further your reputation at work, but you’re afraid of saying the wrong thing. Situations like these — ones that are important professionally, but personally terrifying — are, unfortunately, ubiquitous. An easy response to these situations is avoidance. Who wants to feel anxious when you don’t have to?

But the problem, of course, is that these tasks aren’t just unpleasant; they’re also necessary. As we grow and learn in our jobs and in our careers, we’re constantly faced with situations where we need to adapt our behavior. It’s simply a reality of the world we work in today. And without the skill and courage to take the leap, we can miss out on important opportunities for advancement. How can we as professionals stop building our lives around avoiding these unpleasant, but professionally beneficial, tasks?

First, be honest with yourself. When you turned down that opportunity to speak at a big industry conference, was it really because you didn’t have the time, or were you scared to step on a stage and present? And when you didn’t confront that coworker who had been undermining you, was it really because you felt he would eventually stop, or was it because you were terrified of conflict? Take an inventory of the excuses you tend to make about avoiding situations outside your comfort zone and ask yourself if they are truly legitimate. If someone else offered you those same excuses about their behavior, would you see these as excuses or legitimate reasons to decline? The answer isn’t always clear, but you’ll never be able to overcome inaction without being honest about your motives in the first place.

Then, make the behavior your own. Very few people struggle in every single version of a formidable work situation. You might have a hard time making small talk generally, but find it easier if the topic is something you know a lot about. Or you may have a hard time networking, except when it’s in a really small setting.

Recognize these opportunities and take advantage — don’t chalk this variability up to randomness. For many years, I’ve worked with people struggling to step outside their comfort zones at work and in everyday life, and what I’ve found is that we often have much more leeway than we believe to make these tasks feel less loathsome. We can often find a way to tweak what we have to do to make it palatable enough to perform by sculpting situations in a way that minimizes discomfort. For example, if you’re like me and get queasy talking with big groups during large, noisy settings, find a quiet corner of that setting to talk, or step outside into the hallway or just outside the building. If you hate public speaking and networking events, but feel slightly more comfortable in small groups, look for opportunities to speak with smaller groups or set up intimate coffee meetings with those you want to network with.

Finally, take the plunge. In order to step outside your comfort zone, you have to do it, even if it’s uncomfortable. Put mechanisms in place that will force you to dive in, and you might discover that what you initially feared isn’t as bad as you thought.

For example, I have a history of being uncomfortable with public speaking. In graduate school I took a public speaking class and the professor had us deliver speeches — using notes — every class. Then, after the third or fourth class, we were told to hand over our notes and to speak extemporaneously. I was terrified, as was everyone else in the course, but you know what? It actually worked. I did just fine, and so did everyone else. In fact, speaking without notes ended up being much more effective, making my speaking more natural and authentic. But without this mechanism of forcing me into action, I might never have taken the plunge.

Start with small steps. Instead of jumping right into speaking at an industry event, sign up for a public speaking class. Instead of speaking up in the boardroom, in front of your most senior colleagues, start by speaking up in smaller meetings with peers to see how it feels. And while you’re at it, see if you can recruit a close friend or colleague to offer advice and encouragement in advance of a challenging situation.

You may stumble, but that’s OK. In fact, it’s the only way you’ll learn, especially if you can appreciate that missteps are an inevitable — and in fact essential — part of the learning process. In the end, even though we might feel powerless in situations outside our comfort zone, we have more power than we think. So, give it a go. Be honest with yourself, make the behavior your own, and take the plunge. My guess is you’ll be pleased at having given yourself the opportunity to grow, learn, and expand your professional repertoire.


Andy Molinsky is a Professor of Organizational Behavior at the Brandeis International Business School. His forthcoming book, Reach: A New Strategy to Help You Step Outside Your Comfort Zone, Rise to the Challenge, and Build Confidence is to be published by Penguin Random House in January 2017. For more information visit andymolinsky.com and follow Andy on Twitter @andymolinsky.

Scared About the Next 4 Years? Take a Lesson From Improv Comedy

I know yesterday was a rough day for many. Popular words on my FB feed included grief, depression, shock, sadness, disbelief.

When times are tough, it might seem tempting to try to find the “eject” button and apply for Canadian citizenship. Or take advantage of California’s new legalized marijuana resolution to check out on a 4-year high.

