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The Immutable Laws of Brainjo: Episode 4 (Failure Is Not An Option)

Posted by Josh Turknett on Wednesday, April 1, 2015

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About the Laws of Brainjo Series

The Laws of Brainjo ("the Art and Science of Effective Practice") series describes the theoretical foundation for the Brainjo Method, a system of musical instruction that integrates that science of learning and neuroplasticity specifically designed for the adult learner.

The Brainjo Method is used for the Breakthrough Banjo courses for both clawhammer and fingerstyle banjo (and a brand new fiddle course!). 

Click here to learn more about the Breakthrough Banjo course for clawhammer banjo

Click here to learn more about the Breakthrough Banjo course for fingerstyle 

Episode 4: Failure Is Not An Option

by Josh Turknett (


Skating Lessons

Recently, I’ve been going to the ice skating rink a good bit with my family, as my daughter is taking lessons. And while I do enjoy the actual skating part, perhaps my favorite thing to do while I’m there is watch the new skaters. 

I live in Georgia, which means each trip almost guarantees there will be a new crop of folks hitting the ice. For me, they provide another fascinating window into the learning process. What I’ve found particularly enlightening has been the contrast between the kids and the adults who take to the ice for the first time.

The typical new adult skater enters the rink by gingerly placing a foot on the ice, simultaneously maintaining a death grip on the rink wall. This is often accompanied by a face of intense concern, or perhaps blind terror.

On the other hand, a typical new child skater, especially the youngest ones, enters the rink by charging onto the ice with wild abandon. About three or four steps later, they’re face first on the ice.

This behavior typically continues until the end of the session. The newbie adult clinging fast to the wall, baby-stepping their way around the oval with one primary goal in mind: not falling. Usually they succeed. Or they might fall to the ice once, call it a day, and retire to the spectator’s bench.

The newbie child continues to try skating as fast as his or her legs will go, falling countless times, all the while smiling and giggling from ear to ear. 

By the end of the first hour, guess who’s become the better skater?

I’ll tell you: it’s not even close. 

Learning Machines

This contrast between the adult and child learner plays out in virtually any domain. When presented with a new task, each will typically adopt very different approaches. The child will usually explore freely and fearlessly. Give me that and let me figure out how it works!

An adult, on the other hand, will often approach a new endeavor with caution and trepidation. I best be careful, lest I screw up and break something. 

Perhaps nowhere is this disparity more apparent than with new technologies: my son had figured out how to turn my iPhone on and order apps from the app store by the age of two, for example (which is common for kids nowadays).  

On the other hand, it took a to-remain-nameless adult member of my extended family years to even conquer her fear of smartphone technology enough to even attempt to use one, and she still requires extensive coaching on its basic functions. 

The adult is afraid to make a mistake.

The child seeks them out. 


If we broaden our perspective, these differences aren’t all that surprising. The human brain doesn’t fully mature until around age 21, an eternity compared to the rest of the animal kingdom. 

And the reason we have such a long childhood is so that we can grow really large brains. Brains that are customized to the particular environment we inhabit. Brains that will support the full range of cognitive and motor skills that comprise a fully functioning, independent, adult human in that environment.

In other words, the entire purpose of our childhood, from the brain’s point of view, is to learn. Children, particularly those of the hominid variety, are born masters of the learning process because Mother Nature has designed it this way. 

But here’s the challenge: our brain's must possess neural networks that are suited to a particular environment, but it can't create those networks until it knows what that environment looks like. Our brain has solved this challenge by becoming a general purpose learning machine, one that can change itself in response to the demands placed on it. 

For example, every infant brain starts out primed and ready to begin learning a language of some sort. Yet, it won’t know until the first adults around it start talking whether that language is Spanish or Swahili. 

Furthermore, creating these customized neural networks from scratch requires feedback. Lots and lots of feedback. Feedback that says “you’re on the right track”, and feedback that says “this still needs work.” And this network building process is iterative: the brain creates a bit of the network, tests it out, then refines it based on the results. 


A Matter of Mindset

So much of our success or failure in learning anything new, whether it’s ice skating or banjo picking, hinges on the mindset we approach it with. That voice inside our heads, the one that likes to judge everything we do, can be our ally or enemy. And nowhere can this voice be more to our detriment than when it comes to the necessity of failure. 

Those newbie kids at the skating rink, the ones falling all over themselves, they have the right mindset. They instinctively know that, in order to grow, they have to fail. The faster the better. Falling to the ice isn’t interpreted as a personal failing, but as priceless feedback. 

The geniuses at Pixar studios have been able to consistently produce some of the most enduring movies of their generation by following the guiding principle to “fail fast and fail often”. They too know that the faster they “fail”, the faster they grow.

Whether we’re looking to master the art of skating, animating, or banjo-ing, the next law of Brainjo is essential for getting us there:


Brainjo Law #6: There is no failure, only feedback. 


About the Author: Dr. Josh Turknett is the creator of the Brainjo Method, the first music teaching system to incorporate the science of learning and neuroplasticity and specifically target the adult learner (more at



16 comments on “The Immutable Laws of Brainjo: Episode 4 (Failure Is Not An Option)”

Grumps Says:
Tuesday, April 7, 2015 @2:18:23 PM

Yeah man, logical common sense ! Often just what we need for inspiration. Thanks for that Dr. Josh

crappiejohn Says:
Tuesday, April 7, 2015 @2:25:13 PM

You are so SMART Josh!! I love the way you explain things!

