It is common for us to hold competing ideas in our heads simultaneously. There are few places I see it more frequently than I do in our attitudes towards personal growth.

On one hand, our society is desperately eager for redemption narratives. They are staples of television, film, novels, and might reasonably describe the broad arc of my own personal essays. I suspect we like them because they offer hope to us for our own shortcomings. These are stories we tell ourselves. We overcome challenges of our upbringing and our own limitations to achieve. We are heroes in our own stories.

On the other hand, we steadfastly believe that good people are good and bad people are bad. Something bad happens to someone we don’t like and we enjoy schadenfreude. Asked for a reference for someone who was rude to us a decade ago we are confident when we declare they aren’t someone worth pursuing. Of course we know they might have changed, we just don’t hold out hope based on our prior experiences. We generally expect people to stay at the same level relative to where they started.

This is a form of bias called fundamental attribution error. We are more likely to attribute actions to a fundamental trait a person possesses rather than the circumstances in which it occurred. For a simple example, ask which of the following two statements is more likely to be true? A/ a person tripped B/ a person tripped because they are clumsy Studies show that a majority of people surveyed consider the second option more likely. But that is a logical impossibility. The first statement includes the possibility of the second but the inverse is not true, so the answer is 100% option A.

So for ourselves we hold a growth mindset. We can grow and overcome the odds. But for others we play the statistics and adopt a more fixed mindset. We figure if they didn’t meet our expectations before they probably won’t now. In personal contexts I actually think this might make sense. We are under no obligation to entertain those who have let us down. But in professional contexts I think it is bad policy.

My perspective on this is somewhat selfish. I have grown so much to get where I am. I am sure there were points where people were inclined to give up on me. I am sure there are still people who are justifiably skeptical of me after how they experienced me early in my career. Thus I feel somewhat compelled to pay it forward.

Second chances can certainly backfire. Sometimes people fail the second time just like they did the first. But I think more people make the mistake of giving people too little room to grow rather than the mistake of giving them too much. And where second chances are given today it seems unlikely that they are given equitably.