The Most Important Question to Ask Yourself after a Painful Failure or Setback

In today’s Facebook/Twitter humblebrag culture (like that? there’s more here), it’s easy to feel like a big fat failure, who will never sound like that amazing kid in studio class, win a major orchestral job, or receive an invitation to be one of the “and friends” on a prestigious chamber music series.

So it’s heartening to see that failure isn’t one of those tiny rain clouds that follows the unlucky few around, but one that dumps on everybody at some point or another (ok, maybe heartening wasn’t exactly the right word…). Like when Princeton professor Johannes Haushofer posted his CV of failures, which lists not his considerable accomplishments, but rather, his most memorable failures (the last line is awesome; a little sad in its truth).

Of course, simply knowing that failure is universal doesn’t do us much good.

What’s more interesting is the growing curiosity about the long-term cost of failure deprivation. As in, what happens if our journey towards excellence is too easy and devoid of challenges and setbacks? What happens to the child who gets straight A’s through high school with ease, and is suddenly faced with a whole new level of academic rigor in college? Or the basketball phenom who goes from being the star on their high school team, to bench-warmer on their college team?

How will they react? How will they adapt?

If things are too easy, for too long, do we end up being ill-prepared for the roadblocks and hurdles that await us down the road?

Like the parable of the butterfly’s struggle, are setbacks and challenges an essential and even productive element in our pursuit and realization of excellence?

Three levels of athletic achievement

A team of British researchers recruited 54 athletes, at three different levels of achievement, across a variety of team and individual sports, and matched for gender, number of years in the sport, position played, nationality, etc.

The highest-achieving athletes were called “Super Champions” and were among the very best in their sport (think NBA All-Stars1, or Olympians with multiple medals).

The next level of athletes were called “Champions” and competed at the top level of their sport, but were not superstars (think solid NBA starter, or athlete who might have earned 1 world title or Olympic medal).

The third level of athletes were called “Almosts” and were those who excelled at the youth level, but did not successfully make the transition to senior-level competition (think highly-touted high school player who goes on to play overseas or in the NBA development league, or junior champion who does not medal at the senior level).

What matters most?

So the big question is, what factors differentiate the Super Champs from the Champs from the Almosts? Are there any themes, influences, or specific factors that are associated with higher or lower levels of achievement? Do challenges and roadblocks play an integral role?

All went through a rigorous 3-stage interview process to map out the path they took, from their early beginnings to current day success.

Four key themes emerged from the data.

Four factors

1) “Commitment”

This is probably a no-brainer, but the Super Champs were much more committed to their sport than the Champs and Almosts. Though athletes at all levels seemed to love their sport, the level of dedication to their sport varied quite a bit. Here, for instance, is one quote from a Champion-level athlete:

“…All I wanted to do was play all the time…I was always kind of the most committed, I would miss out on going to parties on Friday or Saturday nights because I knew I would be playing…”

Compared to one from an Almost-level athlete:

“I was probably up to that point coasting. Because you were playing every week you sort of take it for granted that you will be in the team because you were top of the pile.”

2) “Reaction to challenge”

Super Champs also seemed to have a deep inner need for continuous improvement:

“I was never kind of satisfied, I was never like ‘Oh I’ve done it now’ I was always like ‘This is the first step of my journey’ and there’s worlds, there’s Europeans and that bring with it tougher competition.”

“I am very much the sort of person that if I am not progressing or not improving in an area I will get frustrated. So whatever the activity, I was always wanting that next step…once I felt that I had taken a step and that kind of renewed my energy and my passion for it, and again at the bottom of another ladder.”

And were more resilient in the face of setbacks:

“Not making that selection, especially after all that work. Several others just said f*** it, but I was never ever going to let them beat me. I just did double everything!”

“No never, never ever thought about giving up. There was days when I was like ‘Why is this happening to me? I’m so frustrated, what am I going to do? How long is it going to take me to get back?’ But then the other days were like, ‘right what do I need to do? I’m going to do this, do this and get back’. …I think it gave me a different mental capacity. Because I’d never had to deal with anything like that before, so I definitely did think it changed me and made me achieve what I then went onto achieve.”

Compared to Champs, who were less resilient in their response to bumps in the road:

“Well the sort of 10 to sort of 17, 18 years should be a natural yearly progression. But because I, because I broke my arm, I wouldn’t say I didn’t improve but I just stood still. Well I’d say I didn’t improve, I just sort of stood still for well, 18 months. And it was an issue because when my arm got fixed I hadn’t grown, and everyone else seemed to have grown.”

The Almosts may have been almost too talented for their own good, seemingly enjoying too easy a path for too long:

“Things came so easily to me…the skills, techniques, tactics…I felt no pressure and really agreed with when everyone told me ‘you’re a natural.’”

Until, of course, the inevitable setback occurred:

“The previous year had gone so well…national squad selection, lots of support, then the Winter of 2006 everything just blew up. I was suddenly lost…I didn’t know where to turn and the support just seemed to evaporate.”

3) “Reflection and Reward”

The Super Champs also did a lot of reflection:

“After every event and training session, every, I would complete my diary, highlighting areas for development and setting goals. Man was I anal! But I had to do it or I was pissed with myself all day.”

