Intentional Public Failure

(I wrote this post at the beginning of January and somehow never hit publish until now. Whoops!)

This past Sunday I went to a meetup of musicians who get together twice a month and sight-read classical music together. They meet in a café–where there are already people–and play music they’ve never seen before. Once I got there I realized that literally everyone else there had gone to college for music, and many of them made their livings as musicians. I was way out of my league. So, stepping outside my comfort zone, I picked a duet, and I and another clarinetist played it. We had to stop I think 5 times, and there was a brief passage we just had to skip because I couldn’t play it.

When we were done, everyone there clapped, quite sincerely. I didn’t look or really listen; I did not want to let the applause “in”. I did not want to own it, because I’d failed to perform the way I want to be seen performing. “How well,” I asked myself, “would you have to have played it before you’d let the applause in?” I started naming conditions, and interrupted–“And do you get that if you were so good that you could come in here and sight-read all this music perfectly, that the applause would be meaningless?”

Where the F*@& did this thought come from?!


When I was young, like 5 or so, my family went to a nearby amusement park, and my mom took me to go on the bumper cars. (I may not be remembering this quite right but bear with me.) There was a stuffed animal I wanted, so I asked how to win at bumper cars. (Perfectionism starts so early…) So the guy running the ride said I just had to get my car all the way around the outside of the lot. That’ll be easy! I could see how fast the bumper cars moved, and how long drivers got to go at it, and it was obvious I’d have no trouble.

Then I got in the car and realized that nobody else was playing the same game as me. It seemed like none of them were playing any game at all! It was like they were driving their cars into each other… on purpose!

I made it maybe 3/4 of the way around the lot before the ride ended. I was so upset. So sad to have failed.

My mom got me the stuffed animal anyway. It was my favorite stuffed animal until my grandma sewed me an Eeyore twenty-something years later. There’s a lesson in there about grace, too.

The experience of failing publicly and having it be OK was instructional. It’s been 3 days and it’s still framing almost every conversation I have. It’s as if struggle were the water I’m swimming in, so failure is always a possibility, so a different context about failure becomes noticeable everywhere… but this time, for the first time, failure was expected. It was like taking an exam where any score over 30% was an A. It was like cheating, only if cheating were allowed. It felt great.

Where else can this empower me?

Leave a Reply