I’ve been taking a fantastic improv class through Seattle’s Pocket Theater. Each class we touch on an essential concept of improv, and a couple of weeks ago we did a whole class on failure. It was wonderful.


A classic failure bow

We started out talking about how we deal with rejection, all fifteen or so of us, sitting around of the wood stage. Overall, we seemed to deal with rejection…poorly. And it was kind of a relief to hear, honestly. It validated that I’m not the only one who feels sore disappointment or frustration at rejection. Most of my rejection is professional: the lot of a writer is to offer up things constantly and have them rejected in a not-always-timely manner. One woman talked about how she tends to minimize rejection and pretend like she didn’t want the thing as much as she actually did. And, whoof, I feel that one. I realized that in familiar territory, like submitting short stories, I am quite comfortable with rejection and easily able to move on the the next step. But in a less comfortable context, like sending out pitches for articles and interviews, suddenly I’m afraid and uncomfortable. Several folks talked about dealing with rejection through avoidance, i.e. through not trying in the first place, and not risking rejection. One cannot avoid all rejection, of course–we need jobs and the occasional other human beings to function. But the scarier, more life-affecting the potential rejection, the easier it is to avoid.

The improv class continued on with a frank discussion of failure. “You are going to fail today,” said our instructor, Kathleen. “It’s okay.” In fact, it was important. Kathleen taught us to do a failure bow: little bow or a curtsy or an arms-rasied-by-the-ears gymnast’s flourish. At the same time, we practiced saying, loudly and enthusiastically, “I FAILED!”

Then we played a number of games designed to make the participants eventually fail. For example, we played Overwhelm, a game where one person mirrors another’s movements while simultaneously answering question from a third person. Eventually, a fourth person was added, who would say numbers that the person in the hot seat was expected to count up from. (“Five!” “Six.” “What did you eat for breakfast?” “Eggs.” etc.) This and other games gave us a chance to practice failing and acknowledging failure in a safe environment. I found it hard, during Overwhelm, to admit that I was overwhelmed. It was easier to let the numbers go–to ignore them and focus on the questions and movements. This may be a metaphor for some larger aspect of my life, but I am not sure what. Hopefully not my business and accounting skills.

After the games, we were invited to consider (via journaling or quiet contemplation) the following questions:

  1. What is the opposite of failure?
  2. What do you associate with failure?

The first layer that occurred to me was that success is not the opposite of failure. Another woman in class put it really well: If you’ve just produced something that’s wildly successful, you may be struck with the sudden fear of making the next thing–or more specifically, failing at the next thing. So success and failure aren’t exactly opposites, even if they are related in some way. I have heard the truism, “failures is not the opposite of success; it is the gateway to it,” which is beautiful and true and exactly what I don’t want to hear when I’m in the throes of rejection.

So what else, then, might be the opposite of failure? The best I could come up with that day in class was stasis–never trying anything, therefore never experiencing failure. I get that same sinking stomach disappointment feeling when I’m a) being rejected and b) realizing my window for trying a thing has passed. But as much as the physiological feeling is similar, I think the two situations are fundamentally different. In the case of realizing it’s too late to try, I have that sick regret in stomach, but also a secret relief because the risk has passed–things will be the same–I won’t have to try out a thing and risk rejection. In the base of actual rejection, I am disappointed, but not with myself in particularity because I know I’ve tried. That I did something.

I lift weights, including Olympic-style barbell lifts. If you lift weights, you learn warm-ups and form and how to protect yourself as you lift–but you learn something else, too. You cannot lift your maximum wights, or establish how strong you are, unless you are willing to fail. Failure is an active process for lifting barbells. If you are squatting a weight and realize it is too heavy to stand back up, you ditch the weight by hopping forward and letting the barbell slam to the ground behind you. If you are deadlifting a weight and it is too heavy, you don’t sacrifice your form and strain your back, you drop it. Likewise with the clean, where you bring the barbell from the ground to a front rack position, holding it across your collarbone and on your fingertips. If you can’t get the bar lifted to that point of momentum-based weightlessness that allows you to drop under and catch it, then you left you and step back. The weight drops to the mat. It’s loud. It thuds.

Anne catches a barbell in front rack position, while doing a clean

Me, working up to failure. 🙂

The first Olympic lift I learned to ditch was the clean, and I had to get over an awkward clump of embarrassment. “Oh no!” my reptile brain screamed. “I made a loud noise!” But then a calmer voice, outside of the moment said, “Anne. Are you actually worried about making a loud noise in a gym filled with sweaty people whoa re all also lifting heavy barbells?” No, I realized. My instinct, conditioned in a world where taking up space while female is frowned upon and failure is outright condemned, was to be polite and quiet and not risk to the point where I had to bring attention to myself: I failed! Take a bow! Once the thought, “You don’t have to be polite in the gym” was planted, once I saw people stronger than me ditching weights, then it didn’t feel panicky or odd to let the weight thud to the ground. And I found I could improve my lift maximums significantly in way I wasn’t able to before failure became a part of my routine.

My goal is to take this practice of active failure and apply it to my creative work. I do already in some ways. I often show up to my writing and comics groups whether or not I have an idea or feel confident. And sometimes it feels like an awful slog, but occasionally I surprise myself and come up with something just by giving myself time and space. The more chances I give myself to fail, the more I give myself chances at all. So I’m endeavoring to fail early, fail often, and as Beckett reminds us, fail again, fail better.

What do you think the opposite of failure is? How do you deal with rejection? How do you seek or avoid failure?