FAIL is not a four letter word and 7 other things I learned from Improv.
I am an improviser and I hold an artsy theatre degree so for me, anything remotely related to math feels like the 19th hour of treading water in the middle of Lake Ontario in the month of February.
To this day I flip numbers and have difficulty carrying the one.
I remember standing beside my grade 10 math teacher’s desk, holding my breath as he marked my final exam. As he slowly shook his head, I watched his yellow nicotine stained fingers (it was 1982) scribble and then circle a big red 52% beside my name. I made a quick joke “Thanks for not flipping my numbers", raced out the door and threw up in the bathroom garbage can. I swore never to touch a calculator again.
I found out many years later, that I was not alone in my fear of failure, of not being good enough, smart enough, “whatever” enough, but it was in fact, in everybody.
And failing, as it turns out is actually a great thing.
I have made colossal “fails” in my life, career, relationships and parenting. But unlike squeaking by with a 52% and never looking back, failing forced me to regroup, face my fears and do better next time. (Well, most of the time) . On the improv stage taking risks and exploring new ideas was engrained in us. But the more you risk the greater your chances of failing. And failing, as it turns out, is how you learn what works and what doesn't work in the scene (and in life).
(Improv Lesson 1: There are No Mistakes, Only Opportunities)
My five- year-old daughter has challenges with fine and gross motor skills and transitions into new activities and places leave her filled with anxiety. Consequently, zipping her sweatshirt can dissolve into a four act opera ringing through our entire neighbourhood louder and longer than La Bohème. I could avoid the drama altogether and teach her to only wear pullovers, shoes without laces and dodge all new things for the next 50 years. That would certainly be simpler and more peaceful. But, I learned through parenting “fails” with my older child, that “fixing” her problems has far greater consequences than allowing her to “fail” on her own.
(Improv Lesson 2: Follow the Fear)
This doesn't mean I simple walk away and ignore the situation. It means, like in supportive improv ensembles, I've got her back. I support her by reinforcing her learned skills (mindfulness, box breathing, planning/visualizing ahead) and reminding her to apply the Goal Plan Do Check method to each challenge she faces.
(Improv Lesson 3: Ensemble Approach)
She learned in Occupational Therapy to break down difficult tasks by establishing a Goal (ultimate want), Plan (a roadmap), Do (trying it out) and Check (debriefing to see what worked and what didn't). Like in improvisation, there is training and a structure behind her explorations of each new undertaking. She isn't just "winging it". And if she "fails" at the task, she knows how to adjust her plan to make it work for her the next time around. It takes much more time and patience but Goal Plan Do Check is her go-to strategy now. The amazing thing is, she is learning at an early age, to verbalize her fears, try new things and create her own boundaries. She also is starting to understand that failure happens to everybody and is part of the learning opportunity, not something to be avoided or feared.
(Improv Lesson 4: Tell your Truth)
In aligning workplace ensembles, parenting and with friends and family, we tend to want to “fix” the problems of others before we give them the opportunity to fail. It hurts to watch someone you care about self destruct or a project you are invested in go off the rails. But I've learned the best thing I can do is step back, support and trust the "failing" process.
(Improv Lesson 5: Be Present)
Looking back, squeaking by with a 52% and giving up math was in itself a failure and I did learn from it. Now, instead of performing Puccini’s 4th act myself during year end accounting, I chose wisely in a business partner whose accounting strengths are extraordinary. We balance each other’s strengths and support each other’s challenges without judgement. We also laugh a lot.
(Improv Lesson 6: Give and Take)
As an improviser/parent/caregiver/business partner/friend/patient and family integrated care advocate, I've learned we have three choices when it comes to facing fear at home, in hospital, in school and at work:
1) Let it define us
2) Let it destroy us
3) Let it make us stronger
Failing is not weakness, "failing" is the willingness to show vulnerability and that to me is the ultimate strength. Creating effective ensembles who actively listen, trust and support failing, is what I hope my kids learn from my own "fails". That, and always team up with someone who is amazing at long division.
(Improv Lesson 7: Listen for Gifts)
Jack Hourigan is a freelance writer, improvisor, media personality and Patient and Family Integrated Care advocate. She and Ellen Morita are the co-founders of www.swaypartners.com, a boutique learning and communications firm in Toronto, Canada.