What Musical Theater Taught Me About Failure
I’m an actress. Specifically, a musical theater actress. Most non-theater muggles don't know this, but over half of my job as a stage performer is going on auditions. Lots and lots and lots and lots of auditions. During the height of audition season, I might go to two or three a day. Oh, and I would be lucky if I book just one of those jobs.
Laura Benanti (a BFD in the performing world) once said in an interview that she books, on average, one job per 100 auditions. Many people don’t understand why we do this job, because they see that rate as 99 failures for every 1 success.
I don’t really like to talk about my auditions. If I mention an audition to a non-actor friend, my mom, or even my husband, they get all excited. They tell me to break a leg. They’re sure I’m going to book it. And they get really disappointed and super sympathetic when I don’t. They feel bad for me because they see it as a failure, which is the worst.
I hate the idea that someone might identify myself or something I do as a failure. I’m terrified of the perception of failure.
Who isn’t? We don’t talk about our various mistakes at happy hours or share stories of our flops at family gatherings. Instead, we brag about our latest promotion, show off pictures from our recent vacation, chat about our newest purchases, and generally promote the idea that we’re all on the up and up with no downswings in sight. Which isn’t true or even possible, considering we all fail in one way or another everyday. We miss out on that big promotion, forget our partner’s birthday, lose our keys, add the bill wrong, and a million other things that don’t really have serious consequences for our lives.
But failure is still considered shameful and absolute. If I fail, it means I did something wrong or there’s something innately wrong with me. And God help me if people find out about it.
But is failure—or what our culture perceives as failure—really all that bad? Maybe not.
First of all, it’s completely relative. Just because you messed up that one thing that one time doesn’t mean you’re a bad person or a total fuck up. Your mistakes and failures don’t define you.
It’s also a tool. As Harvard lecturer Tal Ben-Shahar says: "If you don't learn to fail, you fail to learn.” How many times did Tony Stark crash in his suit before he became Iron Man? How many hours did Bill Gates spend debugging his code to develop Microsoft Windows? You make mistakes and then you learn from them, using your failures as stepping stones to greater successes.
Failure isn’t something to be ashamed of. In fact, we should be proud of it.
Missing that promotion means we believed in ourselves enough to apply. Forgetting our partner’s birthday allows us to show our love in an even more special way next time. Not booking those 99 auditions makes that one we book much more special.
Who cares if someone sees us fall? They also see us taking the leap.
Isn’t that way more badass than staying safe on the ground?