Fun with Failure

I’m incredibly nervous when I step on the stage.  The concert is in a relatively small church, but it feels huge when you’re looking out at the full pews.  My palms are clammy, and I keep clenching my hands into fists.

I hear the opening chords from the accompanist.  When I open my mouth to sing, it’s my worst nightmare.  I can barely get a sound out.  I push to make it louder, and my voice cracks.  I have no resonance.  I stumble through the song, off-pitch and shrill, and flee the stage.

It sounds like a bad dream, but it actually wasn’t.  Years ago, before I started modeling, I wanted to learn how to sing.  So I took lessons.  I figured it would be easy for me to pick up, since I was working as a professional pianist at the time.  I quickly learned that it wasn’t.  But my instructor still required that I participate in the recital if I wanted to keep studying with her, even though I didn’t want to and didn’t feel ready.

That failure of a recital had long-term effects, too.  I quit singing lessons soon after.  Now, I don’t sing at all—at least, not in front of other people.

*          *          *

A month ago, I’m standing outside of a yoga studio during a chilly winter evening, hesitating before I go inside.  Once again, I’m nervous.  I’m at the yoga studio because I want to improve my modeling with a new skill set.  I’ve been told by countless other models that it’ll improve my poses, just like dance did.

That first class is an exercise in humility and trying to not fall over.  By the end of it, I am sweaty, flushed, sore, exhausted, and have discovered an inherent truth about myself: I’m terrible at yoga.  I thought it would be easy to pick up, since the body awareness is so similar to posing for modeling.  Boy, was I wrong.  I’m surprised that the instructor is willing to put up with me by the end of the class.

What’s more, I learned absolutely nothing that I could directly or immediately apply to modeling.  Failure again.  But I decide to keep going back to the yoga studio.  I even get my own yoga mat and a bag to keep it in.  Why?  Because despite being a failure, I had fun doing it.

So why was one experience enjoyable, while the other was disheartening?  They were both failures.  What made one fun?  And why is that so important?

*          *          *

I recently had someone ask me to describe my job.  Without thinking about it much, I said, “I’m a fine art nude and underwater model, but most of the time I feel like I professionally fail for a living.”

I got a weird look for that one, but I meant it as a positive thing.  Regularly failing at the things I try means I’m constantly learning and moving on and doing hard things.  It’s completely necessary for my business and my art.  Otherwise I wouldn’t try things like new poses, or new markets.  

I talk a lot about failure, and I strongly believe that learning from failure is one of the best things we can do for ourselves.  There’s a Churchill quote that I try to aspire to: “Success is walking from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm.”

But it’s not easy for me—my brush with singing should show you just how badly I can fail at failing well.  Sometimes I just get completely discouraged and give up.  Having fun with failure is something that I struggle with on a regular basis.  I’m a perfectionist, and a golden retriever.  Neither of these things lead to enthusiastic floundering.

So yes, I still feel a sense of dread before I do something new or risky, or has even a slim chance of going poorly.  It happens every time I pick up a pen or go to model—and don’t even get me started about posting to social media.  I’m constantly surprised and dismayed at how strongly I am motivated to avoid embarrassment and failure.  

Failure isn’t just inevitable. It’s important.

But like I said, failure at some point isn’t just inevitable.  It’s important.  So I’m constantly trying to figure out how to react to failure like it’s fun, rather than get discouraged.  I’ll admit that I still haven’t figured this one out completely.  I’m not magically able to make failure fun all the time.  But I have noticed one thing that helps, and that’s internal motivation.

I really should have figured this one out a long time ago; it’s pretty straight forward.  But it finally clicked when I left the yoga studio, sweaty and happy.  When I did the vocal recital, it was all for external reasons: my teacher wanted me to.  When I did yoga, I did it for me and for my modeling.

I like to think of internal motivation as keeping promises to myself.  That way failure may be inevitable, but trying anyway is inevitable too.  And that makes it surprisingly easier to relax and have fun with it.  It doesn’t get rid of the fear, but it helps push me past it.

But this does mean that I have to be very careful about accountability.  If I’m going to try no matter what, I have to make sure that I really care about what I’m doing.  When I’m not accountable and let outside factors influence my decisions, I pretty predictably crash and burn—sweaty palms, trembling on stage.

But when I’m accountable to myself, it’s like the yoga class: I’m eager to have fun trying something new.