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Divesting from Failure

Updated: Nov 16, 2022

“Why do we fear failure?” I ask my students.

I get a lot of answers. We fear being judged. We fear letting other people down. We don’t want to disappoint ourselves. It bruises our ego and we’re told that we have to stay in our lane.

To be sure, those fears have merit. There are some situations where failure is not an option. To use an extreme example: if I jumped out of an airplane and forgot to pack my parachute, there’s no chance I’m bouncing back. If I fall overboard into shark infested waters, then guess what? I’m about to be fish food. But usually failures don’t have such deadly results and rarely do find ourselves in a zero sum game.

The remedy to our obsessive fear lies in a shift in our perspective, to see failure as an overwhelmingly positive event, one that is constructive, worthwhile and necessary.

Constructive “Practice makes perfect!” Common wisdom. It sounds pretty. It’s a euphemism for “you’re going to suck at first and it’s going to be a long time before you don’t suck.” It means you're going to fail, and - on top of that - you’re going to continue to fail again and again and again, until - and even after - you have success.

Maybe a master is the only type of person immune to failure, not because they are infallible, but because they do not see failure as failure. They see failure as opportunity. A master weaver never fails to create a beautiful tapestry because any mistake is subsequently woven into the pattern.

I’m reminded of outer space and how there is no concept of up or down, above or below, east or west. Space is just space. Direction is relative. Likewise, failure is relative. It’s relative to our point of view, ultimately an arbitrary label that we’ve ascribed to our experience. Yes, failure exists. It is an undesired, unintended consequence, but not an inherently good or bad one.

When he was inventing the light bulb, searching for the perfect filament to illuminate his incandescent lamp, Thomas Edison had countless errors. He reflected “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” Then he created the thing that is probably hanging over your head right now.

Worthwhile & Necessary “Our greatest teacher, failure is.” -Yoda

Yoda’s right. Just as we might seek out great teachers, whether they are elders, professors, friends or mentors, so too must we seek failure.

One of my favorite orators, who might as well have been a Jedi, is Alan Watts. In one of his lectures, he describes a teacher who would hit his knuckles whenever he played the wrong notes on the piano. Years later, as an adult, Watts met a master piano player who said, “you mustn’t be afraid of playing wrong notes.” This musician’s path to mastery was his divestment from failure. The secret to his success was his willingness to be wrong. If anything, the teacher Watts had as a child debilitated him, framing failure as a painful and dire consequence.

So how can we associate failure with joy, instead of pain? Have you ever laughed when you messed up? When you farted at a funeral? When you called the dog your partner’s name? When you called your partner the dog’s name? That’s finding joy in failure.

I’m not saying that every failure is funny. I’m saying that every failure can be seen as worthwhile in the bettering of ourselves. By setting an intention to be unafraid of playing the wrong notes, to be unafraid of being wrong, we empower ourselves to learn more stuff, faster, and with less stress.

Every success you’ve had and every skill you’ve acquired is the end result of a laundry list of failures. We forget that sometimes. Failure was necessary. It is necessary. It will be necessary. If we can see failure in this way, we might heave a great sigh of relief wherein we may find the strength to change, the ability to improvise.

Practicing Failure

“We applaud the effort, not the result” -Matt Higbee of the iO Theatre

Almost every improv exercise deals with failure in some way. This exercise deals with failure directly.

Exercise: 1 to 7

In this exercise a group of improvisers form a circle. Clockwise, one at time, players will count from one to seven. After seven, players will return to one. When it is a player’s turn to say a number, they will take their right hand, place it on their left shoulder, look at the player to their left, and say the appropriate number. If a player hesitates or says eight they must go into the center of the circle and at the top of their lungs yell “I FAILED!” Then the whole group will applaud that player as if they just did the most amazing thing in the world (won a Grammy, the lottery, got the winning touchdown at the Superbowl, etc.) Once players acclimate, introduce a reverse move. The left hand is placed on the right shoulder, and the player looks to the player to their right, allowing the numbers to move in the opposite direction.

Tips & Tricks Encourage the group to play at the speed of fun, somewhere in between so slow it’s boring and so fast it’s chaotic. Avoid playing at the speed of safety.

Players might try to argue when you call out their failures. Most of the time, their reasons will be bogus. Tell them, “there are no lawyers in this game.”

Some players will fail and avoid acknowledging it. They’ll try to keep the game going or look hesitantly at the teacher to confirm what they already know. Call out this behavior. Tell them that the rest of the group clearly saw that they messed up, so why not admit it? We’re not stupid. Plus, when you fail in this game, the only thing that happens is that you are cheered for. Tell the players that this is a space where failure is celebrated.

Level Up Change the way in which numbers are passed around the circle. For instance, instead of saying seven while placing your right and on your left shoulder, place your right hand over your head. Instead of saying three and placing your right hand on your right shoulder, duck and look to the next player. Perhaps a number must be said in another language. Perhaps one must be said like a Humpback whale.

Change the way in which students admit their failure. Perhaps they scream to God, “WHYY?!!” Perhaps the whole group throws their hands in the hair, wails, and spins in a circle. Maybe the group touches the ground and says, “together we fly.”

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