Today’s guest blog is from Cambridge improviser and philosopher, Mark Whitehouse.
CB2 Basement – the empty stage
The CB2 stage is small and, when the lights are on, there is literally nowhere to hide. Even when you’re not in a scene, you’re still lining the walls, waiting for something to happen. And sometimes you see it. That little look that tells you your teammates are struggling. All you can do now is jump. Jump, head first, into the scene and see if you can help. And I really do mean “see”. You can get from the edge of the stage to front and centre and realise you’ve got nothing. You’re a lame duck, waiting for fate or inspiration to guide you.
Sometimes just being there inspires your teammates out of their rut. They think of something new and the scene moves on. In this case, you saved the scene just by being happy to be the one who needed saving.
This is improv’s introduction to failure. It’s that exquisite moment of vulnerability when you give without knowing what it is you’ve got to give. And, in this scene, it has a happy ending. The crowd laughs, your teammates smile and failing to find the words is okay. Better than okay, it’s the perfect fit. Your very failure is part of the creation.
Class show: all in it together
The Question of Failure
It’s this type of heightened moment that leads us to question what we think about failure. Perhaps it’s not a reason for self-flagellation. Perhaps it shouldn’t be avoided – organised out of existence. Maybe there are other ways to see it.
Of course, there are many ways to see failure, and we often apply several at once. They all, however, have a common theme. They see failure as an exception, something that we live our lives in spite of and ultimately try to overcome. These reactions range from straight denial to treating it as an unfortunate blockade. We try to counter it by focusing on the fact we “tried our best” or “showed courage”. It is the virtues shown in the face of failure that have value, not the failure itself.
Likewise, when we do value failure, it is only in relation to future success. We “double down” on our efforts and try to learn from the experience to become bigger successes. Getting dropped from the college football team is only of value, then, if you learn from it and succeed somewhere else; be it in the NFL or back at your studies.
Though this is a noble ambition, it is also flawed. If you only seek to value failure in terms of future success, you will always be striving to get to a world without it. It is the fallacy of the future perfect and it rears its head in our dreams of perfect little happy endings.
Well, I hope to argue for something more: to show failure has innate value – that it lives beyond its relation to success. I hope even to show that our attitudes to failure (guilt, shame or a redoubling of effort) are a false morality. One that means we look for value in ever greater control.
The definition of Failure
But, to talk in detail about this, I need to hone in further. Between the twin pillars of the trivial and the life threatening, there lies an ocean of failures in our daily lives. These are what I call Social Failures, and it’s here that I’ll focus.
Social failures are found in any action we learn to see as a failure, learn to feel shame about or try to avoid. A classic example would be saying something stupid in public, though there are many in everyday life. Sometimes small, sometimes life altering, these are all issues of control.
The desire for control
When we dream big we tend to inadvertently dream of control. Winning the lottery gives us financial control. The wish to be charismatic or beautiful or funny plays on our need to control how others see us. Even the wish to live somewhere sunny is a proxy form of control. Though we can’t directly influence the weather we hope it could always be what we want.
Control, though, is a desire that’s very hard to satisfy. We already live in a time where we control almost every need at a basic level, yet yearn for more. We are no longer anyone’s prey. There is no hunger or thirst. We have light, information and entertainment at our touch. Yet we still wish to become millionaires, or bed models, or create some great legacy. This is not control at a normal level; it is control freakery and seems to come as a displacement of other needs.
An improv scene set in hell
Control and Loss
So why do we value control so much? Well, control, in its more realistic form, is a good way of ensuring our needs are met. Everyone strives for some element of control in their lives – even if it is just to know where the next meal is coming from.
But, in normal life, control is always balanced with vulnerability. Where we become obsessive about control is where we feel least able to handle vulnerability.
In its most extreme cases, we see this in our response to loss. Whether it is a parent or loved one, our reaction to the pain can become a wish to insulate ourselves from ever being placed there again. This is when we tie ourselves in the tightest knots. It’s when we build barriers between ourselves and the world, or try to puppet master the people we care about.
The key to control, then, is that it is self-interested. It is based on the primacy we feel for our own thoughts and emotions. If we are to truly control our world then we must give up our need for others.The search for invulnerability leaves us alone, at the centre of our own little universe.
Failure, vulnerability and connection
If we are not to be alone, then, we must find room for vulnerability. In vulnerability, we find the affirmation of our need of others. We find the very glue of our connection. From that connection, we can flourish greatly. All our greatest social bonds, be it friendship, love or trust, come from our need for each other.
Failure has value, then, outside of its link to success. It is the soil from which many valuable things grow. To seek to push it from our lives or see it as an aberration is delusional. We would lose far more than we thought.
