On Failure

31 Oct On Failure

First published in the NZ Woman’s Weekly 31.10.22


Once, when a journalist saw me work one night at Auckland’s comedy club, he asked me afterwards how it had felt when one of the jokes I’d done hadn’t worked.

And when I say “hadn’t worked” it was in a quite spectacular way. Not only had there been no laughs, there had been the kind of silence we commonly describe as “uncomfortable”. Maybe followed by a groan? Hard to say – I’m deaf and it’s impossible to read lips in the dark. Small mercies.

Had I been mortified, he’d asked? Wounded? Shame-faced? I thought about it and realised that a new thing had happened. Yes, I felt a little of those things but mostly what I felt was pleased. Pleased that I had tried a new bit – the hardest part of comedy is coming up with new bits – and sure, it hadn’t worked … Yet. But it might if I kept working on it.

Though I’d realised that wasn’t the point, either. The point was ‘failure’ meant I had taken a risk. And taking a risk had become more important to me than success. If I was taking a creative risk, that meant I was still learning, and still alive.

It was the first time I’d thought of it that way – or been aware that this was how I’d started to feel. I used to be terrified of failure, anxious pre-show to the point of nausea. Maybe with this new way of seeing it, I could finally relax.

All of us spend a lot of time hoping we don’t fail – at work, as parents, in relationships. We are wired to want to succeed, and to survive. Also, failing sucks – it makes your face hot, and your stomach drop, and you want to crawl away and hide. Failing publicly – it doesn’t have to be on stage, it can just be in front of any number of humans starting with as few as one – feels physically and emotionally a lot like shame.

So we do a bunch of things to avoid failure. Good things, like preparing, training, doing our homework, making the effort, committing ourselves fully to a challenge. And maybe less good things – like not taking on a challenge at all, just in case it doesn’t work out. You’re not going to have a bad gig if you don’t do any gigs at all.

I’m aware that, at different times over the years, I have avoided competitions – or generally competitive situations – when I’ve been feeling less resilient. You weigh it up and realise that, at this moment, winning might feel ‘this’ good but losing would feel ‘THIS’ bad, so you take yourself out of the running.

Which is sensible for a short time, but no way to live forever. I’ve been thinking about this over recent days as I’ve watched people I admire and respect who had put themselves up for local body elections – which must feel like a kind of community-wide popularity contest. Some of them didn’t win and I imagine that feels pretty stink, to spend many months and lots of money, offering your services and then not being chosen. Ouch.

But also, how courageous to take that kind of risk, and how kind it is to make that offer.

Meanwhile, I still get nervous before every show. I’m still aware that I am always a heartbeat away from failure. But also, if some part of it fails, the bigger part of me is delighted I risked a new thing.