CAPT Steve Says:
Tuesday, April 7, 2015 @6:49:29 PM

Hey Josh--always look forward to what you provide for us (even if I can't make sense of clawhammer as a 3 finger picker). Will you be providing your thoughts on how us old guys can recapture that youthful abandon as it applies to banjo? As a bicyclist, I can appreciate your skating analogy, and feel pretty fearless on two wheels. No so much on five strings, and I want to understand how to get there.

darlo Says:
Tuesday, April 7, 2015 @8:32:55 PM

An excellent article been doing couple of resits on exams am 57 it's harder to get back on the learning curve,am just starting to learn plenty of excellent food for thought ,would be interested if you have any suggestions as captain Steve asked many thanks

saraskates Says:
Tuesday, April 7, 2015 @8:41:38 PM

Totally! As an aging figure skater who has recently started learning how to play the banjo - I totally agree. My "I am a beginner!" mantra goes something like "everyone should tackle a new skill every now and then - it's HARD but a really good thing to do." And Yep, you just gotta keep picking away at it.

stanger Says:
Wednesday, April 8, 2015 @12:39:03 AM

I couldn't agree more. When I first picked up the banjo at age 18, there were no players around, ever, and very few teaching materials.
I never once thought of playing in terms of failure or success; all I wanted to do was to learn it's mysteries after seeing Earl Scruggs play on TV a few days after i graduated high school.
Scruggs didn't scare me. He inspired me. I didn't want to imitate him, I wanted to do what he did my own way, and I never even thought about failing. Once my journey began, it took 18 months of nothing but learning chords and strumming, but my lack of fast progress didn't discourage me; it only increased my hunger, and soon afterward, I began figuring things out by using what I learned and taking whatever I could from others and putting it all together a bit at a time, like a jigsaw puzzle where I was making the pieces while I was putting it together.

It was great! Every little step just made it get better and better. It's still great 53 years later. And I'm still learning something every time I pick a banjo up. Life isn't a contest, and failing, as you said, is only feedback. Great post!

truenorth53 Says:
Wednesday, April 8, 2015 @5:29:53 AM

If you don't challenge yourself every so often, life can sure get boring

tigerbill Says:
Wednesday, April 8, 2015 @8:21:53 AM

Very helpful articles. Sometimes--although rarely--a neophyte begins the five at age 74, and charges ahead with abandon, not the least concerned with failure.Playing is for my own amusement. One must recognize one's "fangers are not so lamber" as they would have been at age 18, but must soldier on with the sure confidence that one will become a "player".
By age 80,things have improved ,and banjo music has replaced what someone in my home previously referred to as"noise".
Practice, practice achieves rewards.

dickg113 Says:
Wednesday, April 8, 2015 @9:58:37 AM

Reading this was a well timed event to have in my Banjo practicing slump. Thanks!

Frettful Says:
Wednesday, April 8, 2015 @3:59:01 PM

As a parent, I discovered early on that the secret to raising successful, independent children is to LET THEM FAIL, just not catastrofically. I mounted the child gate two steps up and put a rug at the bottom so my twins could play on the steps and get used to them before gaining access to the whole stair case. If you don't allow yourself or your kids to fail, you/they don't how to recover and learn from failure. The most important thing I learned (late in life) was that no performance is going to go perfectly; what is important is how you handle the mistakes. Once you accept this, then things go better.

brazilhead Says:
Wednesday, April 8, 2015 @9:27:39 PM

I read your article last night and really enjoyed it (just as I did your other articles). Today I couldn't help thinking about it as my son and I were flying his remote-control helicopter, which is very fragile and must be flown indoors. It had been in storage for 6 months, and last flight day I was bettering him. Today he was whooping me, and despite my much more cautious approach, I was the one with the most dangerous crashes. Go figure!

Banjopotamus Says:
Friday, April 10, 2015 @8:04:53 AM

Love your articles. However, "...because Mother Nature has designed it this way." Really? Come on we're all adults, you can say it, a Creator or God or a Supreme Being, a scientific reason or the physiology but NOT mother nature, as if a breeze blew and poof.

I do look forward to your articles. They really have been inspiring.

Josh Turknett Says:
Sunday, April 12, 2015 @5:38:15 AM

Love all the discussion this has generated. For those who've asked for more thoughts and specifics on the subject, hopefully you'll get that with future articles in the series. For now, the primary objective of this piece is to help you maintain a child-like mindset in your approach to learning, and specifically not to allow the fear of failure to limit your potential. Don't be afraid to explore and experiment.

Banjopotamus - I've found that Mother Nature means different things to different people and so encapsulates many different concepts, which, for the purposes of this article, is just fine by me. :) And thanks for the kind words.

Sassybanjo Says:
Monday, April 20, 2015 @1:15:49 PM

I enjoyed this article. Lately i have been discouraged. I know when I'm messing up but yet my teacher is constantly praising me. I want to give up at times because I want to be good noarticle Thank you for the guidance !!

Sassybanjo Says:
Monday, April 20, 2015 @1:17:39 PM

Woops...typo. I meant I want to be good NOW. Thanks again!

Josh Turknett Says:
Monday, April 20, 2015 @1:57:05 PM

Thanks, Sassybanjo. It's a roller coaster ride for all of us - the dips are inevitable, which is why mindset is so important for making it through em!

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