Fail Better

I have failed many times, and that’s why I am a success. ~Michael Jordan

Success is moving from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm.  ~Winston Churchill

Ever tried, ever failed. No matter. Fail again. Fail better. ~Samuel Beckett

Whenever evil befalls us, we ought to ask ourselves, after the first suffering, how we can turn it into good. So shall we take occasion, from one bitter root, to raise perhaps many flowers. ~Leigh Hunt


Want to learn more about the best ways to practice? Get an e-mail with a discount code when The Practice of Practice is published (June, 2014). To learn more about the book, check out a sample from The Practice of Practice.

In a previous post I spoke of the necessity of failure. I mentioned Buddha’s belief that the obstacle is the path, and when watching an interview with olympic speed skater Apolo Ohno, I’m reminded of it again, but in a different way.  Here’s the thing:

After the 1500 meter race in which he won bronze, thereby becoming the most decorated American winter olympic athlete, Ohno said something interesting in an interview after the race. He was clearly happy, but spoke about a little bobble near the end of the race, when the Canadian skater bumped him as they went around a turn and Ohno’s skate stuttered. What did Ohno say in the interview? Did he blame the dastardly Canadian for bumping him? No. He took full responsibility for the stumble and wondered (I’m paraphrasing), “If I hadn’t messed up there I might have placed better.” Ohno is giving a perfect positive example of what researchers have called attribution theory.

Basically, it’s a blame-game. Where does the cause of an event lie? Is it external or internal? Is the cause unchanging over time, or something that changes? And finally, can it be controlled? It turns out that successful people in all fields tend to see causes as internal. This means the cause for whatever has happened is one’s own fault (especially difficult to do with bad things); they strive to see how a cause can change over time, and strive to find ways in which the cause can be controlled. Ohno exhibited the positive use of the theory by taking the blame for the stumble himself (internal cause) instead of blaming the Canadian (external cause), said something about doing better next time (changes over time), and we can imagine that he might go practice his turns (control) to get a better handle on this skill. After his celebratory party, of course.

Leo Kottke, the fantastic guitarist (here’s a great vid: 5:38 will give you a taste of his wit) tells a similar story about a turning point in his musical life when he realized the same thing. His guitars had been stolen and he’d had to perform with a clunker that was very difficult to play. After the show–which he didn’t enjoy– he was whining about the guitar backstage (his own words) to a mentor of his whose playing he admired. The guy (wish I could remember his name) took the guitar, played the heck out of it, handed it back and told him he didn’t see what the problem was. Kottke says that taught him to just go with what he’s given and that whining about trouble and blaming external things does nothing to make the trouble go away.

So do your own inventory. Do you tend to place the cause of events outside yourself, especially when things don’t go the way you want? This might have a profound impact on your ability to get better at music or anything else. So the next time you bump up against a tough passage or circumstance, ask yourself if there’s anything you can do to improve it, ask yourself if it’s from a stable or changeable cause, and take the steps to change the bad to something good over time. This is similar to a technique called  “dialectical bootstrapping” and here is a Scientific American blurb about a study on the topic.

I think James Joyce said something like, “Failure is merely disguised opportunity.” And since I’m quoting diverse people and throwing anecdotes and links around higgledy-piggledy, why stop now? Consider this moving talk from Harry Potter author JK Rowling. In June of 2008 she gave a commencement talk on failure to Harvard grads.  It’s in two parts, and they’re both below.

Have fun and good luck with your practice!

Want to learn more about the best ways to practice? Get an e-mail with a discount code when The Practice of Practice is published (June, 2014). To learn more about the book, check out a sample from The Practice of Practice.


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