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NYU Professor: The Courage to Make Mistakes

Let go of being good. Embrace “good-ish.”
Dolly Chugh, a New York University associate professor, offered this advice during a winter convening for New York City public school educators. “Good-ish” means admitting your mistakes and taking ownership of your own learning. In other words, a growth rather than fixed mindset.

As a society, we’re often in a fixed mindset, or “If you don’t know this, how can you function?” Chugh shares. A better way of thinking is becoming excited to find your mistakes – like an egg hunt.

dolly-chugh.jpgFor several years, Chugh asked NYU business students to read the same book. One year, a student emailed her to say she found a passage in the book that’s sexist. Instead of insisting she was right and the student was wrong, Chugh embraced the growth mindset, revisited the passage and realized she “never noticed what was right in front of me.”

Fixed mindsets make it more likely to form unfair assumptions about other people. Chugh asked the more than 300 educators in the audience to share whether they knew the World War II GI Bill, which gave financial assistance for home ownership and college tuition, wasn’t available to most black veterans. Without being open to understanding how history affects inequalities between white and black families, Chugh says there’s a “smog” covering a perceived reality.

Another way to identify areas of growth is recognizing ordinary privilege. If there’s something you don’t have to think about much or at all, like being straight or part of a country’s dominant religion, that’s an ordinary privilege. Chugh says speaking up for those who don’t have the same ordinary privileges as you is a way to “find your power to make change.”

To illustrate this point, Chugh shared a story about inviting Joseph McNeil to speak with her students at NYU. McNeil was one of the “Greensboro Four” who sat at a whites-only lunch counter in 1960 and inspired a mass protest of segregation. This courageous man gave humble, inspiring remarks for Chugh’s students. During the Q&A, one student asked what McNeil thought about gay rights. He stumbled through a response, Chugh recalls.

The following year, Chugh invited McNeil to speak with her class again, and he accepted. She asked him his thoughts on the student’s question. He said he enjoyed the conversation and began reflecting on it. Rather than retreating into “who do they think they are,” McNeil shared that he talked to young people, watched news stories and gathered more details about the gay rights movement. Eventually, he told himself, “McNeil. It’s time to grow up.” He adopted a “good-ish” or growth mindset.

“His courage didn’t end in 1960,” Chugh says. “His work is not done, and if he’s not done, then neither am I.”