The Value of Failure

The most impor­tant les­son any­one can learn in a novice improv class is this: do not fear failure.

When a per­son is afraid of fail­ure, he/she has a strong ten­dency to avoid tak­ing risks. In impro­vi­sa­tional the­ater and in life, risks are often key to sub­stan­tial growth and suc­cess. Suc­cess­ful com­pa­nies like Google and Apple aren’t exactly known for play­ing it safe. Sim­ply put, peo­ple learn from the choices they make. The more some­one invests in a choice, the more that indi­vid­ual will remem­ber its outcome.

On a stage or in a class­room, impro­vi­sa­tional the­ater presents a rare oppor­tu­nity to take risks with­out real-world con­se­quences. At the end of a class, flub­bing an accent or acci­den­tally walk­ing through an imag­i­nary wall doesn’t hurt any­one. Even the most risk-averse per­son can be encour­aged to take a few chances in this type of con­trolled envi­ron­ment. In fact, many intro­duc­tory improv classes focus on encour­ag­ing failure.

Keith John­stone cre­ated a sim­ple exer­cise called the “fail­ure bow”. Stu­dents stand in a cir­cle and take turns pro­claim­ing to the group that they have failed, accom­pa­nied with a grandiose bow. Every­one else in the cir­cle applauds the per­son for acknowl­edg­ing his/her fail­ure. It sounds (and even looks) quite silly, but it’s highly effec­tive. Some­thing trig­gers in the sub­con­scious that starts to make fail­ure a good idea.

When the penalty of fail­ure (shame, deject­ed­ness, etc.) is not only removed from the equa­tion, but replaced with some­thing pos­i­tive like the sup­port of one’s col­leagues, it becomes more accept­able to take risks. What would hap­pen if you and your com­pany encour­aged risk-taking in a sim­i­lar man­ner? What is there to be afraid of? Failure?

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