I HAD a fascinating encounter recently with an aspiring businessman. He was explaining the strategies he employed to get a project off the ground. There were the usual 10 things to do, successful models to copy, a list of potential buyers and marketing ploys.
But then he said something that shocked me. ‘‘I’m also doing live stage work, performing in local bars and clubs a couple of nights a month.’’
What did that have to do with starting this project, I asked, thinking we’d changed conversations. ‘‘It allows me to practise working in front of people who are critical, and it enables me to fail.’’
I was still confused, since he’s not an entertainer. But the point he was making was that getting up in front of an anonymous audience, doing something he enjoyed but that wasn’t crucial to any need for success, allowed him to learn the art of failure. It enabled him to feel frightened, perform, bomb, feel humiliated, and to come back again and try something different next time.
‘‘I’m not a bad musician. I write my own songs. I often throw in jokes. Sometimes I get a bad response, some- times they like me. But the more I practice the less nervous I am, and the more comfortable I feel with the outcome. Everyone who’s ever succeeded has failed.’’
I recently read that schools are taking up an education initiative that echoes the same sentiment. The report described KidsMatter as a radical shift from three decades of enhancing student self-esteem through positive reinforcement and rewards’. In what sounds like the proverbial school of hard knocks, students will now get lessons in dealing with failure and learn how to cope with real-life difficulties using sound decision-making and self-management techniques.
Prominent adolescent psychologist Michael Carr- Gregg believes the self-esteem movement in education — reflected in the present school system where kids are protected from failure and rewarded for coming 23rd just to keep them feeling good — leads to anxiety when kids leave the cocoon. ‘‘The idea of not actually allowing kids to be inspired by misfortune . . . from time to time is almost cruel,’’ he’s been quoted as saying.
In her talks, author JK Rowling praises the benefits of failure. I was profiled in a book called Failure is an Option: How Setbacks Breed Success by Terry Robson, in which various people discussed how failure inspires us to create and achieve.
And then there’s my new business contact, standing on stage and getting pelted with tomatoes. As a keynote speaker myself who’s had her fair share of tomatoes, I can only vouch for the fact that after bombing live on stage, the rest of life is easy. But hey, I’m still standing.