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How to transform failure

I enjoyed playing classical piano throughout my childhood and into my teenage years. I still remember the thrill of mastering the rapid 16th note arpeggios in the lively Solfeggietto by C.P.E. Bach. When I won a provincial competition playing this piece, I was thrilled. However, when I returned the following year to compete at a more advanced level, I did not win and my heart sank with the despair of adolescent failure. The experience left me defeated and disappointed and I never played the piano again.

Moving on

Thankfully, I’ve moved on from those angst-ridden teenage days and yet, when I was writing this, I re-examined some old beliefs about failure — things like failure means you’re not good enough; it means you can’t succeed ever; and it must be avoided at all costs — to name just a few!

I know I’m not alone in this. Many of us strive to get the highest mark, be the best player on the team or be at the top of our chosen profession. Achieving goals can be pretty great but if we don’t reach our goals, we may feel we have failed, or worse yet, that we are a failure, as I did as a teenager.

When I recently read about psychologist Carol Dweck’s concept of “growth mindset,” I was captivated. Her book, “Mindset: The New Psychology of Success” (updated 2017), is based on years of research into failure and achievement. Dweck suggests failure is better understood as an opportunity to explore our current limits, to value criticism and to ask for help.

Do you love challenges or wither in despair?

The question at the root of her research as I understand it is: Do you love challenges and persist in the face of failure — or do setbacks make you wither in despair?

If we can examine our failures, Dweck suggests, and shift our focus to effort and ability, then we can build the capacity to persist in the face of difficult problems or setbacks. This is a very useful skill since most of us will face difficult challenges or deep disappointments at some point.

My teenage self did not have a growth mindset and my heartbreak at the sense of failure all those years ago at that provincial competition was based on old beliefs. If I knew then what i know now, maybe I could have celebrated my hard work, recognized my hours of practice and honoured what I had learned. I could have explored my interest in learning and thought about getting help to realize my best possible potential as a pianist. Instead, I assumed that one loss at a high level of competition meant I had hit the limit of my talent and it was simply too humiliating to try again.

Transform failures into growth mindset

A growth mindset suggests we transform failures into springboards for growth. If we don’t reach a goal, like winning at the provincial competition, do we continue to learning? Can we develop a willingness to honestly investigate our capacities, strengths and interests? Our failures and mistakes are markers on whatever path we’re travelling. There is no need to punish ourselves when we don’t get the highest mark or make the most money … or win the piano competition. So much kinder — and more hopeful — than “I failed. That’s that. Never again”!

Growth mindset reminds us that by staying curious, not blaming ourselves for failure, not giving up, and asking for help when we need it, we may be able to do much more than we initially thought possible. Sometimes things don’t work out as we hoped, but that doesn’t necessarily mean we “can’t”; maybe we just need a new plan.

Try again!

Perhaps by using this approach we can short circuit some of the negativity associated with failure in our society and encourage ourselves to ease up on the hostility and blame we so readily direct at ourselves when we don’t realize our goals. Maybe we can embrace the idea of “try again” as one of the best ways to achieve success, seeing someone who’s making their 10th try as determined and persistent rather than as a nine-time failure.

For a brief moment, my teenage-self was the best piano player in the province … and then … she wasn’t. Her intense focus on outcome — winning the competition — and her insistence that failure to win meant she had failed as a pianist. This robbed me of much of the joy I had experienced in my relationship with the piano up to then. I was able to reconnect with that sense of joy later in life when I decided, as some of you may remember, to learn to play the cello.

Benefits of the growth mindset

I believe that developing a growth mindset would genuinely benefit many of us, from children to elders. Failure is an opportunity to try again in a new way, to reach out to others for help and support, to persist in our commitment to be lifelong learners, and maybe most importantly, to find joy in the effort.

After all, even Einstein dropped out of school at 15, failed the entrance exam to the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology at 16, and despite his later academic success in the field of physics, could not secure a position as a professor in his area of interest for many years. And yet, he persisted — for the love of learning, for the excitement of discovery, and for the joy of the effort. And we all know how that turned out!


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