Teaching Growth Mindset with Famous Failures

Lucky for me, lessons on Growth Mindset were embedded in our Methods in Mathematics course at NC State CED with Dr. Valerie Faulkner, so it just became part of who I am as an educator.  Reading Carol Dweck’s book and Mindsets in the Classroom probably helped as well; and it didn’t hurt that the district rolled it out county wide during my first year of teaching.  There are a lot of ways to teach children about Growth Mindset, but one of my favorites is to introduce them to Famous Failures.  Before Dr. Faulkner and Growth Mindset, I’d have never put Michael Jordan on that list …he’s a big name in sports, particularly in North Carolina where he was born and played basketball before the NBA.  In 1978, high school sophomore Jordan (5’10” then) didn’t get a varsity roster spot even though friend and 6’7″ classmate Leroy Smith did.  Articles here and here explain, while another reports an upset Jordan “went home, locked himself in his room and cried.”  Kid President says it best:  “What if Michael Jordan had quit? He wouldn’t have made Space Jam, and I love Space Jam!”  So yes, I like to show this Pep Talk first:


Depending upon our experiences, we think of Space Jam and/or 6 NBA Championships when we hear Michael Jordan’s name, and often give little regard to the hard work that made this success happen.  As Vince Lombardi has pointed out, “The only place success comes before work is in the dictionary.”

Salt in His Shoes will provide some insight into Michael’s childhood:  No, he wasn’t always 6′ 6″ tall!  You can either use as a read aloud or share one from YouTube.  Either way, your students will hear the message of patience and persistence.  Next, I love to share these two commercials where Michael lists his failures and explains that basketball is something he worked for every single day of his life.


Another lesson I learned from Dr. Faulkner’s instruction was the importance of “deliberate practice”and how it takes 10,000 hours of it to become an expert.  Michael Jordan obviously spent countless hours deliberately practicing specific skills.  I share with my students that Michael worked a lot of time on this in the gym while his friends were out doing other things.  He didn’t just randomly throw the ball up at the ceiling or roll it across the court during those hours:  If he was practicing free throws, he’d line up just so with his toes pointed in a specific direction. He’d visualize the shot and so forth and follow these steps consciously each time. While it’s tempting to include unconsciously, this article points out “when performance is automatic, you won’t be able to improve it.”  I weave this story into our work together frequently throughout the school year.

Contributor, Karl Steinkamp aptly refers to this as “The Lonely Work” in his June 6, 2017 post.  You’ll want to check out his site for other reflective pieces that explore the topics of Grit and Failure in more depth.  Thanks to Karl, I’ll have this video clip of Michael Phelps demonstrating the countless hours of hard work behind the swimmer’s success in the Rio 2016 Olympic Games.  For readers with high school students, you may consider showing Redemption (a short video including the Under Armour spot along with snippets of Phelp’s DUI footage and interview with Bob Costas) and sharing this Sports Illustrated article since both illustrate that failure can come after success as well.

While my 8- to 10-year-olds won’t be viewing Redemption, I do like the Famous Failures video below which starts off with Michael Jordan, but continues with Albert Einstein, Oprah Winfrey, Walt Disney, Lionel Messi, Steve Jobs, Eminem (I always close the projector window at 1:19 and reopen at 1:36 for my elementary students), Thomas Edison, The Beatles, Dr. Suess, and Abraham Lincoln. Every year, we are amazed that Walt Disney was fired for “lacking imagination” and that Dr. Suess was rejected 27 times!  [For readers following Sean Gaillard, what if The Beatles had listened to Decca Recording Studios? Thankfully they didn’t!  Read about #ThePepperMindset and other powerful ways The Beatles have inspired Sean here.]

The Famous Failures featured are so varied and iconic that nearly every single student can identify with at least one.  Discussing Famous Failures when teaching Growth Mindset sends a powerful message to everyone in the room.  I’ve seen children as young as 8 gain perspective on the challenges they were facing at the time.  Anxieties start to subside.  Real and even perceived limitations become less daunting. Doors to dreams are reopened.  Whatever seemed impossible, now has possibility.  Nice!  Right?  But, truth is, the next multi-step word problem can easily put a damper on all of this wonderfulness.  Which is why learning about Growth Mindset and being motivated by Famous Failures continues all year long, every year, for a lifetime.

Again, this is just one of many ways to teach Growth Mindset to students, so I’m hoping you’ll share your  lesson ideas and links in the comments below .  What resources do you use to teach Growth Mindset in your classroom?  Let us know what you think is best suited for the age group you work with so that we can learn together.  Thanks so much for joining the conversation!

2 thoughts on “Teaching Growth Mindset with Famous Failures

  1. Great article, Elizabeth! I like the Growth Mindset series by Class DoJo. The children also enjoy them.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: