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I’ve been thinking a lot about failure recently, and I wanted to share a few of those thoughts with you today.

It’s a little glib to simply say “failure isn’t bad” and “don’t be afraid of failure.” Failure is no fun, and, in some pursuits (skydiving?) failure can have serious consequences. There are good reasons that we build much of our lives around the idea of protecting ourselves from failure.

However, a complete aversion to failure is a failure in itself.

To me, the classic example of this is the student who is so obsessed about keeping his straight A average that he only takes safe classes and does very little beyond studying to maintain his grades. This student will never truly be challenged, will never learn outside his comfort zone, and will never grow. (This perspective is supported by a pile of research that shows that grades have no correlation to success after school.)

There’s also a good deal of “we get what we think about.” It’s like driving a car and looking at something on the side of the road; unless you’re very careful, you’ll probably steer toward what you’re looking at life. Many things are like driving a car.

Failure shows us what we need to strengthen

I started learning a new (for me… obviously not new as the guy’s been dead a while) Haydn piano sonata (No. 60, Hob.XVI/50) two weeks ago. Over the past year and a half, I’ve been working hard to rebuild my piano technique, but I find that memorizing new music is not as easy as it was when I was younger.

So there’s the first lesson: how did I discover I needed to work on this? Because of multiple failures in trying to memorize things… and realizing that I was slower at doing so than I used to be. Trying to play from memory is not fun, and I recently told someone that I felt “old, slow, and stupid” when I tried to work on memory.

A very normal human reaction is to avoid things that don’t feel right, and to focus on things we do well. Often, that’s good advice, and sometimes we must embrace the failure because it points us to the ways we can best improve.

This is a topic that deserves deeper consideration, because we can often make a strong case for doing more of what we do well and focusing on strengths. Sometimes, however, we must pay attention the weakness and failure and address it head on, for this is how we grow… ex tenebris ad lucem.

Managing frustration

Failing sucks, but failing repeatedly sucks even more. In one of my early sessions memorizing the first movement of this sonata, I counted the memory slips, technical errors, and general missteps in a practice session. I didn’t do it for a long time because I found the process of counting to be very distracting, but I decided to stop counting after 100 failures—it took 8 minutes to get there.

In a normal session, I would easily encounter hundreds of failures. Repeating this multiple times each day gets us up to thousands in a normal practice day.

Obviously , each of these “micro failures” (some aren’t so micro!) is a learning opportunity, but frustration grows, even with the best discipline and work ethic. I can offer you three specific strategies for managing frustration:

  • Keep reminding yourself why you’re doing this. Embrace your unruly inner child who gets angry and wants to throw things very easily. A gentle reminder from the voice of reason will often set things right.
  • Take breaks. When it gets to be too much, stand up and go do something else. Come back later that day and work again. If you get really frustrated, take a day off—you can better afford to lose a day than to collapse in complete frustration and lose weeks of time.
  • Celebrate the successes. It’s very easy to focus on the repeated failures and to not see the things you’re doing right. You’ll often find unexpected dividends from the work you’re doing. Maybe something seemingly unrelated will improve. Maybe a long-term weakness will become a strength. At the very least, give that inner child a pat on the head when things go well.

Tracking results

I think another key here is to journal and record your progress. We’ve discussed in many places how important this is for traders. I do the same as a musician—each day I make an entry in my practice journal that records what I worked on and what I need to focus on the next day.

The journal becomes a record of progress over time, and also a map that will guide you toward your own improvement and growth. Without this guidance, we can spend a lot of time doing something, but that’s the same as developing a skill and growing.

Write it down. Review. Plan. Then use those failures to point yourself toward success.