The smooth, silvery keys under my fingers, the cane reed between my lips, and the stand, providing a barrier between me and my audience. That was what I needed to focus on. Myself, my instrument, and my music. If only it were that simple. Instead of rooting me in place, my oboe wavered, betraying my nerves to those around me. I looked over the stand, and I saw dozens eyes staring back at me. Trying to ignore the watchers, I took a deep breath, and I started to play.
Or, at least, I tried to.
My pitch fluctuated, I was missing notes, and you could hear my hands shaking in the music. Instead of playing loud, passionate, and bombastic as the piece commanded, I sounded exactly how I felt: timid, unprepared, and inexperienced. I finished my piece on something close to the correct note, contorted my face into a semblance of a smile, and took a bow I knew I hadn’t earned. As I returned to an alcove filled with other students, I put my oboe away, avoiding eye contact, and collected my next piece. After my previous disaster, I didn’t know how I would return to the place of my shame. How could I go out there, after they had heard me implode? I told myself I would do better. You can redeem yourself, I thought. You might be a terrible oboe player, but you know you can play the piano. After a few more students had performed, I returned to my audience. I could almost hear them wondering, what is she doing back up there?! Despite the seemingly accusing eyes I felt staring at me, I positioned my music accordingly, and prepared to play. My fingers, now curled on ivory and ebony, knew what to do. They followed the patterns trained into them over years of practice.
That is, until they didn’t.
With the sounding of one wrong note, a deluge of others followed. I blinked my tears out the the way, desperate to finish the piece, and get off the stage as quickly as possible. I couldn’t remember how it went: I skipped repeats, I forgot half of my dynamics. My fingers, initially so confident, had betrayed me once again. Failure, after failure, after failure. The more I wished it was over, the longer it seemed to stretch, until, finally, I was done.
I didn’t hear the rest of the pieces. Instead, I sat, deaf to everything but the white noise of my shame and humiliation, staring at my treacherous fingers curled harmlessly in my lap.
I failed that day. I knew it, my teacher knew it, my mom knew it. My teacher suggested I could prepare more and redeem myself at the next performance. My mom tried to comfort me with assurances that I hadn’t done that badly. The other students, many of them familiar with the sting of failure, commiserated with sympathy and condolences.
The apparent obligation to counsel someone after a failure, to offer meaningless platitudes and comfort, is a common one. Often, parents and coaches will invoke the worn JFK quote that, “only those who dare to fail greatly can ever achieve greatly” when comforting a distraught child or student. The parent reminds her child that even Bill Gates dropped out of college; the coach counsels that the famed Michael Jordan was cut from his high school basketball team. But, in all honesty, most of our mistakes do not result in miraculous recoveries. If he hadn’t invented Microsoft, Bill Gates wouldn’t be a prime example of resilience, he would just be another college dropout. If Michael Jordan hadn’t led the Chicago Bulls to six championships, no one would care if he had played basketball in high school. In these examples, we are not celebrating failure, but the redemption transforming our pain and suffering to ultimate success. . Our society believes failure alone is not relevant; it is only when it is coupled with a future success that it becomes pertinent. Even then, when we are surrounded by countless successes, many of us are uncomfortable sharing our failures. Mostly, failure does not lead to radical life changes. We bomb a test, hurt a friend, or get rejected from a college. We don’t succeed because of these failures, but we do learn from them. In fact, failure is something to be celebrated on its own, whether it leads to a multi-billion dollar corporation or not. From failure, we learn resilience, compassion, the value of exploration, and our powerful capacity to change.
Perhaps the most obvious skill from failure is resilience. This is the ability to bounce back from disappointments, and, most importantly move on from our failures. Failing is something you can only perfect by doing. We might be able give a speech, play sports, or sing intuitively, but the idea of accepting failure goes against our very nature. Now, to be very clear, accepting failure does not mean giving up. It means acknowledging our imperfections. It means knowing what we can do, what we want to do, and how we can use failure to grow. We will all fail in life. We might fail big, or small, or a few times, or all the time, but we all fail. Failing in of itself is not a character flaw, a personality deficit, or a horrible secret. We might fail because of our own shortcomings — you procrastinate on a project and get a low grade, blow off responsibilities and get fired from a job, or neglect a friendship and slowly drift apart — but it is only through accepting these imperfections that we can understand and risk doing something different.
