Go Ahead, Screw Up. It's Good for You!

Lately I'd been thinking a lot about that, not because I'd been having fun screwing up my life but because I'd been seeing people stagnate from avoiding mistakes.

Then I got a wonderful holiday gift from my On Your Feet friends, Gary, Julie, and Brad. These are very cool people who are in the improv-in-business trade out in Portland, Ore. Well, here's this little box and I'm thinking maybe there's a ring inside, which would be a little unexpected. Wrapped around the box are examples of inventions that came about by accident, things like Band-Aids, French fries, Velcro, and, for heaven's sake, tea.

Inside the box was an eraser imprinted with "MAKE MISTAKES."

These are people after my own heart. I don't know precisely what's been going on in their world over the past year, but I've been noticing that people seem most likely not to succeed when they're worrying most about not failing rather than succeeding. That's what sportscasters mean when they say a team is "playing not to lose" rather than "playing to win."

Of course I prefer "playing to play." While reading term papers from my most recent Applied Improv course at UNC's business school, I noticed that many of the students wrote about trying to figure out how to win the silly games we sometimes play in class. There was no prize for winning and my goal in playing them was simply to loosen up and have fun. Yet most participants were trying to win rather than merely to play and have a good time.

Hey, I like to win too. Our society certainly puts a lot of emphasis on it. But it seems we adults lose the ability to play and replace it with competition. This not only replaces a process-oriented activity, playing, with the result-oriented competing, it also puts pressure on the player and turns him/her into a contestant. Don't mess up; you might lose! In playing there's no score and when you goof up, you just start over or play some more. The game changes.

One of the things you have to do to get better at a thing is to do it a lot. And in doing it a lot you must do it wrong and learn from your mistakes. That we learn from our mistakes more than we do from our successes is a timeworn truism. Everyone's got a good war story about learning how to do something, whether it's dating, parallel parking, or public speaking. Chances are we learned from those mistakes and didn't repeat them. If we hadn't made the mistakes we would not have learned so well.

But what about achieving the sublime through making a mistake? History is littered with examples of artists and inventors winding up in a place better than the one where they'd planned to go. Good improvisers know this and welcome the "divine error" that will take them far beyond their best intentions.

In improv you must go beyond the known—beyond security and the ego—in order to excel. I'm not sure in what that's not true. So when I'm directing I encourage players to abandon what they know, their bag of tricks, and explore the unknown. The results can be stunning although the process is often disorienting for the player.

When I'm directing actors or coaching presenters, I encourage them to go too far, to overact. Remember, what's clear on the inside isn't always clear on the outside. Often I'll hear the response, "But that's not realistic." Well, I'm not enough of a philosopher to debate what is or isn't real, but I will say that what seems unrealistic from the interior may well look real and even amazing to the observer.

Moreover, I feel one must master exaggeration before one can master subtlety. I'm not sure precisely why that is but experience suggests it is so. The actor, the presenter, the communicator must be aware and in control of all the tools required to convey an idea or a feeling.

And how will you know how effective and dynamic a communicator you can be unless you take it to the extreme? Maybe you're better than you think you are. Maybe by going too far you will find a depth and complexity to your message that remains even when you've 'reeled it back in,' a power you would have never found had you not gone too far.

Of course, that's not even considering some of the other benefits of making "mistakes." My guitarist friend Danny Gotham says that if you play a 'clam' (that's a bad note for you non-hipsters), bring it back and people will think you meant it.

Now I don't mean to suggest that if you say work "ethnic" instead of work "ethic" that you should persist, but rather that the true measure of a person is not whether or not s/he makes mistakes but how s/he handles them. If you're reading this, you are probably alive and have made mistakes and therefore mistakes don't kill you either. Not all of 'em at least.

All of this is related to risk-taking. Some investment firm that wants your money stated, "The only risk is not taking one." I'm not saying you should give them your money but it's hard to argue that point. All I ask is that people take a moment to assess what's truly at stake before they rule out risking a mistake. If the worst that can happen is a little discomfort, is that all so bad?

And what might be gained?!

-Greg Hohn, Director