The Upside of Failure, the Downside of Success, and How to Keep Improving No Matter What
By Noa Kageyama, Ph.D.
Nobody likes to make mistakes. And outright failure feels even worse. Like someone has shoved their fist inside our chest, Mortal Kombat-style, and twisted everything up inside.
So when we have the opportunity to spare our kids, students, or colleagues this pain that we know only too well, it’s kind of a no-brainer, right? Whether it’s correcting their homework to make sure they get A’s, or telling them exactly what fingering to use to solve a tricky shift, it’s tempting to leverage our hard-earned knowledge and spare them the struggle.
But from a learning standpoint, that might not always be in their best interests in the long term. Feeling rotten is a powerful motivator for change. It can get us to take another look at how we’ve been doing things and search for a better way – ultimately learning much more, and gaining more confidence in ourselves as a result of having overcome the challenge. And paving the way for us to embrace and overcome even greater challenges in the future.
Of course, this is all moot if we are so discouraged by the failure that we spend the weekend eating Domino’s pan pizza (that’s right, not just the regular hand-tossed, but the greasy stuff that makes for good stress-eating) and downing pints of Cherry Garcia while binge-watching The Office on Netflix.
So how exactly are we supposed to rebound from failures without getting discouraged?
I’ll get there in a minute, but first, we should also talk for a moment about dealing with successes.
Wait, what? What is there to deal with? Success is awesome!
The downside of success
Sure, success feels good, and can increase confidence in our abilities, but there are actually some significant downsides to success when it comes to learning.
As Bill Gates once said, “Success is a lousy teacher. It seduces smart people into thinking they can’t lose.” In other words, when we’ve experienced success, it’s easy to become complacent.
After all, success feels good, so we don’t experience that same inner anguish that motivates a change. And since success increases confidence in what we are already doing, we are less likely to engage in exploratory behaviors. Which means, we end up sticking with a much narrower range of possibilities, and end up learningless from successes.
For instance, maybe your upbow staccato is good enough in something like Saint-Saëns’s Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso , so you never think to explore other right hand finger positions, wrist pronations, or arm angles. But then you encounter Elgar’s La Capricieuse , and suddenly realize that just stiffening your arm and thinking “GO FOR IT! AAHHHH!!!” isn’t going to do the trick.
So the very real challenge with successes is figuring out how to respond optimally so as not to neglect exploring new possibilities that might be better in the long run (whether because of a swollen head or fear of messing with something that seems to be working).
How to do an effective post-performance review
Win or lose, basketball players do a lot of film study. To analyze what they did well, and what they need to do better.
The first step is to take a closer look at what specific actions contributed to our success or failure.
For instance, what did you do while waiting to go on stage? Who did you talk to? What did you talk about? How did this affect your focus and impact your performance?
The key is to connect the success or failure of your performance to specific actions that you can control.
Step 2: Data verification
The next step is to do a little “counterfactual” thinking to take a closer look at what you did and imagine alternate actions you could have taken – and how this might have changed things.
For instance, how else could you have spent your time off-stage waiting for your turn? What might have happened if you kept to yourself, closed your eyes, ran through the opening a few times in your head and visualized how you wanted things to go instead?
Step 3: Feedback
Feedback takes two different forms. The first, is “outcome” feedback. As in, did you succeed? Or did you fail?
Why does this matter? Well, if you don’t know if you succeeded or failed in meeting your goals, you’re probably not going to be especially motivated to do very much…
The second type of feedback is “process” or performance feedback. What worked? What didn’t work? What should we try changing next time? What did we learn from the experience?
This is where we get to gameplan for the next performance. To figure out how to tweak our preparation, our approach, and ensure that we’ve learned everything we possibly could from the last performance, so that our next performance will be better than the last.
Timing is everything
Pretty straightforward, right?
But here’s where things get interesting. To maximize our improvement from one performance to the next, we have to be smart about systematic reflection, and focus on different things after successes and failures.
After a failure, we should focus on the specific errors we made PLUS the specific things we did well. Focusing on both the good and bad seems to result in the most learning and performance improvement.
Presumably, if we focus only on our mistakes after failures, we’ll get discouraged and spiral into that unproductive dark place (filled with Dominos and Ben & Jerry’s).
Conversely, after a success, it seems that we will learn and improve the most if we focus only on our errors.
Because if we focus too much on the things we did well when reviewing successes, we start feeling all warm and fuzzy inside. Which totally sounds like a good thing, but actually lessens our motivation to explore new ways to improve. So we end up learning and improving less.
I used to hate, hate, hate listening to recordings of myself, but I think that’s because I was approaching it all wrong.
I was focused on evaluating the performance and whether or not I sounded any good. Instead, I probably should have been focusing on evaluating my preparation and approach to the performance. To figure out what I could do to prepare myself most effectively for the next performance and keep me on the path of continued growth and mastery. Which at the end of the day is really what we’re all striving for, no?
The one-sentence(-ish) summary
“Would you like me to give you a formula for success? It’s quite simple, really. Double your rate of failure. You are thinking of failure as the enemy of success. But it isn’t at all. You can be discouraged by failure or you can learn from it. So go ahead and make mistakes. Make all you can. Because remember that’s where you will find success.” ~Thomas J. Watson
Performance psychologist and Juilliard alumnus & faculty member Noa Kageyama teaches musicians how to beat performance anxiety and play their best under pressure through live classes, coachings, and an online home-study course. Based in NYC, he is married to a terrific pianist, has two hilarious kids, and is a wee bit obsessed with technology and all things Apple.
After Countless Hours of Practice, Why Are Performances Still so Hit or Miss?
It’s not a talent issue. And that rush of adrenaline and emotional roller coaster you experience before performances is totally normal too.
Performing at the upper ranges of your ability under pressure is a unique skill – one that requires specific mental skills and a few tweaks in your approach to practicing. Elite athletes have been learning these techniques for decades; if nerves and self-doubt have been recurring obstacles in your performances, I’d like to help you do the same.
Click below to discover the 7 skills that are characteristic of top performers. Learn how you can develop these into strengths of your own. And begin to see tangible improvements in your playing that transfer to the stage.