When I was growing up, the worst thing that could happen to me was to fail, especially in school. My parents prized good grades, and I dutifully complied, racking up lots of 100s, gold stars, and honors commendations on my report cards. Until I got to the 7th grade. I hit a wall with math that year–must have been the “new math” that was in vogue at the time. I remember the strange terminology about sets and confusing word problems. One day when I got a test back, the was a big red “D” at the top of the page. I can still remember the sick feeling that spread over my body. I remember feeling like my cheeks were on fire. I dreaded going home. How would I explain that failure? What would my parents say? Would I be punished?
I don’t remember exactly what happened, but I do remember the awful feelings I carried and the angry self-talk chattering away in my head about failure. Thankfully, my teacher helped me to understand the concepts, and I moved on. I think that was the last “D” I ever got. But no one ever told me that failure was really part of learning and mistakes were a necessary part of moving forward. No one ever got honors for mistakes. And no one talked about the value of failure until I found the creativity people.
The Florida Creativity Conference in Sarasota, Florida, has offered a rich array of workshops and presentations over the course of a March weekend every year for the past 13 years. I started attending in 2008 with the encouragement of Anthony Hyatt, a wonderful violinist who uses his talents to bring joy through music in retirement communities and hospitals. Anthony and I met in 2008 at a networking event for creative entrepreneurs, and he spoke so positively about the conference that I decided to go–in 2008 and every year since.
I remember telling a friend, “It’s really a shame that I had to be an adult in my 50s before I could experience learning in such a playful environment.” And because learning is actually experimental to a large degree, there is always the possibility of failure. But the creativity folks don’t shy away from failure–they embrace it. In fact, one of my first experiences at the conference involved an improv game where we formed a big circle in a large classroom and played “Celebrate Failure.” As soon as the leader named a brand of car, the person he pointed to had to name three models of that car–three two-syllable models and we had to snap with each syllable.
What happened next was the big surprise. As soon as someone had a turn–and could’t snap and name the cars, we all cheered and said, “Congratulations! You failed.” It probably sounds silly when I say it to you, but the lesson resonated with each one of us who played the game. After we had all “failed,” we discussed the power of reframing our experiences and asking what we learned from something that didn’t work out.
“Did you learn anything?” became my new mantra whenever I tried an experimental lesson in my writing classes, especially when I didn’t get the results I had hoped for. No more sick feeling in the pit of my stomach. No more cheeks flaming with shame. Now I think about the “Failure Game” and remember the fun of everyone cheering together.
I’d like to leave you with a thought from one of my favorite poets, David Whyte. In one of his talks about being authentic and being willing to take risks, he talks about the tasks of the soul. David says something like, “The soul doesn’t care if you failed or you succeeded. All the soul cares about is did you learn something? If you did, then the soul celebrates.”