But as many commentators have already pointed out, what is really needed is for us to step even further into the ring and do our best to all move forward together.

Which is why I wrote this post. To do my part to offer a tool to navigate your mind and spirit during a paradigm-shifting event such as this election might have been for you.

I have seen many great articles and blogs that have attempted to soothe the depressed spirit with a “it’s not as bad as you might think” message. They logically point out that Donald Trump won’t be able to make large changes in a political system such as ours… or that no matter who won, half the country would have been upset and so why does it matter if it’s your side or theirs… or that this sort of thing has happened before in US politics, and it didn’t sink us then so why would it sink us now?

These are all great arguments that bring a lot of comfort. The perspective that I want to add is how to accept what has happened so that you can build strongly upon it and make your presence in this nation count moving forward.

And we’ll do so with a lesson from Improv Comedy.

You may have noticed that Improv actors use a technique called “Yes, and,” which is the concept that you accept whatever move your partner just made, and build on it. For example, at my improv class last weekend, I was partnered with a classmate Jake, and we were told that we should improvise a scene with a car. I wanted the scene to be one of a girl getting driving lessons from her father. But before I could speak the words to frame the scene, my partner jumped in and had us be two bank robbers fleeing the scene of the crime. Not exactly what I had in mind. I was miffed.

But instead of resisting that plot line, I accepted it. I did my best imitation of a frantic car chase (which, to be clear, I am utterly terrible at. Cross that one off my list of potential careers.). And by embracing the scene I now found myself in, I was able to add the fact that I was a junior bank robber, and I was getting bank robbing lessons from the “big boss.” I ended up introducing the element of paternalistic instruction that I wanted; it was just with a gun in my hand and a sack of loot at my feet. The scene was fun and funny, and a big hit.

Contrast the “Yes, and” with the “No, but” approach. Had I responded to my partner that “we’re not bank robbers! You’re my dad and we are taking a driving test,” then the scene would have come to a screeching, awkward halt. My partner would have been offended, I would have been indignant, and I promise you that no one would have laughed.

The key to the “Yes, and” is acceptance. Acceptance means that you don’t waste your energy trying to resist something that you cannot change, and instead embrace it. Yes, embrace it. That doesn’t mean that you would have chosen it, but rather that you recognize that that is where things are now, and you commit to being fully receptive to what is. I

t’s only in that receptivity that you can really understand a situation enough to plot your “And.” This is something that we learn in the Serenity Prayer:

“Grant me the Serenity to accept the things I cannot change,

Courage to change the things I can,

and Wisdom to know the difference.”

The “Yes” is the serenity of accepting what is. The “and” is the courage to make a change. And the wisdom comes in linking the two.

So, folks, what has to happen now is that we all must become skilled Improv artists. Donald Trump will be the 45th president of the United States. Yes, and what will you build upon it? What will you add to the scene? The future of our country will be shaped by all of our “Ands.” If there is one thing I have learned from Improv Comedy, it’s that some of the best scenes come from those Ands. What will be yours?

Write me a note and share your thoughts!

In care,

What the Heck Is Restorative Justice?

With the right training and support, restorative justice can prove more effective than traditional discipline measures in building a stronger school community.

I’m going to simplify the new school management term du jour (that’s actually been around for awhile): restorative justice. Google the term and you’ll see restorative justice is defined as “a system of criminal justice that focuses on the rehabilitation of offenders through reconciliation with victims and the community at large.” It may sound like a term used in a prison. (It is, actually.)

But let’s state it in the way it is being used in our schools. In sum, restorative justice helps a student to own what she/he did, make it right for those hurt or affected, and involve the community in helping both the victim and the offender. Restorative justice acknowledges that those who do wrong need healing as well.

The myth is that restorative justice replaces harsher consequences. The truth is that restorative justice represents the steps that lead up to more harsh consequences, should they be necessary.

The Process of Restorative Justice

Sometimes in educational discipline we whip out the cannons of suspension first. But with the right training and support from all stakeholders, restorative justice can prove much more effective in building a stronger school community. And, let’s face it, the challenge of making amends is a task that, for many kids, is far harder than just staying home for three days.

