Archive for September 22nd, 2009

Honoring Failure

A couple of years ago I was doing a show for a primary grade audience at an elementary school. After an introductory song, I took a good look at the audience, decided on a particular story and launched into the telling.

A minute and a half into the story, I realized I had miscalculated – it was the wrong story, it was not going to work, and it was long – another fifteen to eighteen minutes. It was going to be a tough slog. I pushed on for another minute – I could feel attention wavering.

Then I stopped.

The students were suddenly alert. This was not expected. The guy up there was just supposed to keep blabbing about something they didn’t care about. What was he doing?

I paused. Something was now clearly wrong. This was even more interesting.

I looked at the teachers, sitting in chairs on the side of the audience – even they were now paying attention – even the ones grading papers! I addressed the teachers.

“Have you ever spent a lot of time on a lesson plan, and realized as soon as you started it, it wasn’t going to work?”

A couple of teachers nodded. The kids were looking at their teachers. I went on.

“So, then you have two choices – you can just push right ahead and teach that lesson no matter what, or give up and try something else.”

I paused again. A few nods. Kids looking at me.

“I’m giving up,” I said. Then I said to the kids, “I don’t like that story. I’m telling another.”

The teachers laughed and applauded. They knew exactly how I felt, and were relieved to see me readjust. I started another story, a better one for that moment. The kids listened and liked it.

Messing up, admitting it, and adjusting is one of the great challenges of being human, and I wish it were easier to do. (Okay, the messing up part is surprisingly easy – it’s the whole process that presents difficulty). But when someone can admit failure and move on, it’s a blessing for everyone around them.

I was reminded of all of this when my friend and fellow storyteller, Syd Lieberman, told me about a recent school visit. The head of the school had challenged all the teachers to bring a story about a mistake they had made in the classroom to the next staff meeting. They sat around and told their stories, and there was a prize for the best story. The head of the school told a story, too. Syd said the feeling of community and support in the school was exceptional – unlike any he had ever seen.

What a great exercise.

I should note here that a story of failure is different from a war story, or what musicians call “gigs from hell”, in which everything happens to you. Those are fun to tell, and comforting, to a point. But this story, where people admit failings, is a different bird.

Two things happen when a trusted friend or respected colleague admits mistakes. First, there is a lesson more easily learned. When an accomplished teacher or craftsman of any kind shows where he went wrong, others learn quickly from that mistake. It’s always hard to learn from someone else’s errors, but you’re more likely to when someone you respect shows where they went wrong. That kind of mistake sticks in your mind.

Second, and most important, it has a leveling effect and helps others relax. “She’s just like me,” is a wonderful insight. When you realize that mistakes are part of the process, you’re much more likely to stretch for new approaches and make yourself vulnerable to the moment. People in positions of authority who can admit mistakes don’t have to hold up the façade of a role that doesn’t quite fit them. Real loss of authority comes when everyone can see the leader has made a mistake but won’t admit it.

My friend, Curtis Buchanan, chairmaker extraordinaire, told me of a class he was teaching in which he had forgotten to perform a basic function before the class – sharpening his chisels. He kept trying to perform one procedure and failing, with a dozen people watching. Then he realized the problem, stopped and showed his error. In the evaluations, one of the students said, “The most liberating thing about your class was to see you make a mistake and admit your error. It gave me permission to try things I wouldn’t have tried, for fear of failing.”

Failure? It’s a great thing. When you can admit it.


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