But, even as I talk about failure’s value in its purest platonic sense, I know that we will still struggle with it. After all, just because failure generally has value doesn’t mean we shouldn’t avoid it in a specific instance. I can happily accept failure in my life and yet still wish to live with just the bare minimum needed. After all, why drown in it?
These are all questions of the motivation to avoid failure.
Let me be clear, the wish to avoid failure is not something that we would hope to eradicate from our decision making. I am not trying to create “fearless” people. After all, we are often rewarded with safety if we take the more secure route. Yet, failure is still given too much weight in our decision making. We do not attempt risky things that could be of great value to us just because there is a chance of failure. We consistently overstate a risk because it is happening to us. It is our world and our hurt if it goes wrong.
We are again judging the world solely through our own eyes. Were this happening to someone else, we would be unencumbered by our overprotective nature. We could better weigh the value with the risk and come up with a choice. It’s all about our expectations and the stories we tell ourselves and, in this respect, improv can help us immensely.
Improvising a story together
Improv vs. pre-planned stories
What separates improv from normal storytelling is that it doesn’t follow a simple narrative. This is not to say that it doesn’t still tell stories, it just doesn’t do it in the same way as a book or play would. In a normal story, details are introduced early so that they can have influence later in the tale. It sets up character arc and plot and means all extraneous detail can be removed.
This works well for storytelling as it allows us to remove the clutter and talk specifically about one detail or theme. It is also deceptive, though, as it doesn’t reflect the true flow and complexity of life. Improv reflects life far better, in this respect, because no event has significance until it is followed by another. At any point, the flow of a scene could change and the elements that appeared significant at the beginning become irrelevant. At each new offer, we change completely any preconceived ideas we had of how the story should have gone.
So how does this affect us? Well, we tell stories all the time to help understand the world. In fact, both success and failure are products of the stories that we tell ourselves.
To plan anything is to have thought of a story of how something could go. When we then actually have to act on these plans, success and failure are just how the events compare to what we expected. If I board a plane with the strong belief it will crash into the sea, then a rough ride with a safe landing is a huge success for me. Yet, if I had thought the flight would be perfectly smooth, the same flight could be a dogged failure because of a little turbulence.
Make no mistake, these stories are an important element of our experience as people. They help us tell ourselves who we are and frame the world in ways we can understand. We find our very identity there. They are, however, completely dependent on how we choose to see the world.
Adaptability and judgement
In improv, we are asked to suspend our storytelling. In fact, it is present in one of the fundamental tenants of the form – do not judge your offers. If you are to be truly present and build on a scene, there is no room for judgement of what you’re given. You don’t have the time to fight between what’s offered and what you expected. Your story just adapts.
Even where we do judge elements of a scene (through terms such as “blocking”), they are used to deal with our own actions, not the offers of others. You may think your partner is blocking you but the scene doesn’t just stop. Even in their discomfort, they are still giving you something. And the reaction is the same: “Yes, and…”
Improv teaches us to hold our stories lightly. We adjust quickly to the changing of events precisely because we are not stuck in our own heads. Just by knowing that we must be present, we go past our own preconceptions and see the moment as alive and vivid as any other.
It is a skill that is learnt and allows us to approach our lives from a different perspective. It does not ask you to be completely present all the time, nor does it wish to eradicate failure. It just shows you that what you are receiving is the same gift, whether you perceive it that way or not.
It is important to our identity, and the story of who we are, that we do interpret our world. Seeing something as a success or failure can, and does, have real value. But, if we are unaware that we are making a choice how to interpret our world, or feel bound by what we’ve learnt to see it as, we are walking blind through our actions.
Hopefully, then, I have been able to show the origin and value of failure. It’s origin, like success, comes from the way we see our lives. It comes from the comparison of what is really happening to what we had expected. This, like anything, is a choice. It is important that we form these beliefs but it is also important that we know that it is a choice. If we accept the unpredictability of our lives and choose to be adaptive, we need not hide from failure, nor deny its worth.
Because failure does have worth. What makes it unbearable to so many – the vulnerability, the need denied – also proves its value. We are so connected precisely because we need each other, and can fail so poorly on our own.
With this under our belt, we can re-assess our choices. We can feel vulnerable and hurt and know that it is okay. We are not diminished by feeling this. Likewise, we know that we can follow the path of the things that have real value, even if we might not succeed. With enough presence, we can build without needing to know what we’re building, or whether it’s going to be good or right. Let us build and fail on the right intention, rather than succeed in the deluded search for control.
It may not be the answer we were hoping for, but it does give us the vision to see what we had previously ignored: the true value of failure.
Team mates ready to improvise
If these ideas have been of interest to you, and you’d like to go a little deeper, I can recommend these links below. They provided much of the ideas that I have patchworked here, as well as much more.
A short video on control and loss in Wes Anderson’s movies
Brené Brown on vulnerability
And her follow up on shame
David Foster Wallace’s commencement speech about the choice of how we see the World.