According to Howard Zehr, a recognized founding father of restorative justice, the concept is based on three pillars:

  1. Harms and needs
  2. Obligation (to put right)
  3. Engagement (of stakeholders)

In other words:

1. Empathy for all and by all. There must be awareness that while harm was done to a victim — and possibly a larger community — there may also have been past harm done to the accused as well, and that harm may be a factor in his or her behavior.

2. A mumbled “sorry” is not enough. There must be a process, a moderated one, which helps the accused somehow right the wrong that was committed.

3. Everyone is involved in the healing. There must include a dialogue with all parties — victim, offender, and even community — in order to genuinely move on and have an impact.

How About the Term Restorative Justice?

While I think the strategy of restorative justice is one that many schools should be using, I think the term isn’t great. I don’t have anything against the individual words per se. After all, the words restorative and justice sound lovely by themselves. When I hear the word restorative, I think about building back one’s strength after a sickness. I think about honoring one’s dignity and helping to rebuild what was taken away. When I think about justice, I think about fairness, equitable opportunities, and using the strength of a system to stand up for what is right.

But somehow, when you put the two words together, they take on a different sound that does a disservice to the term’s intention. Why use such a loaded term? I think — and I’m just musing here — that it has to do with critics of “softer” discipline. I believe restorative justice is a term meant to instill toughness, while really meaning empathy and using more compassionate steps before utilizing more stringent ones.

But, the fact is, restorative justice is a vital component in any larger discipline plan. Schools must have strategies whereby they help students work out their differences and their arguments. Schools must play a part in helping students understand why they do things and how to think beyond their emotional impulses.

Restorative Justice Supports Student Brain Development

And this isn’t just fluffy thinking here. We’re talking about brain development and acknowledging that when we ask students to make good decisions, their brains might not yet be wired to do what we are asking of them. That doesn’t mean we don’t have rules or expectations. It doesn’t mean we don’t give consequences for not functioning within those rules. But it does mean that we must acknowledge that, as the book by the National Institute of Mental Health says, children’s brains are “still under construction.”

We know, for instance, that the part of the brain that houses impulse control is one of the last parts of the brain to become fully formed. And it doesn’t really finish its neural-evolution until the early 20s. We also know that poverty, hormones, andpoor nutrition and hunger can play a role in one’s brain development.

Heck, even a fight with your best friend can influence a decision that can put a kid on the naughty list. So for all of those reasons, we can’t assume “criminal” intentions of our students without providing the steps to help see them through the gloom that can simply be defined as childhood and adolescence.

Some, like me, may consider the term restorative justice a little harsh, but the goal of utilizing restorative justice before harsher methods of discipline is, for lack of a better word, just.

Nudges That Help Struggling Students Succeed

When I was in high school, I earned A’s in all my math classes — until I took calculus. In algebra and geometry, I could coast on memorizing formulas, but now I had to think for myself.

It was disastrous, culminating in my getting a charity “C,” and I barely passed my college calculus class.

The reason, I was convinced, was that I didn’t have a math mind. I have avoided the subject ever since.

It turns out that I got it wrong. While it’s unlikely that I could have become a math whiz, it wasn’t my aptitude for math that was an impediment; it was my belief that I had the impediment to begin with.

I’m not the only person convinced that he can’t like math. Millions of college freshmen flunk those courses and, because algebra is often required, many drop out of school altogether. A report from the Mathematical Association of America flagged math as “the most significant barrier” to graduation.

This fatalistic equation can be altered. In scores of rigorously conducted studies, social psychologists have demonstrated that brief experiences can have a powerful and long-lasting impact on students’ academic futures by changing their mind-sets before they get to college.

Consider these examples from three recent studies:

• A cohort of sixth-grade students was taught, in eight lessons, that intelligence is malleable, not fixed, and that the brain is a muscle that grows stronger with effort. Their math grades, which had been steadily declining, rose substantially, while the grades of classmates who learned only about good study habits continued to get worse.

• When an English teacher critiqued black male adolescents’ papers, she added a sentence stating that she had high expectations and believed that, if the student worked hard, he could meet her exacting standards. Eighty-eight percent of those students rewrote the assignment and put more effort into rewriting, while just a third of their peers, who were given comments that simply provided feedback, did the same.

