Failure, Schmailure

I was teaching a class recently and sharing with them one of my many observations. It’s a slightly ridiculous thing to witness that always gets a laugh but invariably, almost all of the students in the room acknowledge that it is a reality.

I call it my theory on “The psychology of the left side.” I tell them that first, I’ll demonstrate the psychology of the right side. This involves me running across the room leaning to the right celebrating and shouting to the heavens how amazing I am and that I can do anything. They all look at me like I’m a nut case. I stop and say, “Now here is the psychology of the left side.” I lean even further to my right, screw up my face in fear and oh so cautiously move to my left whining and crying about how much I hate the left side and why do they make me do this etc. This is where the laugh comes in. Some of it is about seeing this grown man cry like a child who doesn’t want to get on the bus for the first day of school, but it’s also a laugh of acknowledgement. They are recognizing, in that moment, that this voice exists in their heads. They may not have recognized it until I pointed it out, but it’s there.

The irony is that by holding back, by not applying the same aggressive approach to the left side that they allow on the right, they are perpetuating their own weakness. They are ensuring that their left side will never attain the level of strength and coordination as the right. So obviously, I encourage them to go after it. To attack the left side 10 times harder than they do the right.

“But what if we fail?” one student asked. That’s not a typo. She said f-a-i-l. I couldn’t have paid someone to cue me better.

“You can’t fail.” I replied, without missing a beat. “Failure doesn’t exist. There is only learning. The only time you fail is when you give up or don’t try at all.”

This idea, that if we don’t get it RIGHT (interesting choice of word isn’t it) the first time we have failed, is a cancer. We hear it in every aspect of society. To the point where we are actually perpetuating an acceptance of mediocrity, laziness and apathy. This goes beyond the dance studio. It’s in our schools, our communities and in some cases, even our homes. Children are taught that, if they’re not good at something immediately, they should try another activity. There is no desire or motivation to try again; to work harder and conquer the challenge. And yet, no one asks them what they learned from what didn’t work so that they can figure out what did and will work. This translates into people having 6 different jobs in a year because their first day didn’t go perfectly. It’s called “Trial and Error” for a reason and it’s up to us as teachers and parents to encourage the “trial” part; to revel in the “errors” so that they see that not succeeding immediately is a beautiful and necessary part of the human condition. It is where strength of character, growth, intelligence and true wisdom lies. It’s where they learn to anticipate problems and circumvent them rather than running into a roadblock and giving up.

I’m a big fan of Malcolm Gladwell. Obviously there are many factors at play here and scientists are happy to debate his claim; but in his book The Outliers, he states that it takes 10,000 hours of dedicated practice to become an expert at something. While it’s natural to gravitate towards activities and skills that we have a natural acuity for, very few of us are born with perfect technique and coordination on both sides. So what do we do? We practice the side that we are good at because it makes us feel good. We hone it and master it to the point where it’s nearly flawless. And our weak side? We practice just enough so that is passable and pray that the occasion never arises where we’d have to use it. Not very practical thinking of you ask me. Of course the situation will arise and if we can’t do it, we lose the job, or the game or whatever and find an excuse to help us sleep at night. But the passionate dancer, the hungry athlete, the obsessed musician know that it is their fault and they will spend twice as much time on that weakness so that they never lose out again.

It is by conquering the challenges of our WEAKNESSES that bring us a real sense of accomplishment and confidence and a deeper appreciation for what we had to do to get where we are.

Dance didn’t come naturally to me. I was born to play soccer. But learning to dance taught me how to face a challenge head on and conquer it. How to not rest until I had the answer. That obstacles were NOT insurmountable. They were only a delay of the inevitable future I had determined for myself. That experience has prepared me to face diversity and consequences head on in order to have the wonderful career I’ve had to date. None of us would be the people we are if not for the daily challenges this art form presented us. It’s why we are so resilient and can overcome poverty, injury, personal tragedy and many other of life’s challenges. So here is my suggestion, spend a month working only on the left side. Don’t add a catch step in so that turn or battement can be on the right. Let’s train our students to stand up, face challenges head on stop fearing what they aren’t good at YET. Remind them how many times they had to try before they mastered a particular skill to get it to the level it is now. The things that are easy today, were a challenge yesterday. We can never let our students forget that.


One thought on “Failure, Schmailure

  1. As a Young Dancer Hearing Sammy Davis say, “Don’t Call Yourself a Good Tap Dancer Until You Can Do The Step On Your Left As Well As You Do It On Your Right.!” LOL—I’m Still Trying Every Time I Put My Shoes On To Be A Good Tap Dancer. I Think of That Saying Every Time I Teach a Step On the Right and Then Say, Okay Students, Now Lets Reverse It On the Left.


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