Fail Better: How to Learn from Your Mistakes

“Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.”
-Samuel Beckett

When training in the martial arts, you will at some point fail to do something. And this is a good thing. One should go so far as to hope to fail throughout their training career. It is failure that makes us stronger, smarter, more technical martial arts. But it’s not just about failing. It’s about failing better, failing in such a way that you learn from it and adapt quickly to address the problem that led to the failure.

In my 16 years in the martial arts, I’ve seen and experienced all sorts of failures, failures to learn quickly, failures to defend one’s self, failures to complete a set of physical exercises, etc. The ones who bounce back the quickest are the ones that fail better.

Here are 7 ways to fail better that came from an article recently published in Psychology Today that I’ve put in perspective for martial artists:

1. Lighten Up

Most people who bounce back from setbacks have a sense of humor. They know when they’re taking things and themselves too seriously. I’ve seen students who were so paralyzed by fear of failure that they handicap themselves, sabotaging themselves by providing reasons for why they fail and will continue to fail at something. There is a certain logic to it, because, hey, if something prevented you from doing your best, you can’t be said to have failed, right? Humour is about stepping back for fresh perspective. Many believe that it’s something you’re born with, but we can become better at seeing the lighter side by sheer exposure to that way of thinking. And it does take the edge off of failure. After all, an embarrassment today makes for an entertaining story tomorrow.

2. Join the Club

Misery loves company. There’s can be value in commiseration. Some students will speak to others who have similar training problems. The positive side to this is that it can give them the impulse and insight to do something about it. They train together to work through their difficulties and try to find the right questions to ask in order to get the best direction from instructors. That being said, any such discussion should be positively oriented, seeking to find solutions, as opposed to pure commiseration of one’s difficulties, which may only serve to build the walls surrounding the problem.

3. Feel Guilt, Not Shame

The difference between guilt and shame is the reason we assign as to why failure occurs, notes Richard Robins, a psychologist at the University of California at Davis. Guilt says it’s “something I did.” But shame means feeling failure occurred because of “something I am” — in which case, you expect failure and don’t act to avoid it.

But the cycle of learned helplessness can be broken. Instead of thinking “I’m a failure,” think “I’m a normal person who made a mistake I can learn from.” If your perpetual explanation for your failures is simply, “I suck,” you might need to practice looking outward and ask yourself, “What other things — things that aren’t about me — might have caused this failure to perform?”

On the other hand, if your story is, “It’s never about me,” you may need to seek out some aspects of the problem you can do something about. Because let’s face it, you do mess up, everyone does. In which case you need to own the failure, see what you can learn from it, and move on.

4. Cultivate Optimism

“There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so,” said Hamlet. Paying attention to the positive infuses you with hope, creating a climate in which your failures lose their sting and a belief that things will get better if you work at it prevails.

5. Scale Down Your Expectations for Yourself

When we succeed, we tend to just ratchet up our expectations for ourselves and not get much of pleasure out of it. But when we fail, it’s much harder to ratchet down our expectations for ourselves. “That might be what failing well is,” says psychologist Jonathan Haidt. “A willingness to lower our sights when that’s realistically required.” If failure is about failing to meet goals you set for yourself, then one way to avoid failing is to revise those now-outdated goals. That way, instead of failing on a stage you once mastered, you’re still succeeding on a more modest stage.

6. Don’t Blame Yourself

Self-blame is corrosive. Blaming yourself for the every training problem you ever encounter makes you metabolize failure badly. This makes you get down on yourself and your training. The more you blame yourself for problems, the worse you feel about your training, the less you’ll grow past those problems. And it’s a vicious circle. By contrast, students who accept their difficulties and believe in their abilities to work through them, usually do so. The stronger that belief, the faster they’ll adapt and learn to fix them.

7. Embrace Failure

Failure is an opportunity to grow. Seize it and appreciate how much it can teach you.

