Why Is It So Hard To Stay Positive After Setbacks?

You’ve probably heard various stories about famous people and their failures. Thomas Edison and his 1000 failures. Colonel Sanders and his 1000 failures. Abraham Lincon. J. K. Rowling. And the list goes on.

We know we’re supposed to suck it up, get back on the horse, and persevere in the face of adversity.

But dang, that’s a whole lot easier said than done. Why is getting back up so difficult? Why is getting discouraged and throwing in the towel so much easier?

The negativity bias

I think we can blame the negativity bias.

Psychologists have observed that bad seems to trump good in a wide range of areas in our lives. From moods and emotions to relationships to health, bad things have a stronger impact, and also have longer-lasting effects than good things.

For instance, one group of researchers found that having a bad day tended to influence one’s well-being the next day. Did the effects of having a good day spill over into the next day? Nope. Not so much.

So to extrapolate a bit, one might guess that a bad performance, bad rehearsal, bad day of practice is likely to affect you more than a good day of practice, rehearsal, or performance. The day after a good performance feels much like any other day, right? But the day after a bad performance? In all likelihood, you’re still going to feel pretty down and frustrated and upset.

And given our tendency to process bad events more thoroughly than good events, all the extra time spent thinking about them works to etch these lowlights ever more deeply into our memory.

No surprise then, that when asked to recall recent events, we are likely to recall about four times as many bad ones as good ones (as found in one set of studies, at least).

So no wonder we remember so clearly all the bad performances and mishaps, mistakes, and miscues that occurred on stage, while we are hard pressed to call to mind the good moments and good performances we’ve had. It’s not that they weren’t there, we just tend not to notice them as much.

Is it any wonder why we get discouraged so easily? We are seeing our world through thorn-colored glasses (or whatever the opposite of rose-colored glasses would be)!

What to do?

Just knowing that we have a tendency to dwell on negatives can help us be more planful about developing a more balanced perspective. That doesn’t mean we have to go into denial and avoid thinking about bad events, frustrations, disappointments, and failures altogether. It just means we have to be sure to also focus on things that are going well, things that are improving, past successes, and optimistic plans for our future as well. And to dwell on these aspects of our experience much more often than we dwell on the discouraging bits.

And be sure to keep in mind that the importance of having a balanced perspective goes for the off-stage parts of our life as much as the on-stage bits.

Indeed, as researcher Dr. Barbara Frederickson has found, we are more resilient to adversity and more likely to thrive when we experience three times as many positive emotions as negative ones.

Bonus challenge

Another tactic that can help is to experiment with a news diet. Meaning, stop watching the 5pm news for a month and see if you’re really missing anything. After all, most of what they air is really other peoples’ bad news. Stories that makes you more anxious and worried about the future, even though they generally have little to do with your day-to-day experiences.

The one-sentence summary

“It is easier to believe a lie that you have heard a thousand times, than the truth which you have only heard once.”  ~Unknown

Ack! 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 perhaps a few other tweaks in your approach to practicing too. 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 learn more about Beyond Practicing – a home-study course where you’ll explore the 6 skills that are characteristic of top performers. And 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.


7 Responses

  1. I have found that the feeling that I get from good gigs certainly carry over into the next day or days. They also make me wish that I was able to play every night! I am sure that this is because my gigging is infrequent to say the least and, when I do play, it is doing something that I enjoy: playing original music or fun covers, etc. It is also a way for me to see how much of what I have been practicing in the weeks prior is seeping into my playing or, if I am just playing the same old stuff (LOL)!
    While wedding band and corporate band gigs (which I have done a few of) may pay well and, you are playing your instrument instead of say, working in retail and making minimum wage (like me), I could see that becoming a bit of a grind. I want to enjoy playing music every chance I get. If this means playing free or low playing gigs to play what I want to play not what someone expects me to play then I guess I will take that chance. The creative and artistic fulfillment pays off in the end (I think).

  2. I find that occasionally a performance experience is exhilarating enough to carry through beyond the next day, and serve to buoy the consciousness through the challenges I face as a seasoned jazz singer new to the NY music scene. I sat down at the piano at Kitano Hotel jam on a Monday night in April and sang “Available in Blue” by Joe Locke, a lovely rubato ballad, singing my lyrics in performance for the first time. In very short order, the buzzing room full of schmoozing musicians became quiet, and engaged with me fully. The bar became totally quiet, phenomenally so, all the way to the back of the room, including the servers and bartender. Connecting with an audience in this way in a club setting has sustained me since then as I continue to put myself out there in hopes of finding myself rising to the top of the heap of talented singers here. If I might tend to get discouraged about the attention span of audiences, I can remember that high point where one beautiful song brought a busy room to a still point, allowing music’s purposeful glorious energetic exchange an opportunity to manifest in my life. It showed me that indeed, I can “Do it!”.

  3. I’m currently recording an album. It’s turning out well, but tonight I went in to overdub some acoustic guitar. I’d been looking forward to doing this all day. Today is the end of my work week, and right now my life is totally hectic and busy. We got a late start, and suffered some technical difficulties right off the bat. By the time we got the mics right and everything queued up, I was totally exhausted. We had five songs to do, but ended up only doing two.
    It really got me down. I think it happens when you let you expectations exceed the pure enjoyment of making music. I know it’s just a minor setback. Making a good recording is a lot of work.
    But it will be ok. It’s hard to fight off the expectations, but you just have to keep putting one foot in front of the other.
    Good luck to anyone reading this. Tomorrow is another day, and one bad performance doesn’t negate the years of work someone has put into a craft. No one said it was easy!

  4. It’s sad to think that we might be biased to negativity but all good has to be achieved or strived for.

    I like the bit of advice on skipping the news. It reminds me of Tim Ferris’s low-information diet tip from the Four-Hour Workweek.

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