The Upside of Failure, the Downside of Success, and How to Keep Improving No Matter What

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 learning less 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.

Musicians can benefit from a post-performance review too. Using a systematic reflection process that involves 3 steps:

Step 1: Self-explanation

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.

The Upside of Failure, the Downside of Success, and How to Keep Improving No Matter What.
Data from Ellis, Mendel, and Nir (2006)

Take action

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

Ack! After Countless Hours of Practice...
Why Are Performances Still So Hit or Miss?

For most of my life, I assumed that it was because I wasn’t practicing enough. And that eventually, if I performed enough, the nerves would just go away and everything would take care of itself.

But in the same way that “practice, practice, practice” wasn’t the answer, “perform, perform, perform” wasn’t the answer either. In fact, simply performing more, without the tools to facilitate more positive performance experiences, just led to more negative performance experiences!

Eventually, I discovered that elite athletes are successful in shrinking this gap between practice and performance, because their training looks fundamentally different. In that it includes specialized mental and physical practice strategies that are oriented around the retrieval of skills under pressure.

It was a very different approach to practice, that not only made performing a more positive experience, but practicing a more enjoyable experience too (which I certainly didn’t expect!).

If you’ve been wanting to perform more consistently and get more out of your daily practice, I’d love to share these research-based skills and strategies that can help you beat nerves and play more like yourself when it counts.

Click below to learn more about Beyond Practicing, and start enjoying more satisfying practice days that also transfer to the stage.

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9 Responses

  1. Nothing you say about results of success and failure is wrong or bad, but what do you mean by “success?” Is this succeeding in doing what one has sought to do? If so, how positive of useful is the item being sought? That is, how does one set goals that will both help the person and be reasonably achievable? This is key to real success, but how many who read your article here will be able to apply it reasonably to their own situation? You haven’t indicated here how you help students set goals that can both be useful and be achieved. Is there anything in your teaching series that handles this? If so, then you should mention it in this article. As it stands, I would suspect that somewhere in what you offer as effective ways of handling success or failure touches on proper goal-setting, but this is not evident in your article here. Please advise; I’d like to know what you think.

    1. I think success/failure in the context of this research was simply defined in the most general way. As in, whether you reached your performance goals or not. Did you win the match or lose the match? Did you finish the race with the time you wanted? Or for musicians, did you play as well as you wanted (or advance, or win the job, etc.)?

      Goal setting is indeed an important part of building confidence and realizing success. It’s quite an extensive literature, with entire chapters and books devoted to various aspects of it. Along those lines, here is one article that you might like: A Test of 4 Approaches to Goal Setting

  2. Dear Mr. Kageyama,
    Thank you for this blog. Your ideas have deeply affected both my performance and my teaching. I really appreciate your work here.


  3. « Continue in the direction of the pyramids. Continue to pay heed to the omens. My heart is still capable of showing me where the treasure is. Before a dream is realized, the sould of the world tests everything that was learned along the way. It does this, not because it is evil, but so that we can, in addition to realizing our dreams, master the lessons we’ve learned as we’ve moved toward that dream. That’s teh point at which most people give up. It’s teh point at which, as we say in the langage of the desert, one dies of thirst just when the palm trees has appeared on the horizon. Every search begins with beginners luck and every search ends with the victors being severely tested. An old proverb said that the darkest hour of the night came just before the dawn. » Paulo Coelho, The Alchemist

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