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. 

How Failing Made Me a Better Model

The most embarrassing thing that I’ve ever lived through happened while I was naked, on a modeling stand, in front of a classroom full of people. 

I was a very new model; I’d only posed for life drawing maybe three or four times before.   For this class at the local college, I was sitting for my first three-hour long pose.

About two and a half hours into the pose, my foot fell asleep.  I had heard that something almost always falls asleep during a long pose, so I wasn’t worried.  What I didn’t realize was that I’d also lost feeling in my whole leg all the way up to my hip. 

In a long pose, the model takes a quick break to stretch every twenty minutes, so when the timer went off, I stood up and stomped on my foot to get my circulation back.  Or at least, I tried to; my leg had other ideas.  Instead, I fell over rather spectacularly.  

That should have been the end of it; falling over naked in front of a group of college students was embarrassing enough.  However, the stand was wheeled so it could be moved in and out of the classroom.  Whoever had set it up hadn’t locked the rollers, and when I fell it went flying in the other direction. I ended up taking out half the class with the modeling stand, and falling headfirst into the lap of a student on the other side of the room while still naked--and unable to stand up, because my leg still wasn't working.  

I was convinced that after that class, I was done with modeling.  I was too mortified to ever come back.  

After the class had finished and I was hoping to make a quick escape, the instructor came over to talk to me.  Things like this don’t matter, he told me.  Nobody was going to remember that a model fell down while they were taking a college art class.  

I think it’s obvious that he didn’t mean it literally.  After all, I’m still telling you about it.  I remember it pretty viscerally, and I’m pretty sure that both the student I landed on and the ones I accidentally bruised with the modeling stand didn’t forget what happened.  After all, how often does a naked woman land unceremoniously on top of you?  But it did teach me an invaluable lesson: nobody cares if you fail.  

They were more concerned about their art than my accident.

I had failed spectacularly.  I had fallen off a stage buck-naked into somebody’s lap.  It was worse than the worst thing I had imagined being possible.  And yet, nothing terrible actually happened to me.  Nobody pointed, laughed, or even snickered behind their hand.  Nobody glared at me for smacking them with a really heavy modeling stand.  Nobody even said anything.  They just picked up their drawings and went back to work.  They were more concerned about their art than my accident.

Realizing that I could make such a big blunder without consequence gave me the courage to go back and model again. 

It also gave me the gumption to try all of the stressful things necessary to build a professional modeling career.  I honestly don’t think I would be a professional model today if I hadn’t fallen off that modeling stand.  Starting any freelance endeavor means trying new, scary things that are easy to fail at.  I had to put naked pictures of myself on the internet, negotiate rates (asking for money is terrifying), and travel alone to places I had never been for work. 

Whenever I wanted to try something new but was afraid, I would ask myself the following questions: “If I fail completely at this, will it be worse than falling off a stage naked into a stranger’s lap?  Will it be more memorable?” 

It very rarely is, on either count.  

Those two questions have helped me with new adventures too, like starting a blog or learning to dance ballet as an adult.  Sure, I still get terrified that I’m going to fail.  Failure is scary and sometimes horribly embarrassing.  It’s also a pretty common occurrence (although rarely as dramatic as falling naked off a model stand).  But I don’t let it stop me anymore.  I let myself fail, because I know that nobody will care.  And most of my successes would have never happened if I hadn’t taken the risk.