Sunday, November 10, 2013

Winning and Losing as Impostors

If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster,
And treat those two impostors just the same…
(Rudyard Kipling, "If—" 12–13)

I have won a few prizes and awards,  and it's a fine feeling.

I have also  seen enough Academy Award speeches to know how happy and validated people appear when they win something. An extreme example is American Actress Sally Field's acceptance speech for Best Actress in a Leading Role at the 1985 Oscars, in which she (in-)famously gushed, "I can't deny the fact that you like me. Right now, you like me!"

Losing is an experience I also know very well — we go back a long way! — and it can sting.  I have been close to winning a couple of competitions where I was one of five finalists and the winner's name was announced in front of a large audience, and those have been particularly (and surprisingly to me) demoralizing experiences.

Surprising, because in both cases I had been smugly confident for weeks that I would not win, and then, at the last minute, as some long-winded person was about to read out the name of the winner, a little voice in my head suddenly hijacked my powers of reason and began whispering (more like shouting, actually) to me that maybe, just maybe, this would be my lucky day — the day I could finally gush in public just like Sally Field did in 1985! And me without a speech! No problem; I would just recite Sally's "you like me" speech from memory! Only I would made it clear that by "you," I was referring to my dog, who is perplexedly and inordinately fond of me, and I have the pictures to prove it.

"If—", by Kipling, was written as fatherly advice to his son, counseling stoicism (or its British equivalent, "stiff-upper-lip-ism") as a response to life's ups and downs, and the lines above explain how to do this: By regarding "Triumph and Disaster" as impostors. They are not real!

It is an interesting concept to react with equanimity and stoicism to life's gains and losses, but it is a difficult thing to put into practice unless you happen to be hard-wired that way. I'm not even sure that it's a desirable thing to put into practice; do we really aspire to be in a position one day to say, upon winning our Academy Award, Pulitzer Prize, or a significant accolade of somewhat-lesser magnitude, "Uh… thanks I guess, but this means nothing to me because it's not real. So… yeah… whatever… mumble, mumble… at the end of the day we all die… mumble… "

To me, stoicism would be a useful attribute upon which to draw when faced with disappointment, because (a) disappointment can hurt like hell, and (b) it can be counterproductive to allow negative feelings to overtake you. The good advice most of our moms probably gave us on this topic can be succinctly summed up by the lyrics to this wonderful Jerome Kern / Dorothy Fields 1936 song (Pick Yourself Up), which even quotes the last line of Kipling's poem ("You'll be a Man, my son!") at the end of the chorus:

Nothing's impossible, I have found
For when my chin is on the ground
I pick myself up, dust myself off
And start all over again.

Don't lose your confidence if you slip
Be grateful for a pleasant trip
And pick yourself up, dust yourself off
And start all over again.

Work like a soul inspired
Until the battle of the day is won
You may be sick and tired
But you'll be a man, my son.

Again, easier said (or sung, if you happen to be Frank Sinatra, and still alive) than done, but picking yourself up, dusting yourself off, and starting again seems like pretty good advice for when life knocks you down.

The reason I didn't write, "it's always bad to allow negative feelings to overtake you" above is that I wonder if there may be benefits to feeling upset about disappointing results, as long as you don't allow yourself to be down in the dumps for too long (and no, I don't know how long too long is, unfortunately).

Dissatisfaction over not winning a composition competition or not getting a commission or achieving some other desired goal can be discouraging and make you feel like quitting, which of course is not good (unless you want to quit for other reasons too, which may be fine!), or it could motivate you to improve the quality of your work when future opportunities arise. Improving the quality of your work may not be sufficient to win prizes and commissions, but it is its own reward and is an objective we should always have, no matter how old we are or how successful we become. Would we be as motivated to improve if we considered winning and losing as "impostors," to be regarded with with equanimity?

Possibly, but possibly not… only a stoic could tell us for sure, if such a creature (a stoic) really exists.

Perhaps more to the point is this: "Winning" and "losing" are, in most cases, not very useful terms to describe outcomes that are meaningful to us as composers. It is great to win a prize or get a commission, but there are many other indicators of success for composers, such as:
  • Finishing a piece (believe me, this is a big deal!);
  • Feeling like the piece we finished is as good as we are capable of making it;
  • Feeling like the piece we finished represents a step forward in terms of our development as composers;
  • Performance(s) of our composition(s), even if part of a student recital;
  • Getting positive feedback on our composition(s) from audience members, friends, or family;
  • Getting useful feedback on our composition(s) from anyone;
  • Getting feedback from performers that helps us to write better for their instruments, or improves the composition in some way;
  • Getting performers to play our music, and having them do a good job, in part because our score was very clear, we picked good/supportive performers, and helped out during rehearsals;
  • Having performers ask you to write a piece for them, irrespective of whether it is a paid commission or not;
  • Submitting our music to a competition, and receiving a "runner-up" prize, or an "honourable mention," or having it selected for a reading/performance;
  • Submitting our music to an organization that provides a useful critique of our composition, such as the Newfoundland and Labrador "Arts and Letters" competition (deadline: Nov. 22 this year, BTW), irrespective of whether it wins a prize or not;
  • Having our music recorded; or
  • Having our music broadcast.
These are all meaningful indicators of success for composers.  Reducing the outcomes of writing music to the binary options of "winning" or "losing" is an unnecessary oversimplification, and it can make us feel like we are failing when in fact we are making great progress.

Furthermore, winning and losing is dependent to some degree on factors beyond our control, such as the stylistic preferences of judges, what they had for breakfast, and even back-room shenanigans. The success indicators listed above, on the other hand, are mostly within our control.

In this sense, "winning" and "losing" are indeed impostors, and you don't have to be particularly stoic to recognize this!

In my next blogs, I will write about the value of accolades, and experiences I have had as a competition judge and commission jury member.


Michelle said...

I really like the topics explored in this blog entry. I think that while stoicism can seem appealing in the rush of negative feelings that accompany disappointment or "failure," it is not productive to completely rid oneself of these feelings entirely. For me, the desire to surpass my previous achievements (or lack thereof) is the biggest motivator -- although, this might not be the case for everyone. I look forward to the next entry!

Evan Smith said...

Wise words, in all areas of life. I haven't had any experience with composition competitions, but I have been involved in many performance competitions, some won, many lost, but I try to react accordingly.

I can relate to the voice in your head that says "just maybe...". I recall, one of the most rewarding times I ever won a competition, that voice was not there at all, however. There was nothing but doubt in my mind. I thought I did a good job, and I didn't think I would receive no place at all, but there were a couple individuals I regarded as much more advanced than me, and hence, would have enjoyed a third place very much. However, on this instance, 1st place was in the cards for me and I remember it being a very shocking and exciting experience.

I think no matter what the outcome though, you just have to take what the most you can from it, as you said. In composition, merely finishing a piece is a great accomplishment to me. I know I am not meant to be a great composer, because once finished, I don't feel compelled at all to go back and perfect. But that's okay, because the satisfaction I receive from completing it is enough.

Evan Harte said...

What really stuck with me after reading this is the idea of quitting something after a single failure. In this case, the something is composition and the failure is a lost competition. I think that no matter what the medium, whether it is music, sports, etc. that quitting should be an absolute last resort. As the cliche goes, we learn from our mistakes. This isn't a cliche for no reason! If we want to succeed in something, failure often comes first. My first hand experience comes from my first two years at the MUN school of music. I loved music back then, but I didn't really know what I was getting into. I didn't practice enough and often waited until the last minute to complete assignments, causing me to do poorly academically. I tried to quit twice (first year then again in second year), but somehow managed to get through it. Now, I am in my fourth year and I couldn't be happier with what I have accomplished and learned at the MUN school of music. So, failure can cause us to feel a great amount of grief. But one must learn from their mistakes instead of using them as reasons to quit.

Mitchell wxhao said...

I say what doesn't kill you makes you stronger. At any point that I don't win something, it is true that I am always disappointed, but at least I can always say I tried.

The concept of stoicism is interesting to me - winning or losing comes with a such a mix of emotions that acting stoic and balancing all my negative and positive feelings such an impossible thing. I find it difficult to not have my facial expression betray my true feelings, even if I am trying SO HARD to be smooth.

I am not sure if anyone knows this, but I bowl competitively, so I relate to the concept of losing and winning and trying to get past the initial overwhelming rush of emotions in a timely manner. In this case, however, it sometimes means that I am losing to my friends, or winning against them. If you are the loser, it is important that you are happy for the ones who have success - or at least not to come across as having a poor attitude towards losing.

Robert Godin said...

It's funny, I'm just at such an early stage of my career I've never really had to think about winning or loosing. There's mostly been a lot of "Holy crap I have to write a piece for Monday!" But sometimes you get some of those "successful" piece indicators and you turn out something that your proud of and show it to people. That last part has always been my favorite part.

I love introducing new pieces to people, even in my lessons or master class. There's that great sense of discovery and curiosity, so refreshing when you've heard the same Prelude too many times. But would this sense of competition, the idea of winning or loosing, weigh down on that feeling? I don't know, I hope not. Maybe being aware of those potential negative mind sets will help me avoid them. That list is definitely a great start any way.

Also, this is very on point and kind of funny.

Andrew Noseworthy said...

Though I definitely haven't had the experience that you have had in these areas, I definitely could relate to the feelings expressed in this post! I also should say that I think it's a pretty important thing to discuss as composers (and artists as a whole) since it is area where success can mean so many different things. It seems many people have different opinions of what define success.

I've had a kind of funny experience with submitting to calls/competitions, as the first few I submitted to ended up winning or being chosen. I've submitted to a number of different things since then, be it calls/competitions/workshop applications and since those first few "successes" not a single thing has been chosen! I think this kind of proves that one should be careful about how much winning things exactly says about the work.

For example, I would definitely say that my work has improved since those first few submissions, probably more than I realize, but for some reason the older submissions were chosen! It just goes to show that so many elements go into something being successfully chosen and it doesn't necessarily mean a work is not good in it's own right.

It may be discouraging to think that something you put so much work into may not end up being chosen for something in the end, but I think after every single thing I've finished, I've felt an immediate sense of accomplishment just for even finishing the piece. Sometimes just knowing that putting so much work into something eventually became a completed project is often something satisfying in itself. That may be one of the best things about being a composer (or other creative artist), usually the fact you created something that did not exist before is extremely satisfying no matter if it wins anything. The work itself stands as an accomplishment.

Luke said...

I think there are some interesting points brought up here in the ideas that you can "lose" by composing a new piece of music. I'm at the point in my "life as a composer" where almost everything is still new (still learning finale hot keys for example) which makes small steps seem like a big win no matter how insignificant. I don't know if I will ever enter a composition competition, mainly because I have never liked the idea of art being judged by saying what's good and bad. What might make more sense is the level of dedication and amount of work that might be put into a particular piece of art. For some young composers, writing four bars of melody might be as big of an achievement as a more experienced composer writing a sonata exposition. It's all relative, and both are a "win" in my opinion, and are as you said, "a step forward in terms of our development as composers".

Andre McEvenue said...

Yes I am also familiar with the little voice that whispers "maybe you'll win..." only moments before a decision is made. I suppose that voice is always going to be there, otherwise, you would not have entered the competition in the first place.

I think the list in the blog of indicators of success should be posted on the wall in my room as a constant reminder. I find it's so easy to get down on yourself for not meeting your own expectations, and pre-conceived notions of success.

Brad said...

Accolades appear to be somewhat superficial at times, but, of course, often deserved.

I totally agree with you as well. You should not measure yourself by your accolades. Winning will definitely open doors, and get you tons of recognition, which is crucial to the progress of a career in the field. It is often assumed that the winner is the best, and I love your experienced insight that it is not all that simple.

Becca Spurrell said...

My reactions to winning and loosing are always very different, depending on the circumstances. Of course, my wins/losses refer to playing competitions as opposed to composition competitions.

I remember one year, I sang a piece, and when I finished singing, I could not wipe the smile off my face. I knew I did well, I was proud of myself. I didn't win, or place for that matter, but the smile never left because it happened to be one of the best times I have ever sung that particular piece and I was just very pleased with how it came out.

However, I remember another competition where there were 5 competitors, and we were at an awkward age when the adjudicator still wanted to "give us all an E for effort" but we were mature enough to know the difference. Even though there were 5, she placed us all. I tied with someone for second, and 2 others tied for third. I was a little angry. The adjudicator only did it to stop the "little ones" from going home disappointed without an award, but I knew my playing was not as good as the girl I tied with, I was mature enough to recognize my mistakes and although I was disappointed about them, I was ready to get a third place. Getting a tie for second made me feel like a little child who would run home crying if I didn't win, and the two who tied for third actually told me they felt the same! I can't explain the feeling, it was just terrible.

With those situations aside, I have been fairly good at taking my losses as ways to grow and develop. I always read over my comments thoroughly and use their suggests when practicing for the next competition. I also use my score as goals instead of places. I could get a score of 86 and get a first place, and the next year score a 90 and get a third, it all depends on the others who are competing. So I've learned to avoid fretting over my placing and listen to my score; strive for a better score than last year, and then I know that I am improving. What more would I want, anyway?

Anaïs Siosse said...

