Have You Had Some Failure Today?

I wrote this on my way home from a lovely week in Michigan, where I offered a series of lectures on Improvising with God at the Bay View Association, a Chautauqua institution with roots in the Methodist Church. I presented each morning, then the kids and I enjoyed afternoons of swimming, canoeing, sightseeing, and lots of ice cream.

And sunsets:

Whenever I speak to groups about approaching life as an improvisation, I try to make one thing clear: this work isn’t easy for me. I am notorious among friends and family for being uber-organized—for putting together a plan and implementing it within an inch of its life. So I’m learning and writing about this topic, not because it’s a natural fit for me, but because it’s not. I’ve joked that the book should probably be called “Improv for Control Freaks.”  I do this work because the universe doesn’t bend to our best-laid plans, and in those situations, improv can be a life-giving alternative to stomping our feet and buckling down harder. I’ve grown to love improv, and it’s helping me release my death-grip on the reins of my life and enjoy the ride. (Slowly. Sloooooowly.)

Case in point: improv helps us get comfortable with failure.  Many of us give lip service to the importance of making mistakes, of striving and falling short and learning from those experiences. For years I had a bookmark that said, “Show me a person who never makes a mistake and I’ll show you a person who never makes anything.” It’s a sentiment I wanted to believe. But I really didn’t. Failure was to be avoided. It was uncomfortable. It was unpleasant.

But failure is also essential in learning to improvise well. Perfectionism kills good improv onstage because it causes us to overthink, self-censor, and judge our efforts. And perfectionism can be a soul-killer in life because we remain captive to fear, convention and safety.

A friend recently sent me this video, an interview with Sara Blakely, the founder of Spanx, a highly successful women’s lingerie company. In the video the CEO describes a family ritual as a child in which each person would be asked to share a story of failure. At their dinner table, failures were named and celebrated. How amazing! And these lessons helped shape her values as an entrepreneur.

Click here for the video–about 90 seconds long. 

Since seeing this video, we’ve done this ritual a couple of times as a family. It’s been powerful (and strangely fun) to name our failures and acknowledge them as a vital part of a creative, meaningful life. It’s also important for kids to hear that adults stumble too. My kids have even volunteered stories of failure recently.

I hope it doesn’t take them 44 years to realize that making mistakes and “living messy” can be its own reward–and can also open up a new world of growth.

Peace, Joy and Yes,


P.S. I love little libraries! I ran past this one several times while in Michigan. They bring me joy.

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5 thoughts on “Have You Had Some Failure Today?

  1. Ted Chadeayne

    The dinner-table ritual of sharing a story of failure sounds a bit like your idea of a daily Five-Minute Journal, where you list “one thing I could have done better” in the evening. But you’ve said the journal is for personal reflection only, to let go of those moments we’ve fallen short. How do you decide between the two? When do we take the times we’ve messed up big-time and set them aside, and when do we celebrate them with others before moving on to another day?

  2. virginiahollis

    I failed Church History when I was in seminary. first time I ever failed anything. I was devastated. took class over at a different seminary and aced it. loved it and continued on to complete my M. Div. degree. Learned more from this failure than I could have imagined. felt wonderful to succeed after the failure. Learned there are many options out there and to try again another way. It worked!

  3. Paul Ziemke Carlson

    I really love the story about sharing failures, especially within the family context. That’s something I couldn’t do when I was younger because it was shameful. To celebrate it would have been liberating and life-changing. It feels like something to practice now! It also reminds me of a religious academic who told of growing up in his Jewish home, where at the end of the day the issue was not, “What did you learn?” but, “What questions did you ask today?” These two stories seem to belong together.

    1. MaryAnn McKibben Dana Post author

      Hi Paul, I love that! I’ve heard that attributed to Elie Wiesel, that his mother asked him “did you have a good question today?”

      I hear you on having failure affirmed. So contrary to what a lot of us grew up with.


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