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At about the age of eight, I developed an insidious trait – perfectionism. On the surface it sounds good. And it’s self-fulfilling – perfectionists tend to be pretty good at a lot of stuff, in my experience.
It probably had something to do with some mean school yard kids. To protect myself, I found a source of constant approval where no one could tease you – getting everything right. And I found another trick – avoid the things you get wrong. Then they can never say anything bad about you. Ever.
This carried me all throughout school, where my perfectionism was rewarded again and again, ultimately with a very high score (that, meanwhile, was well beyond the score I needed for the course I wanted to get into, but never mind). It continued into adulthood; at work, performance reviews were rarely negative. In retrospect, perhaps my managers sensed the need to limit negative feedback with me. Nonetheless, the feedback loop favouring perfectionism continued and I built my self-esteem and self-worth on ongoing and unblemished success. I loved hearing about athletes who had never lost a race, actors who only chose good movies. This was the sign of a great human. People who were always getting it right. These were the people to be.
I remember the first time I felt I had failed on stage at improv. It was devastating. A room full of people were laughing at me, not with me. Afterwards I felt like everyone thought I was terrible, and I played it over in my mind for days, thinking I was an awful person.
But it began to open my mind to something. I had tried something I hadn’t done before. It hadn’t worked, but why did this make me an awful person?
And this turned into something more. How the hell am I going to get better at this if I don’t try things I’ve never done before? Things without guaranteed success? Things that are hard and risky?
Maybe the people who seemed to be ‘always getting things right’, really weren’t.
It is literally impossible to be perfect at improv. Someone will mishear you and your perfect initiation is lost for all time. You’ll stumble over your words, or you’ll misunderstand your scene partner. Someone else will decide they want in on the scene and change everything up.
So give up trying to be perfect and take a risk
And in fact, taking a risk is the path to success, not being perfect. The fear I’ve had of doing an accent, or playing a weird character that I feel I can’t do ‘right’ – fear no more! The number of times I’ve walked away from a show saying ‘I had this idea…’ and someone says ‘what a great idea! You should have done it’ or someone else went on stage with an idea I had discarded. Not taking a risk is missing an opportunity.
The thing about risks, though, is failure. Which is a big no-no for people like me. So I’ve had to redefine success a bit.
On Sunday night I performed in The Remix. I had some scenes I was really happy with, I got some laughs, I tagged in and took a scene somewhere else. I had fun. I also did some stuff that didn’t get so many laughs, or that I didn’t pull off.
But walking away, it made me realise that I was actually doing a good job. Because if I wasn’t failing a bit every now and then, it meant I wasn’t actually taking risks. The definition of a risk is that there is a chance of failure, and the theory of probability will be pretty annoyed if the occasional failure doesn’t come through to prove that definition.
In fact, my failures were proof of my risk-taking, which is the only way I’m going to get better, build confidence and ultimately succeed. So give yourself a big tick for your failures. They mean you’re doing it right.
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