Comments (3)

3 thoughts on “Fail Better: How to Learn from Your Mistakes

  1. Good article. Usually I’m not too keen on psychology (either their conclusions are blatantly obvious or they’re descriptions of existing phenomena and nothing more) but they do seem to get it right sometime. Dealing with failure and especially learning how to deal with failure is one of the most important lessons of life and this is as true in the MA as anywhere else. How well you learn this lesson and are able to apply it depends a lot on your upbringing: you learn the most by mimicking those around you and since your parents will be around you most of the time (at least when growing up) it follows you’ll learn the most from them. This can be a good or a bad thing depending on their qualities and previous experiences. Without getting too personal I’d like to use myself as an example: basically I was raised by a neurotic, fearful introvert (my mother) and a narcissistic perfectionist (my father). This meant getting contrasting if not contradictory messages on everything: from my mother I learnt fear and the urge to run at the first sign of trouble, my father would always burden me with insanely high expectations (nothing was ever good enough) and combined this with a total disregard for what I thought or felt on the matter (basically the Fuhrer-principle: I am always right no matter what). As I said I won’t be getting into this much further – this is not Oprah and I’m only trying to get a point across – but the result was downright disastrous and led to both a number of personal problems and a serious disdain for both my parents.

    Now if you cannot rely on your parents to act as role-models and support (taking lessons from an anxiety-driven hypochondriac with an almost morbid fascination for all things emotional or from an egotistical jerk who only cares about his own precious ego and status is tantamount to emotional and spiritual suicide) you’d better look elsewhere and for me some of the most positive influences in my life have been martial-art related. For one there was a guy I met when I just started in JJ: my first impression of him was not exactly positive (he was and still is a rather rough-looking bloke who looks like he’s getting ready to try out for the Hell’s Angles) but he turned out to be the very friendly, easy-going type (albeit with a rough edge, especially on the mat) and he basically dragged me through the first belts. I was basically doubting myself all the time and he countered this by calling me a wuss, albeit jokingly, and this prompted me to try harder and basically give back as much as I got (which amounted to a lot of pain in the beginning, after a while we both developed killer-techniques and wrists and limbs of concrete). Another major influence was my first sensei: at the time he was in his sixties, the stern-looking type with a big moustache (the cliché was true btw, he used to be a master-sergeant in the army) but a superior martial-artist and a great teacher and motivator (needles to say I worshipped the man as a god). Basically he kept pushing us to the limit but in a good way and that is why he produced such good students and earned a splendid reputation in the JJ and broader MA-community. If I had listened to him I probably would have my first Dan already but then again I was young and foolish and I had other things on my mind. Naturally my current sensei deserves an honorable mention too: while I do not look up to him the same way I did with the old one (he was my first teacher, a teacher of teachers, and will always be sensei in my mind) I do respect him and since we are friends it’s a somewhat more equal relationship (although he is much better than me of course) and not a semi-sacred teacher-student relationship you’d expect in more traditional dojo’s. I learn a lot from him each time we step on the mat together and he continues to be an inspiration on and off the mat.

  2. What I learned from those experiences is this: 1) never give respect and certainly not trust when it is not earned first, 2) look for positive people in your life who’ll support you in the good and the bad times (and not just critize for the sake of critizing and putting you down, such people are predators and you’d better stay away from them) and 3) if you keep a realistic outlook and not bite off more than you can chew with effort, time and perseverance you’ll achieve your goals. Effort and positivism is the key: think things over, make up your mind and keep driving forward. The text you quoted from Shakespeare is true: attitude is a self-fulfilling prophesy. If you’re always negative than most likely you won’t get anything done and this will only fuel pessimism (I had to learn this the hard way), if you try to be positive good things will happen to you and you’ll get more out of life.

    When you’re just starting in the MA nothing is easy: training is tiresome, frustrating and painful, all the others are better than you and most likely you’ll feel like totally out of place and ready to quit a number of times. I know I experienced all those things yet I stuck it out and look where I’m at now so there is hope (lol). What I try to do with new students is to be as clear in my explanations as I possibly can (to the point of stating the obvious, which may not be all that obvious to them) and offer encouragement (use humor and a positive attitude to lighten the mood, especially when they’re experiencing difficulty or start doubting themselves) and praise them whenever it’s appropriate. This approach worked particularly well with a somewhat older lady (middle-aged, naturally I’m not that ill-mannered as to go asking for her age) who recently got her yellow belt. She seemed rather anxious in the beginning and was actually somewhat scared of me (I wonder why, I’m totally harmless lol) but now she seems more at ease and she’s progressing nicely. Of all the beginner’s she shows the most technical proficiency (I do like to think I had something to do with that) and I’m quite sure that if she sticks with this she can actually become good.

    Anyway, I hope I didn’t digress too much. At the risk of sounding insanely optimistic (which I’m not, not by nature anyway) this rather inspirational quote by lord Shackleton, the first man to cross the south-pole and one of the prime examples of the resilience and strength of the human spirit. It complements Beckett nicely.

    ‘By endurance we conquer.’



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