The Art of Failure

I just got off from several days of working with the OPENAIR Circus, a volunteer-run non-profit that annually teaches circus and leadership skills to 200 children. Six weeks of classes and rehearsals culminate in a jam-packed weekend of performances.

There’s a lot I love about the circus, but one thing I was reflecting on the last few days was how great it is to watch kids fail.

Wait, let me rephrase that.

Circus skills, like many things, are a delicate balance of science and art. There’s the science of how to do the skill and the art of how to do it well.

You start with the basics. You juggle with just one ball. Then with two. Then three. Then more. You try harder variations as you improve. (For the record, my juggling skills are stagnate at 3 balls, 3 throws).

Then you start trying tricks. Playing around. Experimenting with new things. Seeing what works.

And when you do this, you mess up. Many, many, many times.

Watching someone practice a circus skill is a lesson in patience. They drop the ball. The hoop goes flying. They fall over. Then they try again.

And it’s not just the students who make mistakes. The teachers do, too.

And there’s something good about dropping a ball on stage.

Because, again like many things, several circus skills look effortless when done well. But when you make a mistake, just for a moment, the audience is in on the secret. They suddenly appreciate that the trick they’re watching is really, really hard.

When a show(person) makes a mistake on stage, they gesture grandly as if to say, “that’s how it goes sometimes,” then they try again.

And often they try a third time.

But when they nail that trick the crowd goes wild.

I’ll skip the cliche of saying that the best part is watching a student master a trick after hours of unsuccessful attempts, because I don’t think that is the best part.

Indeed – the best part is when a student finally masters a skill, enjoys a brief celebration, then excitedly asks themselves, “What can I try next?”


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