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

Yarn-Kitty-500

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.

Impatient about results? Tips for a great year from Alexander and Caesari.

checklist

This week I’m continuing my mini-series inspired by the singing teacher Caesari’s warnings to singing students. Last week I talked about the dangers of unbridled enthusiasm. This week, we look at the second of Caesari’s warnings, that of being impatient about results:

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.*

 

We’ll look first at why we want measurable results fast, then at why this is unrealistic. Finally, I’ll leave us with a couple of ideas to help counter our thirst for results.

 

Impatient about results: I want improvement, and I want it NOW!

On any new activity or goal we’re working on, or even if we’re working to improve something we’re already doing, the one thing we’re looking for is improvement.

If I take singing lessons, I want my singing to get better.

If I go to French classes, I want to come out after a few lessons with at least a smattering of French.

If I go running, I want to start feeling fitter.

But we don’t just want improvement. We don’t just want results. We want those results to be measurable, and we want that measurable improvement quickly. We suffer, to use Caesari’s words, impatient expectation of rapid measurable results.

And life often just doesn’t work that way.

 

Why results (often) don’t come quickly.

Even if we are learning a whole new skill (as I did last year with tennis), we still are likely to have preconceptions about what the activity involves, how it is meant to be done, how successful we are likely to be, and what body parts we are going to have to use to do it. We are full of preconceptions.**

Part of learning anything is learning to give up what you think you know in order to take on board the ideas that you could never have dreamed of. And this is sometimes a hard task. We are almost preconditioned to hold on to the things we know – they are ours, we thought of them, and we like them. Letting go can be difficult. And yet this is what we must do.

Sometimes it will be fast. We will make terrific process.

Sometimes it is slow. It feels like it is taking forever. Sometimes I feel like I would rather chew my own foot off than have to wait any longer for improvement in the areas that I’m working on! But change comes. In its own time. And it probably won’t look anything like what you thought it would.

At this point, it is practically irresistible to begin feeling impatient about results, get frustrated, ‘chuck a wobbly’, ‘throw your toys out of the pram’. But let’s not, just for a moment, because it’s usually at this point that I remember my all-time favourite quote from FM Alexander.

…where the “means-whereby” are right for the purpose, desired ends will come. They are inevitable. Why then be concerned as to the manner or speed of their coming? We should reserve all thought, energy and concern for the means whereby we may command the manner of their coming.***

I love this quote because it reminds me that if I’m following a well-designed process, if I’m keeping my enthusiasm in check and using my head, then I cannot fail to have success. I just don’t know how long it will take.

 

How to avoid impatient expectation of rapid results

These are my tips:

  • Keep a list (either mental or on paper) of things that have improved. My own favourite example is playing musical passages that I used to find too difficult, but that I can now play easily. Look at the list whenever you start to feel impatient, and remind yourself of how frustrated you used to feel about the thing that is now simple for you.
  • If you feel frustrated, take a break. Go for a walk or a run. Put on some music and dance around the house. If you release some of the mental energy, you may well find that you’ve solved the issue blocking your progress without having to ‘think’ about it.
  • Remember that frustration and impatience are also signs of growth. When you think about it, this makes sense. If we always stay within what is comfortable and easy, then we don’t ever reach the limits of what is possible for us.

Impatience and frustration, of themselves, are not detrimental. What is truly destructive is allowing impatience and frustration to be the excuse to quit. Why not dance instead?

 

* E. Herbert-Caesari, The Alchemy of Voice, Robert Hale, London, 1965, p.22.
** See FM Alexander’s wonderful chapter ‘Incorrect Conception’ in Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual for a fuller description of this.
*** FM Alexander, The Universal Constant in Living in the IRDEAT complete edition, p.587.

Steps to conquer stage fright: stop focusing on results

This is a series about conquering stage fright. First, we talked about the importance of knowing yourself. Then, we talked about the fear factor. Third, we talked about creating positive experiences to help fight the panic. Fourth, we looked at the importance of knowing what you’re doing. This week, we talk about the danger of focusing on results.

musician

I have a number of students who are actors or musicians. They come to me typically because they feel that there is something that is holding them back from performing with the ease and freedom that they desire. A typical lesson goes something like this:

[student plays/performs brilliantly.]

Me:      How did you do?
Student: Okay, I guess.
Me:      What made it okay?
Student: Well, I didn’t hit that note quite the way I wanted, and this phrase didn’t quite work, and I think I could have out more expression into the piece, and my tone wasn’t as good as it could have been…
Me: Hm. But apart from those things, how did you do?
[Student looks puzzled.]
Me: Did you successfully carry out your plan?
Student: Ummm…

 

Now, the point here isn’t that the student is being hard on themselves. (They are, by the way.) The point isn’t particularly that they are attuned only to notice negative things about their performance. (Though this is a common problem with performers.)

The problem here is that the student is focused on the negative results. They are listening to the results – the by-product – of a process. When I ask about the process they were using to get their results, they just look puzzled.

If you are thinking and worrying and focusing on the way the performance sounds while you are in the middle of performing, you are focusing on something that has already happened. It is gone. You have no control over it any more. But if you’re thinking about the sound that is already out there, I can pretty much guarantee there’s one thing that you’re not thinking about.

The process that leads to the sound.

In other words, once you start judging your performance while you’re doing it, you effectively give up control over everything that is to come. And I hope you’ll agree with me that this doesn’t sound like a great idea.

So try keeping your mind on what is useful: your plan and your process. Spend the time working out what you want to achieve, and then focus on that. Block your ears, if you have to, just so that you get a sense of what it might be like to give up the addiction to mid-performance criticism.

Comfortingly, FM Alexander says this:

“the individual comes to rely upon his “means-whereby,” and does not become disturbed by wondering whether the activities concerned will be right or wrong. Why should he, seeing that the confidence with which he proceeds with his task is a confidence born of experiences…”

If we keep working on the process, results will come, and we won’t need to worry about them or listen out for them, because we’ll know that they are there. What a wonderful comforting thought.

Do you keep your mind on the process, or does your inner critic drown out your plan? Tell me about it in the comments.

Photograph by Kevin Leighton.