Fail…happy. That afternoon with Keith

September 1st 2014 – the deadline I had set myself had finally arrived. Three years earlier I had attended my first week of training with Theatre Director and Impro legend Keith Johnstone and told him that I was about to start writing a book inspired by his work. Keith was very interested and told me that he’d love to read it when it was done. In September 2013 I was once again spending a week in London with Keith.  I updated him on the project, shared some of the chapter headings and initial ideas and, once again, he told me he was looking forward to reading the finished piece. (“If I’m still alive” he added jovially! ) Finally, on that crisp September morning in 2014 I took a freshly printed copy of “Can Scorpions Smoke?”, wrote some heartfelt words of thanks to Keith on the inside cover and proudly presented it to him.  Keith accepted it with gratitude and placed it in his legendary canvas bag.

Two days later Keith approached me. “I’d like to buy you a coffee after class” he said cheerfully. In an imaginary puff of smoke, my inner critic appeared on my shoulder.  He told me that Keith, one of my most treasured teachers, was going to say that my book was absolute rubbish! I told my good friend Caryn about this and she convinced me to ignore the inner demon and to be confident for once in my life. After all, the book originated from a  Masters dissertation that had received wonderful marks.  So, that evening, I found myself sitting in a hotel bar with Keith – a 1:1 audience with somebody who had been a big influence on my work over the last 5 years.  Keith shuffled awkwardly in his chair, winced slightly and said “About this book...” I felt a sense of excitement build within me. Maybe Caryn was right? Maybe this was going to be a glowing endorsement of my work that would shut my inner critic up for good.   Maybe Keith was about to say something that I could proudly quote on the cover of future editions.  “Er…this is a bit embarrassing for me…” Keith continued “...but I think that you should withdraw this book from sale, tell everybody you made a mistake and start again. I think this book will ruin your business!”

The world stopped spinning for a moment. Everything other than Keith’s face went out of focus. I could hear the blood rushing in my ears. My face flushed, my chest tightened and my heart felt like it was going to break into a thousand pieces. Keith continued to talk and, as if I was witnessing myself in a rather odd dream,  I sat there mute, nodding my head as more details of his critique tumbled from his mouth. I had a 1:1 audience with one of my heroes and all I wanted to do was to run far, far away, hide my shame and never ever write anything again.

A lot is written about failure nowadays and how important it is in nurturing creativity and innovation. Try searching for “the importance of failure” and you’ll find a plethora of articles about it being essential to growth and learning, about failure being the same as discovery and about the importance of rewarding failure to encourage experimentation in the workplace. Whilst I agree with the sentiment of these articles they all seem to miss something very important. And that is that some failures can be significant emotional experiences that are very, very difficult to bear. Moments in our life where we want nothing more than to shrivel up and die. Moments of fog and confusion in which we we feel our sense of worth and identity is being challenged. Moments when our inner critic sits there nodding and saying “I told you so!”  Yet, for some reason, other moments of failure feel much less traumatic. I have pitched various pieces of work to potential clients who have not been interested. I regularly set myself goals in my running practice only to fall short of them. And when I was seeking a publisher for Can Scorpions Smoke I had many rather blunt rejections. Whilst each of these these moments were disappointing they lacked the intensity of that afternoon coffee with Keith.

It seems to me that the main flaw in many of these articles is that they treat moments of failure as universal experiences whereas in reality, what is a tolerable failure for one person might be a traumatic one for another.  Simply telling people to seek failure or embrace failure in a rather macho way doesn’t take into account the uniqueness of the individual experience.  This uniqueness doesn’t necessarily arise from the event itself, but from the implications it triggers for that particular human being.   When I miss a goal in my running practice the implications that come to mind are that I haven’t trained enough or have been eating unhealthily over recent times. When a client doesn’t want to work with me the implications are that we’re operating from a different set of beliefs and that it is probably for the best that we don’t go any further.  And as I read each rejection from potential book publishers, the implications were that my book was too unconventional for the mainstream book market. (I chose to turn this into a positive and published a selection of the rejection notes on the back sleeve of the book!)

However, the implications in that moment with Keith were very different. It felt like I experienced them in my body before I experienced them in my mind.  The horrible hot, wrenching feeling unfurled from my stomach and my head burnt like it used to in maths class at school.  In that moment I felt that I was a fraud, a fake, lacked intelligence, lacked ability. I felt stupid. I felt like all of my successes in my work to that point had been luck and finally I’d come unstuck and been exposed as the charlatan I no doubt was.  It felt like my inner critic had doubled in size, had me in the palm of his hand and was slowly crushing me with his powerful grip. No amount of articles on failure or advisors telling me this was a moment of learning would have helped me.

However, a few months later I’d started to put things into perspective. Whilst I hadn’t forgotten about the intensity of that afternoon, the experience had started to hold a different meaning. Each time I had shared the story with others, the very act of telling it dissolved the intensity of the implications a little. The more I simply accepted the experience for what it was, the more sense I made of it. I began to see chinks of light between it being an event that invalidated my sense of self to it simply being a moment in which an influential person in my life disagreed with me. (Unintentionally triggering all sorts of historic introjects and limiting beliefs)  I found that the less effort I made to deliberately learn from the experience the more integrated it felt, to the point that it is now a story I feel somewhat proud to tell. (I considered  putting Keith’s quote “This book will ruin your business” on the front cover but as he had delivered the feedback in such a well-intentioned, caring and thoughtful way it didn’t feel appropriate to do this.)

As I reflect on this story it feels like there are two important factors to consider when advocating the importance failure.

Intensity arises from the implications, not just the event
Whilst the ‘mechanics’ of failure are relevant, it seems that the implications they provoke for the individual are a much more significant factor.  If the implications that come to mind are fodder for our inner critic then the experience can be much more intense and difficult to learn from.   If we are to truly embrace failure as a source of learning then we need to pay attention to the fact that the implications it provokes will be different for each person.  The meaning that is implied will be unique for each individual based on the uniqueness of their life experience and the dominant narrative of their inner critic.   These implications may not make sense to anyone else and appear irrational, illogical and over exaggerated to others. (On reflection I believe that afternoon with Keith was so intense because of a number of introjects from my experiences at school and my need for approval from older, wiser adults.)  Simply telling people that failure is good and that they have permission to fail may not be enough to make experimentation feel safe.

Learning from failure
Learning from intense experiences of failure requires a rather more counter intuitive, effort-less approach than what we might initially think.  It took time for me to make sense of that experience and no amount of hard thinking and root-causing helped.  Over time, I let go of the need to make sense of it and, the more I did, the more sense it made. I find the three tenets of the Zen Peacemakers a helpful ‘formula’ for coping with and learning from failure:  1) Not Knowing: Stick with not knowing for longer than is comfortable.  Don’t attempt to force learning.  Allow new meaning to emerge over time when it is ready.    2) Bear Witness: Surrender to what is, in all its glorious detail.  We cannot change the past and, as Arnie Beisser wrote in the Paradoxical theory of change, “change occurs when one becomes more of what he is, not when he tries to become what he is not.” 3) Compassionate Action: Be gentle with ourselves.  Allow ourselves to be what we are and avoid judgement and comparison.  Notice the voice of the inner critic but do not engage, bargain or fight with it.  We are flawed but willing human beings just like everybody else.  If success is a concept that is fleeting and impermanent then so is failure.


The image at the top of this page is entitled “That afternoon with Keith” and is an extract from Steve’s new book “PhD: Play, hug, Dance”