Bouncing Back From Failure — And Success
A critical skill on the path of mastery.
Individuals who sustain world-class performance — who are on the path of mastery — are driven from within. This was a major finding in researching and reporting my new book, Peak Performance: Elevate Your Game, Avoid Burnout, and Thrive with the New Science of Success. The primary motivation of lasting greats isn’t success or fear, and it’s certainly not satisfying others or conforming to a certain peer group or social norms. Rather, their motivation originates from an internal desire to improve and engage in an activity for its own sake. This doesn’t mean that each day of their pursuit will be exciting or pleasurable. But it does mean that they will show steadfast enthusiasm about the entire journey.
Consider, for example, an Olympic swimmer on the path of mastery. She is unlikely to be enthusiastic about every workout. And while she’ll certainly be excited for the Olympic Games, that still won’t be her primary motivation either. Rather, her focus will be on her overall progression as a swimmer — on pushing her physical and psychological capabilities and evolving her stroke and its relationship with the water. Following races in which she wins gold medals, after all the other competitors have filed out of the arena to celebrate or sleep, she’ll be alone in the pool working on her stroke, making subtle adjustments, trying to get better even though she’s just been crowned the best there is.
If this swimmer sounds like someone you know, that’s because, odds are, you do. Her name is Katie Ledecky. She’s on the path of mastery, and, after winning five gold medals at the recent Rio Olympic Games, she’s quickly becoming one of the most decorated female athletes ever to live.
Mastery: motivation originates from an internal desire to improve and engage in an activity for its own sake.
Ledecky turned down at least $5 million per year worth of sponsorship money (and the immediate fame that would have accompanied it) so she could swim at Stanford University. When she was asked if it was a difficult decision, she simply replied: “No. It wasn’t.” She knew deep-down inside that she wanted the experience of swimming collegiately and she thought doing so would be better for her long-term development and progression.
How similar are you to Katie Ledecky? I’m not talking about your swimming prowess or your ability at anything for that matter. I’m talking about your mindset. From where does your motivation predominantly come?
Predominantly is key here. Unless you’re a robot, there is no avoiding that a part of your drive will stem from external results and trying to avoid failure. Katie Ledecky wanted to win all those medals at the Rio Olympic Games and surely there was some part of her that didn’t want to disappoint her coaches and fans. But even more than wanting to win gold and meet expectations, Ledecky wants to progress as a swimmer. Why else would she be practicing after dominating in all her events or turn down millions of dollars to go pro early? The lion’s share of her drive comes from within. Ledecky doesn’t judge herself against others so much as she judges herself against prior versions of herself. This is about as healthy a form of competition there is.
It’s worth repeating: being driving from within acknowledges that external motivators — be it Olympic medals, book sales, art commissions, or venture capital funding — will influence your motivation. At the same time, however, it ensures that the influence of such external motivators remains a minor one. Of course, this doesn’t happen automatically. It takes concrete actions to keep external motivators from staking too great a claim in your psyche and inconspicuously turning your pursuit from one that is harmonious to one that is obsessive. Perhaps the simplest and most effective of these actions is showing up and doing the work, every damn day.
Doing the work has a special way of putting both success and failure in their respective place. After a massive achievement or a devastating failure, getting back to work serves as an embodied reminder that external results aren’t why you are in this. You are in this because, on average, you love what you do. Because you are pursuing mastery — a commitment to your craft and ongoing progression in it. You aren’t as much striving for specific goals as you are being present in an ongoing practice.
- Your book hits the New York Times bestseller list? Write. Doing so will be humbling and remind you that you prefer writing books to talking about writing books. Your book flops and fails to sell more than 100 copies? Write. Doing so will be cathartic and draw you back into your craft.
- Your start-up attracts $1 million in seed funding? Get to work on executing the plan and start prospecting immediately. Your start-up fails to attract seed funding? Get to work on refining the plan and seeking other investors.
- You win multiple gold medals in the Olympics? Swim. You fail to live up to external expectations in the Olympics? Swim.
It takes concrete actions to keep external motivators from staking too great a claim in your psyche and inconspicuously turning your pursuit from one that is harmonious to one that is obsessive. Perhaps the simplest and most effective of these actions is showing up and doing the work, every damn day.
Sure, it’s only human to get a jolt of excitement after a big win or to feel disappointment after a tough loss. Enjoy the success or grieve the defeat, but within 48-hours, get back to work. Here are two additional examples, both a bit more intimate, of how this can play out:
- After I write something that receives a positive reception from others, right when I begin to feel like I might become vain about it, I force myself to start on the next piece of work. Doing so has an immediate humbling effect. No different when I write something that tanks. Rather than feel sorry for myself, I start on the next story or book. By doing this, I am reminded that I love writing far more than I love getting recognized for it. It’s a tried and true means of preventing the emotions associated with external recognition or failure from staking too great of a claim on my motivation.
- When coaching an athlete, regardless of his age, I have a one-night rule: After a race, he has until the next morning to celebrate or ruminate about his performance. Once he wakes up, it’s back to the grind, back to putting in the work required to get better. After a poor performance, getting back to work silences the negative voice in his head. After a triumphant performance, getting back to work prevents complacency from laying down even in a single root.
Big wins and tough losses share at least one thing in common: it is indeed hard to get back to work after them. Force yourself to overcome the resistance.
Intrinsic motivation does not occur on its own. Without rapidly coming back to your work, external motivators are likely to creep into and eventually dominate your psyche. Do not let this happen. Proactively nurture your intrinsic motivation instead.
Thanks for reading.
If you enjoyed this story, I’d be thrilled if you considered ordering my new book, Peak Performance: Elevate Your Game, Avoid Burnout, and Thrive with the New Science of Success, where the above concepts are explored in much greater detail.
For more, follow me on Twitter @Bstulberg, where I share daily insights on mastery and peak performance.