Experiencing Failure in Advance

Wednesday February 24, 2021 by Jason Mohlenbrock

I love Seth Godin and what he has to say about making and shipping creative work.  (If you haven’t yet, definitely check out his blog, his podcast Akimbo, or any of his amazing books).

One of my favorite quotes from his 2010 book Linchpin is “I define anxiety as experiencing failure in advance.”

Let that sink in…experiencing failure in advance.  I love it!  I’ve always viewed anxiety as worrying about what might happen…but actually experiencing the “what if” before it even happens is what’s really going on.  This idea has definitely helped me personally (and I can imagine the shift in thought helping so many people in their personal battles with anxiety) but wow, it really adjusts the pendulum when we talk about performance anxiety for kids.   

When the kids we support step up to the stage, they actually experience how we reacted to their past performances.  Yowza.  That’s some pressure!  (And we thought they were the ones under pressure….)

Their experience and our reactions are way more interrelated than we might want to admit, but we can actually use that understanding to their advantage:

Don’t highlight failure – They got some notes wrong?   They forgot to practice every day?  They played the wrong scales with the wrong changes?  WHO CARES????  (By focussing on those mishaps, you’re just training them to experience the failure that might happen later, before they even try)

Go easy on success – They got the notes all right?  They practiced every day?  They played the song “correctly”?  Celebrate them!  But go easy on how they got it “right.”  Be more proud of them, for the risk they took, for their bravery to share….and always keep in mind how highlighting the absence of failure is just highlighting failure, in disguise.  (This is an insanely difficult balance, I feel you, I’m nowhere close to achieving it myself)

Embrace the potential for weird –   Will it work?  Will they mess up?  Will other kids in their school or neighborhood (or other teacher’s students) be better?  Will anyone get the art they’re about to make?  WHO CARES??!  Help them embrace the moment right before they take the leap, and keep going easy on whatever happens after (because their next leap needs you to).

Here’s my take on the antidote to experiencing failure in advance:

Lets help our kids experience here’s a new way to play this in advance; wow, a lot of people saw me mess up and I’m fine with that in advance; no one’s heard this before in advance; I have no idea how this will end up, but I’m so happy to be here in advance….

How do we build these amazing, self-affirming skills in our music students?  

Jury’s still out.

But, asking the question seems like a pretty awesome step…