• In a series of short written exercises, sixth graders wrote about values that were meaningful to them, like spending time with their family and friends. After this experience, white students did no better, but their black and Latino classmates improved so much that the achievement gap shrank by 40 percent.

There is every reason to be skeptical of these findings. Like magic spells cast by a modern-day Merlin, they sound much too good to be true. Why should brief interventions carry so much punch when more intricate and costly strategies — everything from summer school to single-sex education — are often less effective?

Innovative social-psychological thinking, not magic, is at work here. These interventions focus on how kids, hunched over their desks in the back of the classroom, make sense of themselves and their environment. They can be brief but powerful because they concentrate on a single core belief.

There are three strategies represented here. The first, pioneered by the Stanford social psychology professor Carol Dweck and illustrated by the initial example, aims to change students’ mind-sets by showing them that their intelligence can grow through deliberate work. I’ve written about Dr. Dweck’s theories as applied to college students, but they are just as successful with students in middle school.

The second uses constructive critical feedback to instill trust in minority adolescents, a demonstrably powerful way to advance their social and intellectual development.

The third intervention — and in some ways, the most powerful — invites students to acknowledge their self-worth, combating the corrosive effects of racial stereotypes, by having them focus on a self-affirming value.

These interventions are designed to combat students’ negative feelings. I’m dumb, some believe; I don’t belong here; the school views me only as a member of an unintelligent group. The first two experiences give students the insight that brain work will make them smarter. The third invites them to situate themselves on the path to belonging or to connect with their values in a classroom setting. The goals are to build up their resilience and prepare them for adversity.

The impact, in all these studies, is greatest on black and Latino students. That makes sense, since as adolescents they are far more inclined to see teachers as prejudiced and school as a hostile environment. As these youths come to feel more secure, they are likely to make a greater effort. Success begets success. They start earning A’s and B’s instead of C’s, they take tougher classes and connect more readily with like-minded students.

An unpublished study by social psychologists shows that the impact echoes years later. African-American seventh graders who were asked to write about the most important value in their lives were propelled on an entirely different path from classmates who wrote about neutral topics. Two years later, the students in the first group were earning better grades and were more likely to be on track for college, rather than in remedial classes.

The reverberations persisted beyond high school. These students were more likely to graduate, to enroll in college and to attend more selective institutions.

Can this kind of intervention work on a grander scale? A 2015 study conducted by researchers at Stanford and the University of Texas suggests so. When 45-minute growth-mind-set interventions were delivered online to 1,500 students in 13 high schools scattered across the country, the weakest students were significantly more likely to earn satisfactory grades in their core courses than classmates who didn’t have the same intervention.

Using the same approach nationwide, the researchers conclude, would mean 1.8 million more completed courses each year, hundreds of thousands fewer students departing high school with no diploma, slotted into dead-end futures.

Let’s be clear — these brief interventions aren’t a silver bullet, a quick-and-easy way to transform K-12 education. While they can complement good educational practice, they are no substitute for quality in the classroom.

Students who come to see themselves as the masters of their own destiny can take advantage of opportunities to learn, but only if those opportunities exist. They won’t learn biology unless there’s a biology class, and they won’t learn to be critical thinkers unless the school makes that a priority. What’s more, as the researchers are quick to point out, a brief intervention can’t even begin to address the pernicious effects of poverty and discrimination.

Still, these experiences require a trivial amount of time, cost next to nothing and can make an outsize difference in students’ lives. What’s not to like?

Slow Deciders Make Better Strategists

Harvard Business Review

JULY 08, 2016

There are many ways to split people into two groups. Young and old. Rich and poor. Us and them. The 98% who can do arithmetic and the 3% who cannot. Those who split people into two groups and those who don’t.

Then there’s the people who make good competitive-strategy decisions, and those who don’t.

It’s not easy to split people into the good/bad strategy decision-makers. Track records are useful but they’re not unambiguous, and those getting started have no track records at all. General intelligence and business degrees seem to be good signs, but smart people with business degrees don’t agree on what works in strategy. Veterans with specific industry expertise look promising, but so do outsiders with new ideas.

What about mindset? We know people put credence in confidence. However, it seems to me there’s a difference between someone who’s confident after laboring over a thoughtful decision and someone who’s confident with a snap judgment. It seems to me there’s a difference between someone who’s unsure after serious contemplation and someone who’s unsure about a quick pick.