I really like all the comments above. I certainly do not have the experience in composition as I am just starting to learn how to compose, but I think that we all get this feeling of winning and loosing at a very early age. I feel that the way a kid reacts at 10 years old could very easily get transferred to this same person as an adult. Everybody reacts differently but at the same time we all would like to win at a finale competition because this is how we have been taught when we were young. The society is full of competitions and oppositions between people. I do not personally like competitions…Why do we give prices? Why do competitions make most of the people but one feel bad? I feel that as human in our society we have to go through competitions if we want to become well-known. Do we want to become well-known? Why do we play music or why do we compose? Do we create/perform music for the pleasure of creating or is the result the ultimate goal? I know that these questions can be seen as … coming from nowhere… it is impossible to stop this system… In these situations when I feel totally destabilized by a result, I always go back to my roots. What is the most important in my life… family, their health, friends, and music… but not music for competition, I mean music for breathing, for loving, for sharing, for creating… and I think about people who have nothing to eat, those who are sick… and I think that I am very lucky and full of energy to continue. For them, I continue. But the reality is certainly different. Human from the beginning of the world have to fight to survive…this is also how human got more and more "intelligent".

Samantha Evans said...

Though I am not familiar with winning nor losing composition competitions as I have only just begun composing, I am familiar with performance competitions. Most of which I have not won, but that never discouraged me from continuing to try, if anything, losing a competition gives us even more incentive to be better.

I liked how yo mentioned that winning or losing a competition is not only based on the quality of the piece, as there are always extraneous factors to consider. It is important to remember with competition that it is only one judges opinion on one day and that on any other day, there could have been completely different outcome. I believe this is especially important to remember when there is only one adjudicator, as there is no other opinion being considered besides that of one single person.

The list of indicators of success is something that could give many people relief in the face of losing a competition. Though winning a competition is probably an amazing feeling, this list of indicators might give people some reassurance in the face of losing.

Jessica Pereversoff said...

Though I see the value of this post in terms of composition, I think it is very applicable to other areas of music performance, even life in general. Successes and failures occur with similar prevalence in the lives of individuals, no matter the field of expertise. As mentioned in the blog, "winning" and "losing" are not very useful terms in describing outcomes. I think it's very rare that the things we do can be qualified as complete successes or complete failures. I find that even if I happen to "win" at something, I am not completely satisfied: there will always be something I wish I could have done differently. Similarly, when I "lose" at something, it is possible that not everything about it was a failure, especially if there is something that can be learned from the whole experience (which there usually is). The point is, there is a lot more grey area than the terms "win" and "lose" would imply. While it is good to give oneself credit for a job well done, it is safe to say the job was not done perfectly. At the same time, though you may have completely failed at something, it can be a valuable exercise to recognize the good (and the potential) in your failure.

Sarah-Beth Cormier said...

I think it's important not to equate losing with "failure" and winning with "success". Failure implies not only a lack of success, but an overall negative experience. Indeed, a competition rarely makes someone a worse composer, and very frequently helps them to improve their skills or claim other successes that are less quantifiable than winning, as you listed. In this way, even a competition that one loses can have an overall net benefit to one's career and craft, and will almost invariably leave an individual better off in some respect than if he or she hadn't entered in the first place. At the very least, there is unlikely to be a tangible negative impact. On the other hand, winning can be a highly gratifying and encouraging experience, but it is an assessment of one's compositional success, not success itself. Though some may disagree, I would agree that success lies in the creation of a quality work or an advancement of one's skills. Winning assesses one's success, but is comparative and subjective, rather than an objective measurement of quality. Although winning competitions may help a composer advance his or her career and can serve as a benchmark for one's creative growth, they are not the be all and end all. As for the disappointment that frequently accompanies loss, a person shouldn't try to suppress every negative emotion they experience; they are a part of life. However, when confronted with pain, I often think of a conversation between two characters in the show Six Feet Under, in which one explains to the other that there is no value in holding on to pain. When the first character asks what he's supposed to do instead, his adviser replies that he can do anything else. I bear this in mind when I encounter disappointment; instead of spending time nursing hurt feelings, I can be doing anything else, like moving on to a new piece!

Kassandra-Anne Demers said...

I’ve been on all sides of the spectrum in terms of competition (mostly in piano performance). I have been fortunate to win some and I’ve lost many as well. Losing left me in a very confused state. It also left me asking what more could I have done?
When I feel really upset about something it really makes me stop and reflect about the situation. The list you give out is very much taking a step back and looking at what you’ve accomplished rather than dwelling on the main fact that you lost. As cheesy as it sounds it’s always good to look at the brighter side of things. Don’t forget to look at what you’ve accomplished and learned to get you to that point!