It seems like lately the interweb has been pretty clogged with posts about the importance of failure and how it is necessary for success. I usually try to hold off from commenting on these memes as it just seems like so much noise, but this time I couldn’t resist. The following is my take on what is important about failure both to our professional lives and our personal ones.
This is a postcard that I have tacked onto the wall of my office. It was sent to me from a friend of mine years ago and the quote is from Samuel Beckett, the famous Irish playwright who helped to bring absurdist theater of the 1950s to the English speaking world. Point of fact: you will always know if you are at an absurdist play because you won’t know what is going on and the actors will be dressed like clowns. (The actors also won’t know what’s going on.)
(One of his more famous plays)
The quote in the postcard came from Beckett during a rehearsal for one of his plays. He was unhappy with what one of his actors was doing onstage and he told him in the bluntest way possible. (Basically he told him how much he sucked.) Then, as if to encourage him, he told him to do it again. “Fail again. Fail better.” This is striking because it goes against everything that we are taught while growing up. It is also a paradox. (How can I be better at failing?)
Here he is
(being his usual, silly old self.)
One fact for every performer is that the act of going on that stage is a risk of embarrassment. Acting is one job (much like public speaking) that seems easy to do in the abstract and terrifying and impossible in the reality. The whole process of presenting ourselves on a stage or in front of a group is fraught with expectation and conceit, while the goal of every actor (and every leader/speaker) is to be their authentic selves.
How can we be our authentic selves and protect ourselves from seeming ridiculous?
Bob Dylan, when speaking of performing live, once said, “I am mortified to be on the stage, but then again, it’s the only place where I’m happy.”
(Look at how happy that guy is)
This idea of failing better also brought me back to this moment from the movie Birdman:
This is the moment in the film when Michael Keaton’s character gets locked out of his theater just before he is supposed to go on. He has to run all the way around to the front in order to get onstage on time.
What strikes me about this moment in the film is how truly embarrassing it is. Michael Keaton can’t hide his age, the absurdity of the moment and those ridiculous tighty-whiteys. The conviction with which Keaton plays this moment is a revelation. The fact that his character is desperately looking to be taken seriously as an artist makes it even that much more relevant.
My god, this is exactly what it feels like to have our fears, desires, and vulnerabilities exposed to the world.
A call to action:
Everyone is afraid to fail.
We are all afraid that we will be found wanting in this life in some way.
Many of us hide in both little ways and big ways and we spend our time trying to prevent people from seeing us at our worst.
What would it be like if we were a little more brave?
How would it affect our lives and the lives of those around us?
What if we went to that interview/audition and accepted the absurdity of trying to avoid being exposed?
What would it be like if we brought our authentic selves?
Who would I be in this moment if I weren’t afraid? How would I act and what would I say?
I know that I would practice speaking foreign languages every chance I had.
I know that I would trust my creative impulses more often, rather than let them fester in doubt.
I know that I would reach beyond my comfort zone more often, knowing that failure is an option, but not a life sentence.
I know that I would be braver and less scared and more authentic.
What about you?
My favorite story about Birdman is that when Alejandra Gonzalez Inarritu first approached Michael Keaton for the main part (the main character is an aging actor who is struggling for relevance twenty years after being world famous for playing a comic book character), Keaton’s response was “Are you making fun of me?”
(Michael Keaton twenty five years ago)
How could that not be his response? And yet, he took the chance at the embarrassment and made an Oscar-winning movie and had an Oscar-worthy performance.
Every time we do something that exposes us and reveals to the world our humanity, we are risking failure. The most interesting things I have ever done have been when I took that risk, and the most interesting people I have ever met have been those who are willing to step outside of their comfort zone and risk being seen.
What I think that Beckett is trying to communicate in his quote is that when we embrace our failure, when we accept that to be human , but that embracing our potential for failure is a way to embrace our humanity.
We are not our failures and our duty is not to perfection but to our own humanity.