“For me it was all about getting better; about perfecting this combination, then this one. Building my armory so that I felt…so I would be impregnable.”

The Champs did some reflecting too, but theirs was focused more externally, on their competitors and their relative rankings:

“Scores at the national ranking events were my focus…how am I doing against X or Y. If they seemed to be scoring better than me, I would consider doing what they did, even changing coaches. In fact, I did that twice on the way up.”

The Almosts were also focused on external results, and not especially prone to reflection on their performances and continuous improvement:

“I didn’t really think about my performance…others did it for me. My coach, agent, girlfriends, Mum and Dad, they would all tell me how well I had played.“

4) “The Role of Coaches and Significant Others”

With regards to the influence of parents and coaches, do you think the highest-performing athletes had ones who were demanding and pushed them to excellence? Or encouraging, but largely hands-off support?

Surprisingly (to me, at least), the Super Champs described their parents as being supportive and encouraging, and remarkably non-directive. This doesn’t necessarily mean that this is the best or only way to parent an athlete or musician, but it’s an intriguing observation nonetheless, which seems to speak to that unshakeable inner drive that the elite athletes possess.

“[My parents were] not really pushy, it was kind of just gentle encouragement. They didn’t get, you know some parents get really involved? They were never really involved, they’d just come and watch me, support me. But they never wanted to know what I was doing training wise and they never really got involved in that way, and that helped.”

“I learnt how to be very self-sufficient at the time. It’s not that they [my parents] didn’t want to do it, they just didn’t need to do it, I could do it myself.”

“He was always there on a Sunday morning. He would go to some County games and pretty much I think even now he comes across country to watch me play, so he has probably been to 95% of the games I’ve played, so he’s clearly big in support but he has never played the game or been on the coaching side of things, but he has given huge support.”

Even the Super Champs’ coaches seemed to be more focused on long-term development over short-term results:

“I think [coach’s name] was great in the fact that he never wanted to rush anything where as I always did. I wanted to be better, and I wanted to start winning things straight away. He always had in his mind that it was a long journey. And that’s the sort of thing that worked so well, he developed me as an athlete really slowly so I would always achieve the things I wanted to achieve later on in my career.”

“X was just what I needed. Always offering me a dose of realism…building me up after disasters, drawing my attention to weaknesses after big wins. Always friendly but always honest.”

The Champs’ parents seemed to be a little more involved (though not necessarily in a bad way):

“He would come and coach me every Sunday, so he had a big impact and he still does now. He is still the first person I speak to after every single game and it’s kind of like a bit of a personal coach for me.”

But coaches were a little pushier:

“X was always wanting to dissect my performance. He was very intense and, as I got older, it really started to antagonize me.”

The Almosts seemed to feel that their parents played too big a role in their sport:

“My parents, Dad especially was always there…shouting instructions from the touchline, pushing me to practice at home. Really, I just wanted to be out with my mates, even though we would still be kicking a ball around. I felt like [sport] stole my childhood.”

“Mum and Dad would drive me everywhere, watch with much nail biting (I was always aware of their nerves) then drive me home with a big inquest. I sometimes envied my younger sister who didn’t have all this s***.”

And their coaches were even more involved:

“X was the driving force. When I was younger, he would collect me from home, drive me to the club, train me then drive me back…talking about [sport] all the way. Let me tell you it was f**** intense.”

Which had an interesting (though predictable and unfortunate) consequence:

“It was a real feeling of release to get away from [Coach/Father] and go to University. But once there I seemed to lose my way. No-one telling me what to do…I just lost interest.”

And what about the role of challenge in honing talent?

All three levels of athletes reported experiencing rough patches in their careers, from sport-related challenges to injuries to mental health issues to family troubles. But there wasn’t any clear indication that a specific number or type of challenge led to greater athletic success.

What seemed to be more important was not the challenges themselves, but the manner in which they responded to adversity. 

Specifically, the authors note that the elite performers seemed to have a “learn from it” approach to setbacks. The lesser athletes, on the other hand, “often seemed almost surprised by failure.”

Which reminds me of something I once read in an interview with a Fortune 500 CEO whose name eludes me (argh…mini-fail). He/she felt that the most important question in the world is: “What can I learn from this?”

It may not be the first question that pops into our minds when we stumble, but it totally changes the direction of our thoughts when we ask it. Whether it’s a minor injury that prevents us from participating in a summer festival, an audition where we came so frustratingly close but ultimately fell short, or simply a rough day on stage, it’s fine to take a moment to wallow in frustration and disappointment, but then take a deep breath and see where your mind goes when you aim to identify the lessons to be learned, that would help you do better the next time.

As Michael Baker, ex-CEO of ArthroCare once said (Yeah, I know. Ironic, right?):

“I’m suspicious of somebody who’s never failed, because you don’t know how they’re going to react when they do. Everyone is born to fail. Everyone is going to break down. What matters is not how often you have been on the canvas, but whether you get up, how you get up, and what you learn from it (emphasis mine).”


  1. To be clear, this is just an example – the study took place in Europe, and basketball wasn’t even one of the included sports

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