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Conquer the Fear of Failure

by Rochelle Melander

“Nothing is a mistake. There’s no win and no fail. There’s only make.”

—Corita Kent

On NPR’s Morning Edition, A Martínez interviewed members of The Groundlings, a Los Angeles-based improv and sketch comedy troupe. Michael Churven said this about the process,

“You bomb so much, and your best teacher is your last bomb. I’ve never learned so much as when I failed miserably on the stage, ’cause you learn firstly to just let it go, which I think is a key ingredient. And secondly, it forces you to think, OK, what was missing in that sketch?”

Wow. Instead of fearing failure, Churven embraces it. He learns from it.

When I teach art and writing to young people, I see many students who fear bombing. They have this idea in their head about what a perfect piece would look or sound like. When they can’t execute it—and most of us don’t get it right on the first try—they give up. Why try if they’re just going to fail?

Many of my clients face the same problem. You might, too. You might show up to write every day, jot down a few words, and stop—because they don’t match the image in your head. And here’s the thing: it’s not your fault. We live in an Instagram world, where we watch artists and writers make art. They get it right the first time, and brilliantly so. Maybe. We’re only seeing the final product. We don’t see the hundreds of takes they tossed out.

We’re comparing our messy first draft with their finished product.

That’s not fair.

So how do you conquer the fear of failure? It turns out improv rules can be a great guide for us. Try this:

Be present in your body. Corita Kent’s quote helps me a lot when I’m struggling with fear, “Nothing is a mistake. There’s no win and no fail. There’s only make.” Commit to making in the moment. Don’t fast forward to showing it to readers. Don’t rewind to what your professor/parent/partner might have said. Be present. Make something, even if it is horrible. You can fix horrible.

Treat your writing time as play. When kids play, they don’t analyze how well they’re doing at stacking blocks or zooming around the room like a flying car. They just do it. Next time you write, try stuff. Ask, “What if?” What if I had the characters do this? What if I told the story in first person? What if I used a lot of sound words? And then just do it. You can analyze how it worked afterwards.

Repeat, “Yes and.” In the NPR interview, Jay Renshaw said, “We don’t say yes and enough. I mean, there’s a lot of no but, I think, in the United States, definitely. I think we could all stand to say yes and a little bit more.”

When you were a kid, you’d brainstorm dumb things to do with a friend, and someone would say, “Yes and we could…” and then someone else would add, “Yes and we could.” If there were no adults around, your ideas would get super ridiculous and very fun. That’s the energy you want to bring to your writing. When you get stuck, do a little “yes and” brainstorming. Don’t let your inner playground monitor show up. Just brainstorm.

Bonus: Get a new mantra. If you’re a perfectionist, you have failure mantras running through your head. They’re the words of your inner critic, trying to protect you from getting hurt. Sometimes the inner critic needs new lines. Give it some. Here are a few to try:

“Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” -Samuel Beckett

“Progress, not perfection.”

“Just do it.”

“Big ideas start with small steps.”

“I can do hard things.”

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