All my life, I’ve been afraid of failure. I remember crumbling into tears while struggling to master a new musical scale on the saxophone. Before every audition, I feel my throat dry up and my brain crumble into dust. Even talking to a pretty girl can seem as impossible as a running leap across the Grand Canyon.
When we’re children, we learn to avoid things that hurt. Touch the hot stove once and you won’t touch it again. In fact, all the adults in our lives specifically tell us to avoid those things that will hurt us. (It is for our own good, after all.)
What we’re not told is that many of the things that hurt us will not kill us.
So, my friends, I encourage you to fail. It’s only through failure that we find success.
Yes, failure may sting. But you’ll grow more accustomed to it the more you do it.
Think of it this way: When you were an infant, you sucked at walking. Seriously. You were terrible. You couldn’t even stand. When you finally stood, you fell. All the time. Up. Down. Up. Down. Your giant noggin made you a top-heavy failure in the balance department. So how many times do you reckon you fell before you could walk competently? And what if you quit before that point?
Everything we learn – everything – follows the same pattern as learning to walk. Sure, you may be able to transfer existing knowledge to a new task, and you may pick it up more quickly. But you’re still going to botch plenty before you fly.
In improvisation, failure will be your constant companion. Your coach will spend hours talking about your team’s failures. Audiences will transform into crickets. Your teammates may look at you like you deserve to be quarantined in some laboratory for failed improvisers.
And then, one day, you’ll put up a scene that works. No notes. Laughter from the audience. Back-pats from your teammates. You did it. You had a good scene.
Then the next scene comes along and you fall on your face.
Even those of us who know how to walk manage to fall now and then. Sometimes you have to walk in the dark through uneven terrain. While you know the basics of walking, the environment changes. Then, it’s up to your instincts and luck to keep you upright.
So we practice. We try our skills in ever-changing situations. Over time, our balance improves and our scenes get better.
When you do fail (and you will), you must treat yourself with the kindness of a child who has fallen. The kid doesn’t want to fall. But he does. So you pick him up, dust him off, give him a hug and send him on his way. You are that kid.
Success gets all the press. Success gets all the praise. Success inspires admiration. But I promise you, in the entirety of human history, no one ever succeeded consistently without having fumbled through dozens (if not hundreds) of failures.
Your challenge is to embrace failure. It is not the goal. It is the path. And when you find success, remember how you got there. Don’t fear returning to failure. You could discover a new way to walk and a new path to new success.
I close with a quote from Jim Clifton, CEO of Gallup, who recounts something his dad once told him: “Your weaknesses will never develop, while your strengths will develop infinitely.”
Got an improv question? E-mail me at boilingpointimprov[at]gmail.com