Why We Need Failure to Succeed
Failure is most commonly defined as not achieving a goal, or not seeing an intended outcome. Most failure is traditionally attributed to a lack or inability of quality accompanied by mistakes. Often a result of inexperience, failure can also be due to not knowing how to solve unfamiliar problems or a lack of understanding or a combination of things. But this is all new to us. It's experimental and is designed to instill learning by its very nature. So making mistakes, and not knowing how to solve these problems is groundbreaking territory.
But doesn't this sound like a child who is learning? When a child experiments and learns, it's called play. When children play, they learn about the world they live in. They learn about everything around them. They learn about relationships that not only include people, but they also learn about form, balance, design, space and proportion, light, dark and color and so much more. They are experiencing, and therefore, there is no failure in this mode of play. And yet they do achieve at their level. They are wildly creative, uninhibited and the world is a canvas on which to paint their experiences.
As adults, we have been lead to believe that play is reserved for children. Adults rarely even refer to "play" except in association with children's behavior. Play, then, by inference, is childish. Work has replaced play for adults. Therefore, if work is not successful, it is a failure. I think this is a perfect example of brainwashing.
Play Versus Work
I taught piano lessons for over two decades. I taught many ages, including several adults. The students who had the most difficult time finding any joy at the piano were teenagers and adults who were driven to succeed. I remember one particular student who always arrived with furrowed brow and tormented the piano. However, she would play perfectly many times, despite her harsh style. She played ferociously no matter what the mood of the piece was. She finally admitted her fear of failing to please me which made her so tense that her muscles would only allow her to play as if she were attacking the keyboard. Finally, it dawned on me what to say to her:
"Thank you for working the piano. But we call it playing the piano for a reason. Please don't work the piano. Please play it."
I asked her to close her eyes and see herself playing this beautiful piece she chose, removing me from that picture altogether. After a minute or two, she opened her eyes and began playing. She was utterly amazed at the transformation of music she created. It came alive to her! Those missing puzzle pieces in her music were discovered by playing. The piano sang with emotion and feeling. Even when her playing wasn't perfect, none of the beauty of her playing was minimized. Failure had been eliminated. It no longer existed when she played the piano.
So what was the key? What was that one thing she did that clicked and changed everything for her? She relaxed. Failure didn't exist because she was playing. The stress of performing was replaced by the joy of playing.
Is There Really Such a Thing as Failure?
In truth, I believe there is no such thing as failure unless we stop trying. Every attempt is an education and an experience that will lead us closer to our intended goal, if we persist. The story of Thomas Edison's 700 attempts at making an electric light bulb are well known.
Edison was asked by a New York Times reporter, “How does it feel to have failed seven hundred times?”
To which Edison responded,"I have not failed 700 times. I have not failed once. I have succeeded in proving that those 700 ways will not work. When I have eliminated the ways that will not work, I will find the way that will work."
Thomas Edison's Quote
I think what Edison is implying is if you haven't yet achieved what you want, you haven't yet failed enough. Look forward to more failures and learn and build on them. Get involved in play, curiosity, and creativity. And when you're so involved in that process, success will come when it's least expected. That's the joyful surprise of success.
Failure Precedes Success!
Experience Is the Best Teacher
As I graduated high school, I wanted more than anything to be a composer and study music at university. But there were things that could have prevented me from studying music. I never received more than two years of formal piano lessons growing up, and I had a partially missing right index finger. I could barely read music, and I had to have others notate the music I composed.
When I auditioned as a 17 year old for a music scholarship at university, I was nearly laughed off campus. My piano performance skills were horrible and I was considered a beginner. But I also played one of my own compositions. I wrote a two-part invention in the style of J. S. Bach and although I couldn't really play it very well, I gave the music to my jury and they looked on as I played. I saw looks of surprise, and fingers pointing at the score. Mumblings were heard:
"It sounds like number....oh no, it isn't that one, but it does sound like Bach!"
After I performed I was told, "We shouldn't allow you as a music major at all. You don't qualify for a scholarship because your skills are at a beginner level. However..."
It was because of my composition abilities that I was allowed to major in music, but I had enormous work ahead of me. I had to prove I could learn from each setback, each doubt that others had about my abilities and keep going forward. It was difficult, and I wanted to give up many, many times. But when I composed, I played. I became absorbed in the joy of trying new things, creating new sounds. And it was more than acceptable to all my critics. In time, I became a competent teacher, conductor, composer, orchestrator and publisher. As an undergraduate, three of my pieces were published in volumes that have sold millions of copies.
I think if you must have the word "failure" in your vocabulary, you need to automatically put the word "temporary" in front of it. But I also think that if you can be as my piano student and realize there is no failure, that transforming fear and feelings of inadequacy to joy is about playing, discovery, curiosity and creativity, I think you're even closer to what you really want.
So, if you're stressing and obsessing about a "failure", here's what I think: go out and play, and stop bugging me. I'm working. [wink.]
© 2013 Daniel Carter