There are so many inspirational stories from highly successful people about how failure is an essential part of their path to success. Those who have done anything extraordinary in the world will praise the importance of learning from, and then rising from failures.
“Failure is the only opportunity to begin again, only this time more wisely” Henry Ford
“Success is the ability to go from failure to failure without losing your enthusiasm” Winston Churchill
“Our greatest glory is not in never failing, but in rising every time we fall” Confucius
“Failing is another stepping stone to greatness” Oprah Winfrey
EASIER SAID THAN DONE, RIGHT?
In reality, most of us avoid failure at all costs. We are in the habit of doing whatever we can to avoid failing, even at the littlest things. We may not say what we’re thinking because it might sound stupid, we avoid meeting new people because we feel insecure, the knot in our stomach gets bigger at the thought of trying something and failing, so we just don’t try. And if we do try and fail, we then feel so badly that we failed, we figuratively (or literally) crawl into a corner, become paralyzed and don’t try the next thing. So we continue to stay in our comfortable, habitual lane.
We also know that if we want to grow personally and professionally, we need to take ourselves out of the corner, and out of our comfort zone and not think of failure as the ultimate monster. How do we learn to be less afraid of failure, so that we keep growing and succeeding?
JOIN THE CIRCUS?
Imagine a trapeze artist in the circus. Their goal is to swing on a bar, let go, flip circles and then catch the hands of the other trapeze artist on the opposite side. But they don’t always succeed… Sometimes they miss and fall into the net. It’s what they do next, that is so different than the rest of us. They land in the net below, and then instead of crawling away in defeat, they jump up throw their arms up expressively with a huge smile, as if they have just done the most amazing thing, and the crowd roars. Same with jugglers when they drop a flaming stick. They don’t apologize because they didn’t do it perfectly, they try again, and then throw their arms up enthusiastically and bow. No matter how many times they drop the stick, they celebrate their finish, and the audience cheers.
We don’t need to join the circus, but we can learn a lot from the trapeze artists and jugglers and apply a bit of this attitude to our lives.
During my years of teaching theater to kids and teens, I always included games that were designed to make failing outrageously fun. These were the most popular, confidence building exercises we did. Once they realized they could not do it wrong, and mistakes were all part of the fun, they blossomed in their personal expression and creativity.
MY OWN FEAR OF IMPROV CLASS
For me personally, It wasn’t until I ventured into an adult Improv class as a student that I realized how strong my personal fear of getting it wrong and looking stupid was. Though I had been highly recognized in my teaching field for over 25 years, and I helped kids and actors perform enthusiastically every day, I was not an experienced improviser myself. I was also feeling less than confident as I had recently come back to the US from a year teaching abroad in an extremely exhausting and stressful situation. In addition, I was injured, on crutches and I was burned out physically, emotionally and creatively. Venturing into an improv class as a student, feeling a shell of myself, I felt insecure and inwardly terrified. I had this voice inside me that said because I was a “professional” drama teacher with years of experience, I should be really good at this. And If I wasn’t, I would be a total failure. Though I could talk in front of big audiences, teach large groups, adventure to parts unknown by myself, for some reason walking into that first improv class was terrifying.
COMING BACK TO MYSELF
The teacher lead us in warm-up games, many similar to the ones I do with students. The longer improv challenges were new to me, but all had the same principle of saying “yes” to a situation, making offers, finding new ways to listen, and failing without failure. In a matter of one class, I felt more myself than I had in a year. I re-connected to my playful nature and confidence that had been slipping away. I got to experience the feeling of making mistakes, having things go awry in an exercise, and surviving because that is the whole point of it. Improv class uplifted me and challenged me not to have to get it right all the time. What a welcome relief.
THE FUN OF FAILING
Imagine what we could accomplish if we didn’t worry about getting it right all the time? When I teach workshops, or lead retreats, I always include these core improv principles. We do exercises that allow our critical minds to get out of the way and trust our instincts without the fear of having to get it right. We notice where we stop ourselves and get to experience what it feels like when we don’t put the brakes on. And when we do this in a playful way, our true nature, expression and creativity come alive.
I think as humans, we will always have some fear of failure, but experiencing the feeling of failing in a fun, supportive way, allows us to take bigger steps and try more things in real life. That is a real gift of improv.
Thank you to my improv teachers, Karen Campbell (that first class), Eve Smyth and Cil Stengel, who keep me challenging my self-critical nature and remind me not to take it all so seriously.