Imagine that we can record decision-makers’ solutions to a competitive-strategy problem. We also ask how confident they feel that they’ve found a good answer and how long it took them to find it. We can categorize them, then, like this:

W160623_CHUSSIL_FOURSTYLES

I’ve got such a database of people, those who have entered the Top Pricer Tournament. The database includes business executives, consultants, professors, and students. I gave all of them the same unfamiliar but straightforward pricing-strategy problem.

Dozens of Tournament entrants said they were very confident in their strategies after making a fast decision, dozens said they were very confident after a slow decision, and so on. The phrases in the boxes are how I interpret the mindsets of the people in those boxes. In the analysis below I’ll leave out the respondents in the “I guessed” box because they seem unrepresentative of what happens in real life, where strategists work at strategy decisions until they’re confident in their answers or they’ve worked long enough to conclude they’re not going to make further progress.

In general, the I-already-knows, confident in their snap judgments, and the Now-I-knows, confident after pondering, tend to be older males. Male business students are also represented in the I-already-knows. The I-don’t-knows, unsure of their thoughtful decisions, tend to be somewhat younger. And females make up well over half of the I-don’t-knows, a much higher percentage than in the other mindsets.

Make your prediction: which of the three styles selected the best-performing Tournament strategies?

The best-performing group: the I-don’t-knows.

Perhaps it’s about age: we gain confidence over time, but maybe not skill. Perhaps it’s about gender: rather than the conventional wisdom that females don’t have enough confidence, maybe males have too much. I don’t have enough data yet to assess those hypotheses. And perhaps the results will change as the sample sizes grow.

Still, the I-don’t-knows’ success fits my business war-gaming experience.

In one case, the new vice president of a troubled business brought together about thirty managers, each with decades in the business. The managers considered the war game an amusing waste of time. They all knew the answer already, they said, and no other options were possible. Then, role-playing their business and its competitors, they discovered that their already-known answer simply would not work. The manag­ers suddenly found new options. We war-gamed one, and it worked, and they rolled it out in real life, and it worked. The new VP got promoted.

It’s not that the managers didn’t care or were incompetent; it’s that they were overconfident. When you think you know the answer, you sincerely believe it’s a waste of time to keep looking for it. It feels like continuing to search for your keys after you’ve found them.

I think the essential lesson for competitive-strategy decision-makers is not so fast, in both senses of the phrase: take your time and don’t be so sure. That’s the mindset used by the new VP and the I-don’t-knows.

The willingness to apply that mindset is what separates the good decision-makers from the bad.

Author note: I’d like to expand the Tournament database. I offer use of the Tournament in confidence and at no charge to faculty in business schools and executive-education programs, and to facilitators at corporate universi­ties and management-development programs. Please contact me at TopPricer@DecisionTournaments.com.

Mark Chussil is the Founder and CEO of Advanced Competitive Strategies, Inc. He has conducted business war games, taught strategic thinking, and written strategy simulators for Fortune 500 companies around the world.

Why Teachers Should Try New Things

Try: A Little Word Becomes a Big Gift

“Shoot for the Moon.
Even if you miss, you’ll land among the stars.”
– Les Brown

Taking risks is invigorating! It’s a gift that you give yourself. The newness is refreshing and energizing. My personal philosophy is “Learn Forward” — moving with forward momentum, embracing each season, and experiencing life with a sense of adventure. My heart is filled with the hope that you’ll give yourself the opportunity (and gift) of taking a risk, learning, and growing.

Carol Dweck‘s research teaches us how invaluable a growth mindset is in our culture. I want to get really practical with that research. Here’s the big idea:

When was the last time that you tried something for the first time?

Besides being a great conversation starter at your next social event, this question encourages us to consider the gift of risk taking. It’s exhilarating, challenging, and stimulating. I don’t care if it’s jumping out of an airplane or trying a new instructional strategy — your true potential is unknown and unknowable. So isn’t the risk worth the possible growth that you might achieve? Give yourself the gift of trying something new.

