Burning the biscuits: how risking failure fuels improvement

It may seem perverse, but more often than not risking failure fuels improvement. I was again reminded of this when chatting with an artist and visual arts teacher, who works in a high school with teenage students. I asked my new friend what the most common difficulty is that she experiences with her students. The answer was immediate: not going far enough.

I asked the art teacher to explain. She said that, in her experience, students are afraid of making mistakes and ruining their artwork by doing too much and wrecking all the promise of the piece they were working on. So they try to hedge their bets and stop just a little too early.


Risking failure: baking the biscuits

Why is this bad? Why should we worry if artists leave their pieces just a little on the side of unfinished – doesn’t this leave the promising beginning intact?

Well, yes. But no. It is definitely a problem. And here’s why.

By never going too far, they don’t learn where just enough is. It’s a bit like making biscuits. If you take every batch you make out of the oven when they’re still a little doughy, you don’t learn how to recognise when they’re cooked.  Most of the time they’ll be edible, but they’ll never be really right. If, on the other hand, you ‘caramelise’ them*, you soon learn what they look like when they’ve gone too far!

In other words, sometimes you have to take things to the point of ‘caramelisation’. You have to go too far. That’s the way you find out where the optimal range lies. You fail in order to find out where success truly lies. If you stop at ‘slightly doughy’, you’ve set a ceiling on your ability to improve.

FM Alexander did the psycho-physical equivalent of ‘caramelisation’ many times in his efforts to discover the way to overcome his vocal problems. He discovered the three tendencies that appeared to be implicated in his vocal distress. He found which one he could directly prevent, and stopped doing it. The other two vanished as well (thereby proving his suspicion that the three tendencies were linked) and his voice improved.

Job done, you would think.

But FM wasn’t satisfied, because he knew that risking failure fuels improvement.  He decided to have a go at putting his head forward, further forward in fact than it felt right to do – just to see if he could make things even better. And the results of that little experiment led to many more months of experimentation and angst. But it also led to the creation of what we now teach as the Alexander Technique.**

If FM hadn’t tried going too far, I wouldn’t be writing this blog to you today.

Yes, going too far and stuffing things up hurts. Artists hate looking at pieces they’ve overworked. I hate it when I burn my bakes. But if you don’t take that risk, you’ll never reach the potential that you were aiming for, and you won’t learn the concrete and practical things that you could do to make it possible at the next attempt.

So… Go on. Go a little too far today, and see what happens.


* I’ve watched enough cookery programmes to know that no one burns anything these days!
** You can read about it in FM Alexander, The Use of the Self, Orion Books, p.21ff.

Revealed at last: 2 liberating secrets about being a newbie (at anything).


Secret number 1: Newbies are allowed to ‘suck’

Here is the liberating truth. If you’re a newbie, you’re allowed to ‘suck’. You are allowed to be joyfully, liberatingly bad at the activity you’re trying.

Of course, most of us don’t give ourselves this pleasure. Instead, we expect ourselves to be good at this new thing. Not just passable, you’ll notice. We want to be good.

And this is just a little bit crazy.

Think about it. You’re walking onto a tennis court for the first time in your life. You’ve seen it played, but you’ve never picked up a racquet before. You don’t know how to hit the ball, don’t know how to serve. Is it reasonable, then, to expect yourself to be able to hit backhand winners down the line in the style of Roger Federer? Probably not!

But this is what we so frequently do. I clearly remember giving up chess at age 7 after my first ever attempt at a game because I wasn’t instantly successful. I can think of other occasions where I’ve seen children and adults make similar decisions.

Can you think of a time when you’ve done something similar?

FM Alexander had just such an experience when he was trying to find a way of undoing the vocal hoarseness that was threatening his acting career. He thought that just because he’d used his vocal tract in a certain way for a prolonged period, he’d be able to change the way he used it and do the new thing just as accurately, just as easily. But it simply wasn’t the case.

Alexander realised that he wasn’t the only one to make this error, and named the phenomenon a universal delusion:

because we are able to do what we “will to do” in acts that are habitual and involve familiar sensory experiences, we shall be equally successful in doing what we “will to do” in acts which are contrary to our habit and therefore involve sensory experiences that are unfamiliar. *

Just because I can play tennis does not mean I can play badminton. Just because I can drive a car, I shouldn’t expect to be able to ride a bicycle. Just because I can play recorder to a fairly decent standard, I should NOT expect to be near-instantly performance standard on an oboe – I would almost certainly sound like I was strangling a duck.

And that would be okay, because I’d be new at it!


Secret number 2: you might be a newbie and not even realise it!

Sometimes we are really bad at recognising that we are doing a new activity. We can be fooled into thinking it’s just the same thing as something else we do successfully, when in fact it is a different activity, involving different techniques and a totally different means of approach.

I realised the full force of this the first time I picked up a renaissance recorder and tried to play some really tricky consort music with it. Yes, it’s a recorder. But it has subtly different fingerings, a different bore requiring different breathe pressure, and a different orientation of arm joints to reach the holes comfortably. It is a different activity.

This principle also cropped up just the other week in the presentation skills class I’m teaching at the moment. It is tempting to think that because we all speak to each other all the time quite successfully, that doing a presentation or a speech is just an extension of the speaking we do all the time. But it isn’t.