From failure, we can learn empathy. Anytime we fail, we feel ashamed, vulnerable, unworthy. In fact, it is through these emotions that we usually identify failure. If an event isn’t important to us, we don’t feel that we have failed, because we are not emotionally invested in the activity. It is exactly in acknowledging these negative emotions that we are provided an opportunity to become more empathetic towards ourselves and others. In order to truly understand and share the feelings of another person, we must have experienced those emotions ourselves. We can feel sympathy and pity without experience, yes, but often a deeper connection is formed with others through shared adversity. Failure also helps us to move past judgement. Often, if I have not personally struggled with something, it can be difficult to understand why another person is having trouble. Knowing intellectually that others have different skill sets, and understanding this on an experiential level are two very different things. Once we have failed in one area, we are better able to recognize our own infallibility, and understand the hidden struggles of others.
Additionally, failure encourages us to explore new things. The trouble with most phobias, is that the more you avoid what you are afraid of, the more the fear grows, and your life stays small. Trying new and risky things becomes off limits, and this appears to guarantee no failure. Naturally, more successful people — the intelligent, talented, and hardworking — fail less frequently. Because of this, their fear of failure expands until it is overwhelming. The fear of failing, whether it be a math quiz or a cooking lesson, becomes so all consuming that many extremely successful people refuse to even entertain the idea of trying new things at the risk of struggling and looking foolish. Once we fail, we gain the confidence and knowledge that we can survive any future failures. Experimenting with new hobbies is often incredibly humbling. I’m not the best musician in the world. I could name countless people I know personally who are more talented pianists than I am. But I am so grateful that my mom encouraged me to take piano lessons. It has forced me to step outside my comfort zone in a multitude of ways, from performance, to connecting with new communities of people, to accepting and learning how to apply criticism. By putting myself in a position where I am willing to accept failure, I have opened myself up to explore so many different parts of my personality and sense of self.
Additionally, failures forces us to change. When we constantly succeed, we aren’t motivated to grow. If something works well for us, we leave it as is and, consequently, tend to get stuck in stasis. Humans are hardwired to find patterns throughout their lives, and, once we follow a pattern long enough, it can become easy to see it as the only path to success. Failure forces us to deviate from that path. When we are open to change, we are able to move beyond our comfort zones and be the best we can possibly be. If we never stretch, and grow, and explore, we will be unable to discover our true potential. The truth is, if you are always succeeding, you will most likely not reaching your highest capabilities. Living life to the fullest involves stretching yourself a little beyond what you can actually do, and then, by recognizing that boundary, finding a place that pushes you just enough to continue growing — without working yourself to exhaustion. Failure gives us the guidance we need to change and evolve into better people.
Now, there is no magical ending to my story. I didn’t get over my fear of performance, pour out my angst into beautiful compositions, or discover a new facet of myself. I walked away from the piano, and returned to my seat, quietly hating myself until I could flee the shame and humiliation following the performance. I went home, and I had a good cry. My life didn’t change. The next day, I got up, went to school, did my homework, and practiced my instruments. I continue to play, full of the knowledge that I can, and will, fail again. I will get rejected from an ensemble, butcher a performance, and disappoint my audience. But that doesn’t mean I will stop playing, or that I should stop playing. For me, music is about more than how others perceive it. It’s about discovering my own humanity, because ultimately, failure makes us human. Humanity is about celebrating our imperfections. It’s about the ability to grow, become more resilient, relate to others, and explore new things. Music might not be the place to find your humanity. Passion takes many different forms, but make sure you find something that you want to fail for — the advantages are worth any pain that arises.