It can be a real boost to our self-esteem when we get 1st chair in youth orchestra, are accepted into the studio of a highly-regarded teacher, or advance to finals of an orchestral job for the first time.

But on the flip side, it can feel like a real kick in the pants when we lose that seat in a seating audition, our new teacher seems less than impressed with our playing, or we can’t seem to get out of prelims.

There are two common strategies that we instinctively use to handle such setbacks, and each of us has probably used them both at some point in our lives. But while both work ok in the short term, they have very different long-term trajectories. One paves the way for future success, while the other sets us up for more disappointment.

Hmm…so what are these two strategies, exactly?

Self-esteem maintenance

Setbacks usually happen for a reason. And I don’t mean in the “everything happens for a reason” sense. If you have a disappointing performance in an audition, there is probably some combination of mechanical, technical, situational, or psychological factors that produced that result.

Our tendency is to respond in one of two ways.

Way #1: Remediating skill

On one hand, we might respond to underlying cause of the setback itself. We could take a hard look at how and why it happened, and find ways to tweak our practice, preparation, and mental approach so it doesn’t happen again in the future.

That’s the more proactive approach.

Way #2: Repairing self-esteem

But then there’s our bruised pride and ego. And that can be pretty painful, psychologically and emotionally. It’s easy to start questioning our abilities, our future, and even our whole sense of self. Were we just deluding ourselves this whole time? Are we not as good as we thought we were?

This is important to address too – but sometimes our self-esteem repair needs come in direct conflict with our skill remediation needs.

For instance, when faced with criticism, it can be tempting to react defensively, by dismissing the feedback as biased, inaccurate, or irrelevant. Or when the feedback is clearly spot-on, we might try to make ourselves feel better by comparing ourselves to others who have performed even worse.

The problem, of course, is that while the latter strategy may put a temporary band-aid on our self-esteem, it doesn’t fix the underlying skill deficiency. So we’re setting ourselves up to fail again in the long-term.

But that doesn’t make much sense; why would we do that to ourselves?

What determines our response to setbacks?

A pair of Stanford researchers recruited 80 college students to see if they could figure out what it is that leads people to respond either defensively or proactively to setbacks.

Everyone started off with a short “baseline” reading task (or at least, that’s what they were led to believe; more on this later).

Then, they were presented with a speed-reading task, which was framed as an important skill. A skill, that at least to some degree, indicated how smart you were.

But of course, the researchers deliberately set everyone up to fail, designing the task to be way too difficult for anyone to complete successfully1.

After the test, each participant was told that they did poorly – scoring at the 37th percentile.

Ouch.

How did others do?

Participants were then presented with a list of previous participants (who scored anywhere from the 14th to 98th percentile), and links to descriptions of how they approached the task.

Strategies like “I try to skim the text as quickly as possible while trying to understand a much as I can” (a not-so-helpful strategy associated with a lower ranked participant). Or “I read the first and last sentences of each paragraph the most carefully. Those usually have the most information, and I can skim the rest more quickly.” (A useful strategy suggested by a higher-ranked participant).

So the question was…how would they respond?

Would students try to make themselves feel better about their poor performance by reading about students who did even worse (a “downward” comparison)? Or would they instead choose to read about the students who performed better (“upward” comparison)?

Two groups. Two very different responses.

One group of students consistently chose to review more effective strategies. They only engaged in downward comparisons 20% of the time (vs. 69% for the comparison group).

In fact, the further their self-esteem dropped, the more upward comparisons they made. Whereas the comparison group responded in the opposite way – the more their self-esteem dropped, the more downward comparisons they made.

Or in other words, faced with a poor test result and a drop kick to their ego, one group chose to repair their self-esteem by looking for a way to improve their performance.

The other group chose to repair their self-esteem by comparing themselves to those who performed worse, passing up an opportunity to learn something that could improve their performance in the future.

From an immediate self-esteem perspective only, both downward and upward comparisons were effective. But in the long term, it’s pretty clear which strategy is a better bet.

So what was it that led these otherwise similar groups of students to respond so differently to the same test result?

A key mindset

Remember that initial “baseline” reading test? Well, this is where the researchers snuck in some subtle messaging that represented the only difference between the two groups.

One group of students read an article that supported an “entity” view of intelligence (a.k.a. “fixed” mindset), and informed students that “current research shows that almost all of a person’s intelligence is either inherited or determined at a very young age.”

Another group of students read an article that endorsed the opposite side of this issue, an “incremental” view of intelligence (a.k.a. “growth” mindset), saying “current research shows that intelligence can be increased substantially.”

Want to guess which group responded more constructively to the disappointing test result?

Yep, the incremental group. The students who believed that their performance could be improved. Or at least, that it was worth trying.

Takeaways

There are going to be lots of ups and downs as we go through our lives and careers. Days where we make embarrassing mistakes and get called out in front of our colleagues, or frustrating slumps where we struggle to perform up to par.

These moments are never fun nor easy, but they do represent opportunities to practice cultivating a more success-oriented mindset.

Making ourselves feel better by comparing ourselves to those below our level is not ideal, yet probably not as bad as it sounds either. Sometimes we can use a little ego boost and a reminder of how far we’ve come.

But the research on entity and incremental mindsets suggest that it’s better to internalize the belief that it’s always possible to get at least 1% better, and to repair our self-esteem by “comparing up.”

Along those lines, cellist David Finckel once told a young piano trio that despite how discouraged they were feeling at the moment, he and they were not all that different. He explained that both were on the same path to mastery; he was simply further along the path.

So the next time you experience a discouraging setback, take a moment to remind yourself that everyone who is at a higher level now, was once upon a time, in your shoes too. Then see if you can find out what that person did to take the next step forward. You might be surprised to find that this not only raises your self-esteem, but gives you some new ideas on how to leapfrog the next speedbump too.

Additional resources

The power of believing that you can improve @TED

The Secret to Raising Smart Kids @Scientific American

Carol Dweck Revisits the “Growth Mindset” @Education Week

Footnotes

  1. Specifically, they were given 4 minutes to read a particularly confusing excerpt from Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams, followed by 8 reading comprehension questions that were designed to be so ambiguous that participants would have no way of knowing if they answered correctly or not.