Ouch. That hurt. Let’s Try It Again.

Taking it on the chin can leave you a bit battered and bruised. But if you handle it right, it can also help you learn.

That’s a key insight from a Wall Street Journal excerpt of the new book What The Best College Students Do by Ken Bain. As Bain explains it, students with equal intelligence scores can perform quite differently depending on their mindset. Those who think intelligence is fixed are more likely to get discouraged when they fail at an intellectual challenge. Those who believe intelligence is flexible—and that hard work and persistence can overcome an initial failure at mastering something—are more likely to give the challenge another try.

“Someone’s theory about intelligence may not make much difference when times are easy,” Bain writes. “But when failures accumulate, those who believe that they can improve their basic abilities are far more likely to weather the storm.”

Photo credit: David Michael Howarth

Peter Drucker wrote about both intelligence and failure, and he, too, was of the belief that intelligence is often overemphasized when it comes to academic achievement. “Had we known of I.Q.s 150 years ago, we would have argued that the great majority clearly did not have the intellectual endowment to learn to read and write,” he noted in Landmarks of Tomorrow. “The I.Q. does not measure the potential of a certain intellectual endowment; it indicates only what a certain intellectual endowment has, traditionally, been expected to achieve.”

As for setbacks, Drucker considered them to be inevitable—and so the sooner we learn to deal with them, the better. “Whom the Lord loveth, the Lord teacheth early how to take a setback,” he wrote in People and Performance. “For the things that people are apt to do when they receive the first nasty blow may destroy a mature person, especially someone with a family, whereas a youth of 25 bounces right back.”

So do yourself a favor when you flub that math problem: Give it another try.

When have you overcome a setback to master something?