‘Failure’ is a label.
To that label, most of us have assigned a fear-based perception that teaches us ‘don’t do that again!’
Contrary to the messages that bombard us everywhere we go every second of our lives, we are in charge of our own perception. That fear-based understanding isn’t real. It’s just a decision on how to perceive something that happened. Although the fear-based perception disagrees, ‘Failure’ is most certainly not a final, non-negotiable, ugly, dark and unpleasant thing to be avoided. I propose that we reframe our perception and see ‘failure’ as the accomplishment and gift that it is.
Remember it doesn’t exist. It’s really just struggle and growth in action. It’s an incredibly positive thing. There’s no ‘giving up’, there’s only moving forward in an altered direction influenced by whatever just happened. Everything we do… EVERYTHING… adds to and enhances the richness and value of the journey. As story-tellers, the richness and value of the journey is kind of the point. We should be running toward that which enhances the story we can tell.
Instead, most of us are so focussed on getting things right that we are missing out on all the really great stuff that makes the experience of our work full, real, personal, joyous, painful, surprising, engaging. When we operate under the mindset of ‘avoiding failure’, we are conditioning ourselves into safe, predictable, (aka ‘boring’) performances.
I think there’s a simple, gentle reminder we must grab onto:
If you fell it’s because you were doing the job, challenging yourself, and putting it on the line.
Imagine you’re at the circus, watching the tightrope walker. As the acrobat inches across the high-wire, suddenly… there’s a stumble. The knees buckle, they sway back and forth, somewhat abruptly. It’s a tense moment or three. We’re on the edge of their seats not knowing what’s going to happen next, but acutely aware that things are about to go dramatically hard in one direction or another. The audience holds it’s breath. The collective attention of the room is focussed in unison. Present and invested, we wait.
And then… they regain their balance.
The rope now has a bit of a bounce to it and they slowly make their way across to the other side. The energy of the slip up is there the whole rest of the way. It’s part of the experience.
Whew. That was awesome. What a show!
A second acrobat starts out across the chasm. This one encounters a similar bump in the road, and they fight to stay up. Overcompensating up and down to regain balance. They struggle through it and just when they are about to catch up… boom! They slip and fall. Don’t worry there’s a safety net below to catch them. They climb back up and go again. The energy of the fall is there, but they are better focussed and prepared to work through any bumps in the road. They work their way across, through a few tense moments and make it to the other side.
Both these acrobats are creating captivating experiences for their audiences. They are fighting through the possibility of falling, and dealing with whatever comes up. Both have effectively created the same result: They made it from one side of the wire to the other. But both have had a unique and interesting journey with the possibility of a fall that holds our attention more and more as they fight not to fall. The falling may or may not happen, but the very real potential for ‘failure’ defines the value of their experience as the character and in turn, our experience as the audience.
Now…. a third acrobat gets up and starts across the wire. They encounter a bump in the road and jump into the safety net immediately. They climb back up, start again, hit the same bump, jump down. They climb up again, hit a different bump a further ways across, they jump. They climb up again, focus and make it all the way across. Perfectly.
Then they get up and do it again. Perfectly. Predictably.
That last acrobat, by jumping into the safety net is denying the chance to build real stakes into their work. They are denying the experience of struggling through the unexpected and allowing that struggle to create new and interesting momentum, energy, intention in their work. They are practicing removal of the possibility of failure from their work. In so doing, they will lose the audience because they have created a predictable and uninvested experience for themselves and in turn, for the audience.
I encounter this exact same scenario working with actors in the audition space every week: things are getting interesting, the unexpected is happening, they have perhaps a momentary lapse of dialog (which almost always means they are resisting stepping through the threshold to presence and the sense of danger this evokes) and they STOP. And start again. They jump into the safety net, refusing to embrace, nurture and develop the unexpected into their work.
I always try to jump in and get that actor to breathe and take that moment in. I get them to stay in the scene, in the moment, and settle in. It’s challenging to do initially, because it’s a safety mechanism kicking in, and our safety mechanisms tend to be pretty good at keeping us safe.
I remind actors: that safety mechanism is kicking in at that moment because you’ve done a damn fine job of getting yourself up on the high wire, and are being affected by ‘gravity’. Now… fight the gravity. Accept what’s happening (the unexpected) as part of what you must deal with as the character in the moment. Refuse to jump into the safety net – it’s ok if you fall, but never jump. Don’t do gravity’s work for it. Gravity doesn’t need your help – it was just fine before you got here and it’ll be just fine long after you’re gone.
We’re tuning in to watch a person FIGHT gravity. We want to be inspired by the struggle.
When we reframe our perception of these moments from failure to progress, we grow. Our work becomes nuanced, truthful, and full. We are gifting our characters with the opportunity to fail and thus creating value for their achievements, and we are captivating an audience.
We are practicing growing. One moment at a time. And… lo and behold… we grow.
What a gift.