Failure is an important measure of progress. My violin teacher says I need to throw caution to the wind every so often and play as fluid and as fast as I can, ramping up the speed until something fails, either intonation or bow pressure or one of the other thousand or so technical elements that apparently can mess up the final result. When something does fail, it is important to notice what it is and then start practicing that specific element at a slow and deliberate speed.
There is another type of failure, one that you are not looking for intentionally as part of deliberate practice. It’s the failure that you are trying to avoid, but that happens despite your intentions. There is an argument that even this kind of failure is often good for you in retrospect.
Tim Ferriss has a question that he asks all his podcast guests and that is prominently featured in his new book “Tribe of Mentors”: “What is your favourite failure and what did you learn from it?” I find it insightful to see how the interviewees process what appears to be a failure into something they view as a valuable lesson. More than the specific examples, what fascinates me is how resilient these people are. And, of course, the lessons learned from failures are illustrations of what Steve Jobs famously said: you can connect the dots only looking back.
Extracting useful lessons from failures is hard in general. I can say, though, that the main thing I learned from failing yondan kendo grading this past Saturday was realizing that life goes on after that almost completely unchanged. I can still talk about kendo with friends on the ferry on our way back from Vancouver to Victoria, I can go to see the Nutcracker ballet with my family the following day, I can have a cup of coffee and hot chocolate with my daughter after school at our favourite cafe,.. And, even more significantly, I can do all these things regardless of whether or not I go to grading next year or ever again. So next time, if there is a next time, there is no need to worry… as I keep saying to myself every time.