A new museum in Helsingborg, Sweden, celebrates failure. Yes, you read that correctly – it celebrates failure. The museum displays corporate products which flopped but which paved the way for greater innovation and extraordinary commercial success (for example, Apple’s Newton device was the forerunner of the iPhone and iPad), and prove that failure, and a willingness to learn from it, is a crucial part of success.

“Innovation requires failure. Learning is the only process that turns failure into success.”

– Dr Samuel West, creator of The Museum of Failure

Meanwhile at Smith College in the US students can enroll on a “Failing well” course designed to “destigmatize failure”, foster resilience and equip them with the tools to cope with the exigencies of real life – failures, setbacks, disappointments, making wrong choices.

Despite knowing that we can learn from mistakes, and that the process is an important aspect of life experience, most of us fear failure, and fear the reactions to that failure – ridicule from family, friends, colleagues, embarrassment, personal disappointment, negative self-talk, imposter syndrome, crippling self-doubt and depression. As musicians, setbacks and failure can have a profound effect on how we approach our music making and professional career. If we perceive failure as humiliation, it can paralyse our ability to learn and develop, but if we can separate our ego from the failure or setback, we can use the experience positively as an informed learning process to shape our future approach, make us stronger and motivate us to work harder and smarter. Sadly for many of us, the “wrongness” of making mistakes is inculcated in us from a young age – by parents, teachers, and peers – and such prejudices combined with a constricted mindset leads us to blame and criticise ourselves for our failings.

The problem for many musicians is that our music and our instrument are crucially entwined with our identity and setbacks can therefore feel like a very personal attack. But if we are able to see what we do as ‘work’, and not allow it to define us as a person, we can take a more objective approach to mistakes and setbacks. It’s fine to take time to wallow in frustration and disappointment, but better to reflect on what can be learnt from the experience to do things differently next time.

Failure is part of creativity and mastery. Without it we cannot learn, explore, experiment, expand our horizons, and progress. By removing emotion and adopting a more positive mental attitude, we can turn failures into successes and become more creative and motivated to succeed. Neuroscientists have found that the parts of our brain responsible for self-monitoring are actually switched off when we are being creative. Thus, by being creative, negative feelings connected with failure can be turned down, allowing the brain to think clearly and spark new ideas and approaches.

Don’t be discouraged by a failure. It can be a positive experience. Failure is, in a sense, the highway to success, inasmuch as every discovery of what is false leads us to seek earnestly after what is true, and every fresh experience points out some form of error which we shall afterwards carefully avoid.
― John Keats

My students don’t believe me when I tell them about a book called The Perfect Wrong Note, which celebrates mistakes and what we can learn from them. In our day-to-day practise, mistakes should always be regarded as opportunities for evaluation, reflection and refinement. Mistakes should encourage us to consider the following questions:

  • Where did the mistake happen?
  • Why did the mistake happen? Was it due to poor fingering, poor technique, misreading?
  • How can I put this right?
  • What can I do to ensure I don’t make the same mistake again (or elsewhere in the music)?

As a teacher, the student who continues to make the same mistakes should give one pause for thought, calling into question one’s teaching approach and forcing one to consider the following:

  • Why is the student making this mistake/s?
  • Does the student know why the mistake is occurring?
  • How can I help him/her put it right?
  • Is there something lacking in my teaching? Am I not explaining something clearly, has the student been using an awkward fingering or does he/she need some technical assistance?

Mistakes show we are human, and fallible, that it’s ok to have an off day when your playing and practising may not go as well as usual. Giving ourselves permission to make mistakes allows us to be fulfilled by our music and to feel empowered about our practising. A willingness to make mistakes teaches us to be self-critical, but in a positive, productive way.

trysuceed

Mistakes and failures contain all the information needed for learning – if we are willing to use it – and as the Museum of Failure demonstrates, failure is a crucial part of innovation, creativity and progress.

There is no such thing as failure — failure is just life trying to move us in another direction……Learn from every mistake. Because every experience, encounter, and particularly your mistakes are there to teach you and force you into being more of who you are.

– Oprah Winfrey

 

 

The musician’s life is a journey and sometimes there are setbacks along the way which challenge us and lead us to question what we are doing. Setbacks should not be regarded as negative obstacles, but rather an opportunity to pause, reflect, evaluate and then move on.

This week I had a setback in my musical life which initially caused me to question what I do – from my teaching to my own playing and performing. Fortunately, I have supportive family and close friends who were willing to listen to me while I allowed the news to sink in, who did not try to tell me to “snap out of it”, but who listened and talked to me with understanding, care and intelligence. In the great scheme of things, what happened was very minor, but it was important to me personally. But I am not given to wallowing in self-pity or endlessly asking “what if?”, and quite soon, with the support of a valued mentor, another close colleague, and friends, I was able to reflect on what had happened and begin to draw positives from it to enable me to move on and formulate a new plan.

We all have setbacks in our musical lives – a performance about which we are less than happy, a not so flattering review, an injury or a failed exam. These things can be tough, but any setback or failure can be turned into a positive resource from which we can learn and move on. Sometimes reflecting on what happened and why can be painful – holding a mirror up to one’s own weaknesses is never easy – but if one does so with an open, positive mind, trial and error, exploration and experimentation offer us useful feedback and enable us to adjust our approach, if necessary, before trying again and progressing. And remember that in the eyes of friends and trusted colleagues, we have not really changed because of the setback: we are still the same person these people around us likes and respects. So when a setback trips us up, it is worth recalling positive endorsements and feedback we have received from teachers, colleagues, friends, and others in the profession.

A more practical method to examine why something happened is the Root Cause Analysis (RCA). It is often used in medicine, and it helps answer the question of why the problem or setback occurred in the first place. RCA assumes that systems and events are interrelated and the process seeks to identify the origin of a problem using a specific set of steps, to find the primary cause of the problem, in order to:

  1. Determine what happened.
  2. Determine why it happened.
  3. Work out what to do to reduce the likelihood that it will happen again.

In music, we might use RCA to determine why the performance we had worked so hard for did not live up to our expectations. Factors leading to this might include: lack of proper preparation, insufficient warm up, feeling under the weather. Writing these things in a chart (usually under 5 headings) allows us to de-personalise them and examine everything in an objective way. A RCA exercise may not give us all the answers we are looking for, but it can go a long way in helping us identify and process what happened and to dig deeper beyond merely superficial factors. In this way, we can draw positives from the experience and, hopefully, find solutions or adjustments to enable us to progress.

So I did a RCA to examine my setback this week, and formulated a plan to enable me to move forward, but by far the best tonic has to be the support of trusted colleagues and friends, including the person who brought me this beautiful bunch of roses which are now filling my piano room with their special scent and sunshine.

getinline-1

Further reading

The Musician’s Journey with Christine Croshaw