When you are confident in your ability and actions, you are more open to learning how you can improve. My colleague Stacey Finkelstein and I first discovered this in a study in which we asked our American undergraduate students who were enrolled in beginner and advanced French classes what type of teacher they preferred: someone who emphasized what the students did well and gave feedback on their strengths, or who provided feedback Constructive about students’ mistakes. We found that students in the advanced classes were more open to the teacher who gave negative feedback than those in the junior classes. When you study a topic for a long time, you are less concerned that negative comments will crush your commitment and expect that it may motivate you to work even harder.
A lot of these lessons about who can and who can’t stand negative feedback are self-evident. In general, we give more negative reviews to people we consider experts or highly experienced. Most of us don’t need to master the science of motivation to know not to be too harsh with beginners. You’ll know, for example, not to be too critical of a kid who’s learning to play basketball and misses the basket, just as a yoga instructor, with whom I’ve only been taking lessons for a few months, knows to go easy on me. We found this in a study that tested how employees give feedback in the workplace. People who watched the employee’s presentation gave harsher feedback the more they assumed the presenter was working for the company.
Knowing what we know now about how people typically respond to negative feedback, how can we ensure that we learn from our mistakes and stay motivated?
Asking about progress
To maintain motivation, we want the lesson to be from negative feedback about our lack of progress, not our lack of commitment. It may help to ask ourselves certain questions in response to failure or negative feedback. For example, ask the question “Do I feel like I haven’t made progress?” It will prompt us to frame the negative experience in a way that may motivate us to make progress. You may feel that you are progressing too slowly and excited to continue the pace. Ask instead, “Do I feel uncommitted?” It will result in a reassessment of your commitment, and the likely outcome will be that your commitment is low. You may conclude that you are not off from the task or that this goal is not right for you, and your motivation will decrease.
Asking about progress is easier if you already feel confident about your commitment. Your confidence in your ability and prospects is often a better indicator of whether you will master a skill than your actual ability and expectations. When you were learning to walk as a toddler, it was your confidence in your inner strength, not your proven ability, that guided you. The same thing happened when you were learning to read and write. And you didn’t know you could stay afloat until you swam into your first lap. Children are obligated to master these skills without any prior evidence of their ability to do them. It is self-confidence, not evidence, that makes them embark on a task in the first place. It also protects you from the negative impact of negative comments along the way.
Another treatment involves adopting a learning mindset that emphasizes growth. When you learn, your goal is not to “get it right” but to improve your skills. While mistakes and setbacks take you away from your goal of getting it right, they push you in the right direction in terms of your goal to improve a skill. When you mess up a recipe, you may not have a delicious dinner, but you learned a valuable cooking lesson. So, if you set your goal to learn, instead of doing something perfectly, you still make progress even when you fail.
Growth mindset training is a time-tested therapy for increasing resilience in the face of the negative effects of frustration, difficulty, or failure. To develop a growth mindset, you have to understand that learning requires experience and persistence through difficulty. People who undergo this training understand that the brain is not static, rather, it is constantly learning and developing when you face and overcome challenges. Whether you fail or succeed, if you are able to learn from the experience, your mind grows. In one study of growth mindset, David Yeager discovered that training for less than an hour helped ninth graders with low GPAs get better grades in core classes a few months later.
The third treatment involves removing ourselves from the experience of failure. Remember that people learn as much from the failures of others as they do from the successes of others. When your ego isn’t bruised, it’s less likely to back down. By distancing yourself from your failure – for example, by imagining what happened to a stranger – you should be able to learn and stay motivated.
Finally, the fourth strategy for maintaining motivation in the wake of failure involves counseling someone with a similar problem. Consider something you are struggling with. It could be your finances or controlling your temper. Now, think about what advice you could give someone else who has this problem. Most people are reluctant to give advice on something they haven’t mastered yet. After all, how can you help others with something you don’t do well on your own? But I encourage you to move on. Research shows that counseling can help you regain motivation and regain confidence.
To give advice, you have to research your memory to see what you learned about how (or not) achieving your goal. This research into memory only reminds counselors of how much they know. Moreover, in the counseling process, you form specific intentions and create concrete action plans, both of which increase motivation. And if that wasn’t enough, giving advice boosts self-confidence, too.
Lauren Eskreis-Winkler, and Angela Duckworth, and I tested the power of counseling in a study where middle school students gave motivational advice to younger students or received such advice from teachers. Those who gave the advice spent more time doing their homework over the following month. This phenomenon was not unique to young students. Other trials found that adults who struggled to save money, control their nerves, lose weight, or look for work were more motivated to achieve their own goal if they were asked for advice than if they received expert advice. For example, unemployed people who gave advice to others were more motivated to look for a job than another group of unemployed people who learned about the critical role of social networks.
Adapted from get it done by Ayelet Fishbach. Copyright © 2022 Ayelet Fishbach. Used with permission from Little, Brown Spark, an imprint of Little, Brown and Co. New York, New York. all rights are save.
Ayelet Fischbach, Ph.D., is the Jeffrey Breckinridge Keeler Professor of Behavioral Sciences and Marketing at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. Previously, she was president of the Society for the Study of Motivation.