The Thrill of Victory and the Agony of Defeat

Or more accurately: The warm fuzzy of victory and the soul-crushing black hole of defeat.


I’m currently reading a book called The Paradox of Choice by Barry Shwartz. The thesis is that, despite our culture valuing freedom, opportunity and having options to choose from, if we’re given too much freedom we start making bad decisions. Like being overwhelmed by a restaurant with too big of a menu, freedom is best, paradoxically, in small measured doses. I’m sure this book will birth other blog posts from me (satisfisers vs. optimisers and choosing vs. picking) but for now I want to talk about the unequal ways in which we humans feel victory and defeat.


Social science experiments referenced in the book come to this conclusion: losing hurts worse than winning soothes. The pain of losing $20 isn’t overcome by finding $20, it takes finding $100 to make you feel better. The book goes has graphs and data points. You’ve been warned. In my personal experience this unequal win/lose feeling comes from an ingrained psychological processes where I blame myself for failures but credit luck for successes. I’m not a psychologist. You can google “Negative Filtering” if you want more. (There are people I have met that do a distorted version of this. They credit their talents when random good things happen and blame bad luck when they make poor decisions. You do not want to improvise with these people.)


The tie back to improv is easy, right? Sub-par shows are crushing experiences. Strong shows are dismissed, after all, every show should be that good. A touch of this thinking could be useful; It keeps us honest and striving to improve. Typical levels of negative filtering, however, cause needless stress and anguish. There is no easy fix but it’s nice to know that this phenomenon is true to humanity and not just broken humans… or improvisers.


At my studio I’m experimenting with some possible solutions:

  • – I have quite saying things like “there are no mistakes” and “just commit and you’ll be fine” because they imply that success is easy which sets an unrealistically high expectation.
  • – I pick simple forms and spend class time only on skills that apply, pointedly, to that form.
  • – Pre-show warm-ups are simple and focused. I avoid getting them “pumped” or “psyched”.
  • – Post show notes are short. Very short. Highlights are mentioned. Faults are acknowledged but fixes and deeper thoughts are saved for class and rehearsal.
  • – I take responsibility as a teacher and coach for my teams performance. I let the team know when a problem in a show is my fault. (Huge source of irritation for me is when teachers dismiss student shows in general as being poor. If that’s true then it’s your fault, dummy!)


Could this be a humiliating experiment? Yes. Good thing I’ve set realistic expectations.