Robert E. Reichlin, Ph.D.

Houston Psychologist ∙ Psychotherapist ∙ Geropsychologist ∙Bellaire, Texas

Failure, the Blues, & Baseball

Wednesday, August 5th 2009

This being baseball season, it seems an opportune moment to comment on one of the many things about the game that, for me, has been a source of amazement: If you fail to get a hit 7 times out of 10 for twenty years you go the Hall of Fame. Ty Cobb, for example, played 24 years in 3035 games and was at bat 11,434 times. He got 4189 hits (meaning he did not get a hit 7245 times!). Think of that, each time you go to bat you are very likely to fail (for purposes of argument, I’m excluding walks and sacrifices). And, it’s completely transparent- the public can see every mistake! Failure at the plate or in the field (called “errors”) is the norm, not the exception. Ball players know a lot about failure and what it takes to be a success.

Failure is problematic for any number of reasons. There are small failures and serious failures. There are failures that knock us way off track and are difficult to recover from. There are other failures that somehow result in new opportunities. What is striking about failure is that it represents a kind of crossroads. Now, as you blues fans know, Crossroads Blues is a famous song by Robert Johnson (and Cream). Johnson was reputed to have made a pact with the devil: he exchanged his soul for his extraordinary ability to play guitar (Johnson clearly got the better part of that deal). Many cultures have folk tales concerning crossroads which are viewed as a location between the natural and supernatural, representing liminality, i.e. a place neither here nor there, or betwixt and between (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Crossroads_(culture)). If we think about failure as a kind of crossroads, it can be viewed as a point at which an important choice is to be made. We can see it as having the potential for learning and adaptation or retreat and loss of hope. Back to baseball:

When a major league ballplayer comes to the plate he can’t dwell on his last failure to get on base. To do so would compromise the most important thing he can do- see the ball (paying attention to what kind of pitch the pitcher throws). Previous experience with that pitcher and his statistics (what he throws and when) figure in to be sure. But, when it counts, it is the present moment that defines the batter’s reality: no past, no future, no place other than at the plate, a place that is always indeterminate. All the training, all the practice, every review of mistakes, leading up to that moment provide the backdrop to the immediacy of being at the plate; but they don’t define it. That only occurs when the pitcher throws and the batter decides (with remarkable speed) whether to swing or not. A batter wants to get a hit, maybe even needs to get a hit, but he also knows that if he is thinking about getting a hit, he is not fully present to the ball coming at him. Staying focused requires good preparation and the ability to block out distractions. It means to let go and to take a risk. All success is predicated on just these factors: preparation, focus, and risk. Or, as Seneca the Roman philosopher (and the Marine Corps by the way) puts it: Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.

In a highly competitive society that seems to regard failure as a moral weakness, yet exhorts us to learn from our mistakes, it is very hard to experience failure as a necessary part of learning and success. To do so would mean to suspend our expectation of having to get it right every time (whatever ‘it’ is). If you’re concerned with getting it right, you’re not paying full attention.

Failure inevitably involves tolerating our emotional response to failure. If we learned that failure is responded to with disapproval, we are likely to experience failure as deeply wounding. You can’t learn or take a necessary risk when you’re hurt like this because the task is to recover one’s equilibrium and feel better rather than to ask oneself what there is to learn from the failure. If too much pain follows failure, focus is deflected and risk is avoided.

To sum up, failure is integral to success because it shares with success 3 factors: preparation, focus, and risk. That failure occurs should come as no surprise since one can never be certain that one is fully prepared, completely focused, or fully cognizant of all that risk entails. But, we are going to come up to the plate whether we want to or not. Life is full of crossroads. Are you going to watch the ball or think about striking out?

Thanks for reading this post.

If you find that my perspective on success and failure resonates with your experience, and you are considering psychotherapy, send me an email or give me a call and we can schedule an appointment.

Contact Houston Psychologist Dr. Robert Reichlin at 281-813-7202 Drreichlin@robertreichlinphd.com

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Robert E. Reichlin, Ph.D.