Embracing Failure

Photo Credit: Stephanie Evelyn McKellar

Photo Credit: Stephanie Evelyn McKellar

By: Stephanie Evelyn McKellar

Improv classes are a constant stream of new discovery and activity. A new warm up is taught to the group, we learn it and try it, we practice and stumble. Someone messes up in the warm-up exercise, a rhythm gets off, someone whooshes instead of pows, laughter ensues. After all, we are standing in a circle ready with playful, silly energy.

Throughout school I played percussion, spending many years in private lessons. I learned, memorized, and performed new songs season after season. Sometimes when I hit wrong notes—pause, reset, restart—my private lesson teacher would say, “play through your mistakes,” helping me break this habit of re-starting, encouraging me to keep playing on to the next note, even if the one before it had been incorrect. “If you stop every time you make a mistake, you’ll only practice stopping.”

It is natural to slip up and make mistakes, especially when learning a new skill. The brain is thinking of a multitude of things as it learns, focusing on all the details and working to coalesce them. It is understandable to feel embarrassed, awkward, and out of one’s element.

In fact, adults often forget that this uncomfortable and awkward space of learning is normal as we gain new information and skills. Babies and children are constantly learning and taking in new words, languages, skills, and concepts from their environment. It’s a vulnerable place to be constantly learning, and yet, the brain can conquer an abundance of knowledge in a short span of time. But the older a person grows, the easier it is to begin to fear failure, the more likely one can fall into a “fixed” mindset, according to Carol Dweck. Failure, to the fixed mindset, feels like fate, believing that skills and talent are inherent and unchanging: either we are good at something or we are not. The alternative to the fixed mindset is the “growth” mindset; the belief that our learning and intelligence can grow and be cultivated. Not knowing something isn’t daunting; it is part of the learning and discovery process. To the growth mindset, failure feels more like opportunity.

My improv teachers talk about failing forward: we learn from our mistakes, take the wisdom to heart, and grow by applying it to the next situation. Embracing failure opens us up to a world we would not discover if we did not fail headfirst into discovering a new room of knowledge. Saying “yes” doesn’t mean we won’t fail—we will. In fact, we will fail repeatedly, but there will be times when something works, clicks, and something is learned that is life-changing and revolutionary. Individuals and organizations are beginning to nurture a culture that embraces their failure stories for the wisdom they bring; many successful people will share about their failures along their journey that led them to their greatness. Even Edison celebrated finding ten thousand ways that did not work, for they were bringing him closer to something that did.

At Missional Wisdom Foundation, we say: We experiment and teach about alternative forms of Christian community.

The philosophy of experimentation allows room for mistakes.

The theology of experimentation allows room for unmerited, abundant grace, and providence.

It is said that when Saint Francis first heard God ask him to “rebuild my church,” Francis began gathering up the stones of the dilapidated church building nearby. Only later after reconstructing the building did he then discern that God meant the people who are the church.

Did you ever watch the Magic School Bus? The ever-so-quirky and eccentric teacher Ms. Frizzle leads the class on one zany adventure after another, always encouraging with her catchphrase: “Take chances! Make mistakes! Get messy!” Each episode they charge onward to new discoveries, mistake by mistake becoming brave and informed scientists. In Writing Down the Bones, Natalie Goldberg says,“You will succeed if you are fearless of failure.”

We need spaces similar to improv where we can fail, make mistakes, get messy. Embracing failure helps us be more compassionate towards ourselves and towards each other.

Failure is not a death sentence but a discovery zone.