Portals of discovery-

Portals of discovery-

Portals of discovery- 


How do you turn your mistakes into portals of discovery and change your mindset from static to growth?


Jack Welch, the legendary CEO of the mega conglomerate General Electric, popularized an error minimization technique called six-sigma. In a normal distribution of events (the famous bell curve) six standard deviations (sigmas) account for 99.99966% of the population.The gist of six-sigma is that Jack Welch’s tolerance for errors was less than four mistakes per million events. That sounds amazing until you realize that across the globe more than twenty-five million airplanes take off each year.


A plane crash is a NEVER event. It should never happen. But airplanes DO crash. Even airline pilots, with all their dedication, talent and training can’t do much better than six-sigma. Most of us are not as careful as airline pilots and we don’t live our lives with a six sigma mentality. We are bound to make mistakes with more frequency than we’d care to admit. One question is: what is the best way to learn from our mistakes?


An experiment that elucidates the brain’s response to errors was performed at University of Kansas in 2017. A group of volunteers played a game that was rigged to elicit mistakes; the players had no path to victory. Afterwards, the volunteers were divided into two subsets.


Group A was told, “Don’t feel bad about your performance. You did your best.” The researchers rehashed the game. They guided the volunteers on a logical dissection of each error with the aim of learning something from each mistake.


Group B was told, “Let’s explore your emotions regarding your failure.” The scientists did not engage in a blow-by-blow analysis of the errors. The researchers encouraged the volunteers to dwell on their negative feelings as long as they’d like.


Both groups were then asked to play the game again. Which group, A or B, do you think did better during the repeat?


James Joyce, one of the most influential authors of the 20th century, said, “A man’s mistakes are his portals of discovery.”


One way to make the most of your mistakes is to train your brain to have a growth mindset. People who, like James Joyce, believe that most mistakes provide them an opportunity to learn something new may be said to possess a growing brain. Hallmarks of a growth mindset are regarding errors as “teachable moments” or “wake up calls.”


On the other end of the spectrum is a static mindset. A person who believes that his brain has a fixed capacity and that he can’t become any smarter is said to have a static brain. People with static mindsets believe they are able to learn more things through experience, but their intelligence and creativity is fixed.


A multi-institutional investigation in 2017, spearheaded by scientists at the University of Southern California and Michigan state, explored the differences in brain activation in growth versus static mindset. The researchers subjected a group of volunteers to neuropsychological testing, which determined the type of mindset they possessed. The volunteers then underwent functional magnetic resonance imaging of their brains while being asked a series of questions. Depending on the nature of the questions being asked, the volunteers with growth mindsets and static mindsets had vastly different activities in two different brain areas (the ventral striatum (a reward area) and the insular cortex (an area that is active during psychological conflicts) and the neurons that connected them.


So what is more likely to encourage a growth mindset: exploring your emotions regarding failure or logical assessment of mistakes with an eye towards improvement? As a neurosurgeon whose undergraduate training was in the hard sciences (biochemistry) I would have guessed the answer was ‘A’ and I would have been mistaken. 


The researchers at University of Kansas found the opposite to be true. Group B, the volunteers who dwelled on their negative feelings, did much better on the second go round. It seems that emotion, rather than logic opens the portal leading to the growth mindset.