Taoblog: Failure Isn’t an Option. It’s Mandatory.

You Break It, You Own It!

Years ago, I was part of an improv troupe that would not tolerate failure. The players in the troupe were very highly trained. They never made mistakes. They knew each other well, so no one ever did anything unless we all knew that they were going to do it. There were few surprises, and they liked it that way.

They were also slightly delusional.

When new people would try to fit in, they were routinely made to feel as though they were screwing up a well-oiled machine. When someone went out on a limb, the seasoned players would saw the limb off and let it and the improviser crash to the ground.

During rehearsals and shows, the great improvisers would text each other to make snarky comments about the newbies. Or they’d roll their eyes and look knowingly at one another, as if to say, “That person isn’t us.”

Then, management changed. Suddenly, the entire culture of conformity was thrown out. We began to relish the unexpected. We made gold out of what once would have been considered garbage. We eradicated the one thing that should never have been part of the troupe in the first place: Fear of failure.

The result was breathtaking (though it proved disconcerting for those who had been sitting in judgement over their peers the entire time). Eventually, the great improvisers went elsewhere, leaving the stage to the inferiors. And the place came alive.

Even audience members could see the difference. One came up to me after a show and said, “I used to come to your shows all the time and they were good. I went back to Chicago for awhile, but now I’m back here again. I notice a change. The stars are gone. Your troupe is more like an ensemble now. I can sense the love and support you all feel for one another. I don’t know what happened here, but keep it up. This is wonderful!”

I had never met that person before. But I relayed his message to the troupe. Thanks to him, we continue to fail brilliantly, knowing that someone gets it. When we break it, we own it. Proudly.


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