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This High-Stakes Assessment is for YOU
By Dr. Jeff Howard
There is a very high-stakes assessment, composed of a single question, which sooner or later confronts every American. How we score on this test is serious business, with profound implications for future learning and success in life. Score well, and a world of possibilities opens up to you. Do poorly, and you are at risk for life in the slow-learner lane, probably with diminished status and earning power. FNOwill administer this assessment to you now (get ready, and concentrate):
What does it mean when you encounter failure or difficulty when you are trying to learn something new?
Seriously. Think about a time when you needed to learn something new and challenging - perhaps high school geometry, or how to operate the electronic gizmos in a new car - and you discovered that it was hard, and you couldn't immediately "get" how to do it. What did you do? How did you think about it?
If you are like most Americans, and most American children, initial failure or difficulty at something new and challenging is evidence that, as kids might say, "I can't do it." Failures are indicators of our limitations; proof of our relative inferiority (compared to those who can). If, like most Americans, you have these kinds of thoughts whenever you discover that something new doesn't come easily, you fail the FNO high-stakes assessment. This has important implications: All of us live in a demanding, competitive age, where we are required to learn new skills all the time. But if you're inclined to believe that difficulty equates to inability, you can probably be counted on to give up whenever you face the challenge of something that "doesn't come easy." And in this world, that's gonna cost you. It probably already has.
But all is not lost. You could learn the correct response to the test. You can learn to think in a new way. Here it is: Failure and Difficulty are Feedback (FADAF) - they are the perfect source of information about what you need to work on to improve.Difficulty doesn't indicate that you can't do it, or that you are "slow," or in any way inferior. It just tells you that what you're doing isn't working, and that you need to figure out a better way. Learn to think about it that way and you won't be so inclined to quit early on a challenging task. Think "FADAF" and bear down. When you face difficulty, study what's going wrong, and make feedback - that is, analyze the problem to identify what you need to do to improve. It's really not that hard, when you learn to think about it correctly.
Here's a recent, real-life example: I couldn't figure out how to operated the ventilation system on my new car. I fiddled with it, but I just couldn't figure out how the thing worked. Frustrated, I pulled out the phone and was about to beg the dealer for help when I heard a voice in the back of my head say, "Why don't you FADAF it?" So I said to myself, "Okay, I'm not getting this by fiddling with it so maybe... the Owner's Manual?" I found the page and followed the directions, written there in plain English. Believe it or not this strategy actually worked, and made me feel very smart.
Each of us confronts the single-question FNO assessment every day. Getting it right comes from internalizing a FADAF orientation, which causes us to respond to everyday difficulty with greater focus, common sense, and determination. With that combination you build confidence - it turns out there's not much you cannot figure out how to do. Once you learn this, really learn it, you can teach it to our kids.
Jeff Howard's dissertation for the Harvard University School of Social and Public Psychology outlines the effects of group expectancy on individual performance behavior, affect, and cognitions.
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