The Failure Bow

Matt Smith - Failure Bow
Matt Smith showing “cringe mode” vs. the “failure bow.”

We all make mistakes. Sometimes subtly, in ways that only we’re aware of, and sometimes spectacularly, in ways that will get recorded and posted to YouTube and compiled on FAIL Blog. While we can do our best to minimize mistakes, the truth is that we’re never going to be completely rid of our blunders. So it’s important to know how to respond at times when we do make mistakes.

My daughter is taking violin lessons, and before a recent school performance, her teacher was explaining what to do if she played a wrong note: just keep playing. The natural reaction (which I do myself) is to cringe and make a face—and sometimes to break the flow of the song. Her teacher said that in most cases she would be the only person who knew something went wrong—unless she made a big fuss over it, in which case everyone would then know that she’d made an error. But if she just kept on playing as if everything was fine, then everything would be fine.

Okay, so that’s not entirely true. If you’re listening to a bunch of fourth-graders play violin and some of them are hitting sour notes, you will be able to tell there are some mistakes there. However, you’re less likely to spot which of them played a wrong note if they’re not grimacing and cowering each time they play one.

But there’s another reason not to cringe when you make mistakes beyond maintaining the flow of a performance: it’s about your body’s physiological response to your posture. This is something that fascinates me. We think of posture as a reflection of our mental state: you feel confident, so you stand up straight; you’re intimidated, so you cower. But it’s also true that our mental state can be a reflection of our posture. As social psychologist Amy Cuddy explains in her TED talk, your body language shapes who you are—it even has an influence on your brain chemistry.

Seattle improviser and auctioneer Matt Smith has an interesting approach to this, too, one that he learned from improv but that he has carried over into other parts of his life. He teaches the “failure bow.” Basically it’s a counterintuitive response to failure: you stand up straight, smile, hold your hands in the air, and announce: “Thank you! I failed!” Changing the posture from a cringe to a failure bow reduces the hold that your mistake has over you, and allows you to move past it.

I’m currently reading Top Dog: The Science of Winning and Losing by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman, and I came across a chapter that addresses some of the same ideas, but within the context of competition. In “The Difference Between Winning and Not Losing,” Bronson and Merryman talk about “gain-oriented” and “prevention-oriented” behavior. “Gain-oriented” means you’re going for the reward; “prevention-oriented” means you’re avoiding danger (or loss).

What the authors explain is that there are actual physiological differences in how your body reacts based on which mode you’re in, and that in a competition being too prevention-oriented (playing not to lose) can actually be a disadvantage. Playing conservatively, simply trying to avoid errors rather than taking risks, can actually cause you to make more errors rather than less. The key is learning from your mistake and moving on, rather than letting your mistake own you or feeling like you are a mistake.

I think the failure bow, while it may not be appropriate in all situations, is a great approach, and it’s one that I’ve shared with my kids. It won’t keep them from making mistakes in the future, but it may prevent those mistakes from crippling them.

Jonathan H. Liu is a stay-at-home dad in Portland, Oregon, who loves to read, is always up for a board game, and has a bit of a Kickstarter habit.