The Cowboy Hat at a Piano Competition: Success Comes from Failure

I spent the past beautiful summer weekend holed up inside Colorado College’s concert hall, listening to pianists of all ages and nationalities competing to win the Rocky Mountain Amateur Piano Competition. All were amateurs, someone who does not teach or play the piano for their primary occupation, and there was quite a variety: a broker from Minnesota, an actuary from Singapore, and a dental assistant from California to name a few. I was curious how they found the time in their busy lives to prepare for a competition, wondering if the finalists were genetically gifted or simply worked harder than the other contestants.

Carol Dweck of Stanford has spent her career studying aspects of this debate. In researching intelligence she asked who is more successful overall, those who are born smart or those who work hard to learn? What she discovered is people who believe intelligence is pre-determined are less successful. Individuals who believe intelligence is malleable, based on learning and hard work, tend to be more successful. Believers in fixed intelligence often choose easier and fewer goals so they will fail less often. Those who see intelligence or ability as malleable will pursue more challenging goals because to them failure is an opportunity to learn and improve.

At the awards ceremony, anxiously waiting to see who won, the master of ceremonies paused and pulled out a cowboy hat. He began telling a story about two contestants, a couple from Japan—a financial wiz and a chemist. They both competed in the last 3 competitions, one or the other making it to the finals but neither of them ever winning. However, the organizers of the competition decided that they embodied the ideal of the amateur pianist, someone who deftly plays the piano for the pure joy of it, and deserved an award. I’ve already forgotten who won the category of Best Classical Performance, but I can still see a petite Japanese woman in a violet evening gown and an extra-large cowboy hat next to her tall bowing tuxedo-wearing husband, both smiling ear to ear.

If failure wasn’t a threat, but an opportunity, what might you decided to do differently?