Rising to the Challenge

This winter, I tried something new — the challenge of doing a webinar. While I love technology and use many apps on a daily basis, I’m not a techie. I practically break out in hives when something goes wrong. So trying to manage a live webinar was not high on my list of “things I want to try some day.” But I conceded to try, and I designed some content for parents. Then I launched my first webinar about ten days before Christmas, because I hoped there would only be a few faithful fans joining me virtually — you know, those who would be gentle with my risk taking.

After my first webinar, I decided I could build on my brief and understated experience. I chose one of my favorite topics: cultivating cultures of community in schools. While writing content with passion, I enjoyed living in my comfort zone. But then, each time I taped the “Webinar in Progress” sign onto my office door, I shuddered. Over the next six weeks, I did three more webinars. Was it an overnight success? Nope. However, I now have webinars under my belt and some high-quality content developed in a unique format that allows educational leaders to access it and use broadly with their teams.

What might be a more important outcome is that I tried something new. I was challenged and curious. I remembered how it felt to be a learner. I engaged in the same process as the teachers on my team, the students in my classrooms, the parents in my community. I was forced to learn forward. I still have tons to learn about webinars and all sorts of online content, but the learning process and growth mindset are fresh. I feel renewed in my work and willing to try again.

Pedagogy, Parents, and Personalization

In Adam Grant’s 2016 TED talk, “The Surprising Habits of Original Thinkers,”he states, “If you look across fields, the greatest originals are the ones who fail the most, because they’re the ones who try the most.” That significant little, three-letter word is try.

Of course, each of us is in a completely different space in our professional development. We need to take risks in different ways aligned with our hopes and goals. What I know for sure is that it will be a great gift of renewal and inspiration.

Here are a few ideas for taking risks in education:

1. Try a new pedagogy.

Pedagogy is the method or practice of teaching an academic subject or theoretical concept. We are pedagogues, yet we can always try new methods or practices and take risks. It will be out of our comfort zone and might even be scary. We won’t feel like an expert, but it might be exhilarating, and who knows what our potential is? What new pedagogy can you risk? Project-based learning? A new technology? A different assessment method? Student-led conferences? It’s a great gift that you can give yourself (and Edutopia has a brilliant library of topics).

2. Try to connect in a new way with parents.

A teacher friend recently described her celebration ceremony with parents and students — a banquet that was literally chicken soup for the soul. While it took some effort to explain why cupcakes and candy weren’t included, her homemade warmth and nourishment came in bowls of hearty chicken noodle soup, giving reverence to the learning.

Her story offers an example of taking a risk with parents. Maybe your risk is creating an opportunity to build a connection with an immigrant family facilitated by a translator. Maybe the risk is inviting your parents to volunteer and contribute in new ways. Maybe it’s a song, poetry, or a reading performance. The ideas are as diverse as the readers of this post. The risk will be rewarded with wonderful gifts.

3. Try to personalize learning.

It’s a tall order to consider personalized learning. We aren’t totally sure how to accomplish it. We understand differentiated learning a bit better. In my region of the continent, “personalized learning” is becoming a common buzzword that we’re all trying to figure out how to achieve. What I know for sure is that we’ll need to take some risks in our instructional design and planning, empowering the student to be responsible for his or her learning.

Recently I heard Charles Fadel speak at a conference, encouraging, “We are underestimating the capacity of our students to design their own learning.” What if student engagement, learning, and achievement increase when we personalize the experience even further? What if the students love it? I encourage us to be willing to try. Tell your administrator what you’re working on or find another encouraging thought partner.

Courage to Try

The gift of this little three-letter word, try, is that you’ll automatically have a story to tell your students. You can write the word on the whiteboard and share risks that each of you is taking this week. It will be a wonderful celebration of learning, with magic enough to encourage every teacher’s heart. We’d love to hear about your efforts to try something new in the classroom. Let’s create some positivity with tweets about the #couragetotry. And also feel free to respond in the comments section of this post.

Journal Questions

  • Describe the last time that you felt energized when you tried something new in the classroom.
  • Why were you energized by that event?
  • How could trying something new be important for you this season?

The Growth Mindset – “Nice Try!” Is Not Enough

NY Times Motherlode
By KJ DELL’ANTONIA JANUARY 21, 2016

Among the most-uttered phrases of my generation of parents have to be these: “Great effort!” “Nice try!” “I can tell you worked so hard!”