Just because we can all speak DOES NOT MEAN that we know how to deliver a presentation to a group of people. Talking to friends and giving a work presentation both involve talking, it is true. But the presentation isn’t the same activity. It is a different skill involving different technical aspects and completely different levels of preparation. And if a person goes into a presentation not realising that it’s a new activity and then has a bad experience, it can sow the seeds of anxiety which could develop into full-blown stage fright. And all because they’d miscategorised the presentation as something that they knew how to do.

Before you do that activity, ask yourself:

  • Do I really know what I’m doing, or are there enough ‘uncharted’ aspects to make this a new experience?
  • Have I prepared sufficiently?
  • Am I okay with not being outstanding at this activity? Bluntly, am I okay with the idea of failing?

This isn’t about reducing standards, nor is it about settling for average. This is about recognising that everybody has to start somewhere. If you give yourself the luxury of mistakes and stuff-ups, you’ll be approaching whatever it is you’re learning with an unstressed, free and creative state of mind. And this, in turn, will give you the firm foundation to learn and progress.


* FM Alexander, The Use of the Self in the IRDEAT complete ed., p.417.
Image by Qrodo photos (Flickr creative commons)

Don’t be discouraged by failure: tips for a great year from Alexander and Caesari


This week I’m completing my mini-series inspired by the singing teacher Caesari’s warning to singing students.

Let the student beware, however, of three prominent evils:
Unbridled enthusiasm which leads to precipitancy and excesses;
Impatient expectation of rapid measurable results;
Discouragement in face of temporary or occasional failure.*

Firstly I talked about the dangers of unbridled enthusiasm. Last week, we looked at the second of Caesari’s warnings, that of being impatient about results. To end the series, we’ll investigate the dangers of being discouraged by failure, and consider whether it might be more sensible to learn from failure instead.

Why we hate failure

We hate it because it sucks, and it feels bad.

Let’s flesh that out a little. If we fail, it means that we had a goal. we wanted to achieve something, probably something important to us. We planned, we invested ourselves in our goals emotionally, we put in the time. When the time came, we attempted to follow our plan, and it went wrong.

When it all goes wrong, we feel downhearted because we didn’t reach our goals. This is normal and completely reasonable. We didn’t achieve what we wanted to achieve, and we feel the loss not just of the goal, but of the time invested and the emotional energy spent. FM Alexander was no stranger to this stinging sense of disappointment. While trying to work out what he was doing while using his voice to cause his vocal problems, Alexander often took wrong turnings or failed to do what he intended. And when he failed, he definitely felt it: “This indeed was a blow. If ever anyone was in an impasse, it was I.”**

Running from failure

Failing hurts because we didn’t achieve what we wanted. But more than that, very often we take it personally:

“I didn’t make the team, so I must be a bad player.”
“I didn’t get that high note. Everyone knows I’m a rubbish singer.”
“My book didn’t sell. I should quit writing now and stop making a fool of myself.”

Notice that these hypothetical people go one step further than just feeling disappointment. They utilise one or more cognitive distortions and draw incorrect and unfounded conclusions that bear little relation to the event. They manufacture feelings of embarrassment and shame, and then run from them. They may even quit the activity rather than face failure again!

Please don’t quit – there is a better alternative…

Learn from failure

One of the most striking character traits of FM Alexander – in my opinion – is his determination. Because he was passionate about his chosen career, he kept fighting to solve his vocal problems even in the face of a stream of failures and disappointments. He keeps writing sentences like this:

“Discouraged as I was, however, I refused to believe that my problem was hopeless.”***

Do you, like me, find that sentence tremendously encouraging? I love the way that Alexander could feel the disappointment, then put it to one side and keep reasoning out new courses of action. More than that, Alexander realised the value of his failures as a resource:

“I practised patiently month after month, as I had been doing hitherto, with varying experiences of success and failure, but without much enlightenment. In time, however, I profited by these experiences…”****

Even though he didn’t know how the failures could help him at the time, Alexander knew that the experience would be useful at some point. He knew that failures could help him progress, even if he didn’t understand how at the point when the failure occurred. By analysing the failures, he could begin to understand how they occurred and why.

Learn from failure by…

  • Collecting your failures. Store them up.
  • Analyse them. Are there patterns? Any obvious errors or things that you overlooked?
  • Getting feedback. If you have a teacher, coach or mentor, ask them for feedback. And try to have someone in your camp who will cheer you on even when you lose or fail.
  • Use the information you’ve gathered and create a plan for your new attempt.

For example…

If you didn’t make the team, there may be any number of reasons. Maybe there were better players there on the day. Maybe you made a mistake or two. Maybe the coaches just decided you needed more time to prepare. It does not mean you are a bad player. Ask your coaches what you should work on to improve your game, and keep playing.

You didn’t get the high note? It’s a shame, yes. Some of the audience might notice, but most of them won’t. And will one missed note destroy the integrity of the rest of your singing? Probably not. Keep practising. Work out why the top note didn’t work, and then perform again.

There might be any number of reasons why your book didn’t sell, and the quality of your writing is only one of the possible options. Have you investigated the others?

Don’t run from failure. Feel it. Learn from it. Learning how to learn from failure is probably one of the biggest and most significant steps you could make on your road to success.

* E. Herbert-Caesari, The Alchemy of Voice, Robert Hale, London, 1965, p.22.
** FM Alexander, The Use of the Self in the IRDEAT complete edition, p.420.
*** ibid.
**** ibid., p.418.