Many of us have sipped from the well of research suggesting that children praised for effort rather than ability stick to their work longer, pursue more creative solutions and enjoy the whole process more. Those kids, we want to believe, get what Carol Dweck, a professor of psychology at Stanford University, calls the “growth mind-set:” the belief that their abilities can be developed, as opposed to a “fixed mind-set” in which innate aptitude limits the ability to learn.

The growth mind-set has joined “grit” in the pantheon of desirable qualities we long to bestow upon our children, while secretly suspecting that those particular gifts aren’t ours for the giving. We have collectively seized on the idea that a growth mind-set leads to success, while a fixed mind-set produces the child on the floor sobbing “I can’t. I’m bad at this. I’ll never get it.”

And so we sing the effort song again and again, even when the result of that effort is perhaps not all that we would wish, and even when we know that their effort was strongly boosted by our behind-the-scenes help in varying forms. In doing so, we take a big idea — that the ability to keep trying matters more than immediate success — and drag it down to a small scale. While we’re at it, we risk teaching our children to expect that any effort, no matter how puny or how enabled, should be enough to earn them the results they desire.

That’s far from the real message of the research surrounding the growth mind-set. The exclusive focus on effort has been misplaced, says Dr. Dweck, whose book “Mindset: The New Psychology of Success” delivered the phrase into popular culture. The emphasis should be on learning as an active process, not a goal. “We’re not just saying ‘effort’ anymore,” she says. “We also talk about using good strategies and getting help from others.” Part of a growth mind-set is being willing to learn how best to learn. “Parents may be familiar with the growth mind-set, but they may be using it toward the goal of the next test grade or school application. That’s not what it is. It’s about learning and improving and loving the process. Those other things come about as a byproduct.”

Just as effort alone can’t deliver results, praising effort isn’t enough to help a child develop a love for the challenge of learning. Both parents and teachers should follow that “great effort” message with something more. Dr. Dweck provides a list of suggestions in an article for Education Week. When a child is trying but not succeeding, she writes, appreciate the effort, then add “Let’s talk about what you’ve tried, and what you can try next.” When a child is discouraged, avoid the “you can do it if you try” trap. Instead, acknowledge the challenge. “That feeling of math being hard is the feeling of your brain growing.”

As children get older, parents can also talk with them about the ways their successes haven’t been entirely dependent on their own efforts, no matter how great those have been. “They should recognize that not everyone has the opportunities to develop their abilities in the same way,” says Dr. Dweck. “Other kids may be working hard, but not have people teaching them the right strategies, or giving them the help they need to flourish.”

Children growing up with parents and teachers who care about helping them develop a “growth mind-set” are already ahead of the game. As parents, we can encourage them to use the strategies and skills they develop in both smaller and larger ways.

“I worry that kids aren’t being taught to dream big any more,” says Dr. Dweck. “It’s so grade-focused. I feel like parents should be focusing on what contribution children can make. What’s the purpose of growing up and having an education and developing skills? What kind of impact are you going to have on the world?” A growth mind-set, she says, should help a child feel fortunate to have the opportunity to make a difference.

It’s a somewhat complex lesson we hope to convey: It’s not enough just to try, you have to eventually find a way to learn, and yet it’s not all about immediate or even long-term success. As temptingly simple as the whole “praise effort, not ability” concept seemed, there are no shortcuts to the growth mind-set, not for our children — or for ourselves.

Ironically, it’s easy for adults to fall victim to a “fixed mind-set” about our own children. We need to remember that an appreciation for challenge, and a belief that we can find a way to change, learn and grow, can’t itself be fixed in place. Instead, we all struggle with fear and discouragement at times. Sometimes we run toward new experiences. Sometimes we have to find a way to learn something we really did not want to learn. Sometimes, some part of us is always on the floor, sobbing: “I can’t. I’m bad at this. I’ll never get it.”

So how do you raise a child with a growth mind-set, along with a nice healthy appreciation for where it came from and the will to keep it strong? By applying the encouraging messages of the growth mind-set to yourself. I’ll borrow, out of context, another phrase from Dr. Dweck: “The point isn’t to get it all right away. The point is to grow your understanding step by step. What can you try next?”

That’s a great thing to say to our children, and just as important a thing to say to ourselves.