overcoming failure

Why I Want You To Fail

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Career, Personal 6 Comments

cellist“Failure” is one of the dirtiest words in the dictionary.

In a culture where the notion of “being successful” is forced upon us from an early age, failure is hardly an option. Winners never fail, and who doesn’t want to be a winner?

Helicopter parents pressure their offspring to always be the best, and go for the A plus and extra credits. Their over-scheduled kids are expected to be brilliant at whatever it is they do, from horseback riding to playing the violin, to selling the most girl scout cookies ever.

If children don’t come home with a trophy, a badge, or high honors, what’s the point? What will you put on Facebook? “Sarah did okay in math?” “Brian got a B minus in biology?” “Sandy can’t keep up with the rest of her class?”

Heaven forbid! How would that reflect on you as a parent?

Out of this thinking comes the idea that we have to make it easy for our kids to succeed. We want to build them up, and make them feel good about themselves. How do we do that? By giving them high praise for mediocre accomplishments.

“She took two bites of oatmeal today, isn’t that amazing?”

“He brushed his teeth all by himself. I am so proud of him!”

“The soccer coach gave him a prize, just for showing up every week.”

When you set the bar really low, it becomes almost impossible to fail, but what you’re really doing is reinforcing behavior that is below average. It might give some kids a false sense of confidence and entitlement, which could carry over into adulthood.  

LIFE LESSONS

When I was a teenager, my French professor always gave us easy tests. Even the slowest of students would do well, and on paper it looked like this teacher was a genius. But during our school trip to Paris, no one was able to put more than two words of French together, and we got hopelessly lost in the subway.

At that point we realized that this great teacher wasn’t so great after all. The biggest shock came later that year however, during final exams. Compared to most other students in the country, we did miserably, even though our grades had been fabulous.

A cellist I know had accepted a new, young student who was rather full of himself. When he got to meet the parents, he understood why. Mom and Dad thought that their Daniel was destined to be the next Yo-Yo Ma or Mstislav Rostropovich. “Well, we’ll see about that,” said the cellist. Let’s begin our first lesson, and afterward I’ll tell you what I think.”

It turned out that the kid wasn’t very good, even though he played an expensive instrument. “It’s not the instrument. It’s how you play it,” said the cellist to the parents, but they wouldn’t listen, and neither would their son.

So, what did his new teacher do? He signed Daniel up for a regional competition. Even though the boy had several months to prepare, he thought he could wing it. His parents (who knew very little about music) were convinced he was doing really well. Filled with great expectations they took him to the competition.

BEING TESTED

You probably know what’s coming. Compared to other students, Daniel didn’t impress the judges that much, and he got low marks. When his parents found out, they were furious.

“You set our Daniel up for failure,” they said. “The boy is in tears. What kind of teacher are you?”

“Let me tell you something,” said the cellist. “Your son might think he failed. In my opinion he just didn’t get the result you were expecting, which, given his skills and attitude, was rather unrealistic to begin with. This is not an easy instrument to master. So far, you have been comparing your son to himself. This competition was an opportunity to compare him to other kids in his age group.”

He went on: “Parents and other family members are supposed to be supportive. There’s nothing wrong with that. But the people who are closest to us, aren’t necessarily the most knowledgeable or experienced. Most of them don’t know what they’re listening and looking for. So, if you want honest feedback, you need two things. Number one: make sure the test is tough enough. Number two: the evaluators have to be experts.”

THE RELEVANCE

Now, if you’re new to voice-overs and you’re reading this blog, you might be wondering why I am talking about learning French or a musical instrument. You’re trying to break into the business thinking you stand a good chance of making it. People have told you that you have a great voice, and why wouldn’t McDonalds hire you to sell fries? You’re auditioning left and right, but so far there’ve been no takers. What does that tell you?

First of all, if making money as a voice-over would be easy, anybody would do it, and the rates would be even lower. Something that comes easy, isn’t worth much. Secondly, do you even know if you’re good at this? Let me rephrase that: Is what you have to offer ultra competitive in a market that is pretty much saturated? How do you know? Are you able to recognize your limitations?

HEARING MYSELF

A few days ago I listened to some of the auditions I recorded in 2010. At that time I honestly thought I sounded pretty great, and I didn’t understand why clients wouldn’t hire me. Knowing what I know now, there is no way I would have hired myself back then.

After a year of trying, I was ready to call my efforts to become a VO Pro an epic fail. Yet, as you know, one of the reasons I write this blog is because I’m still in business. How did that happen?

It turned out that this year of trying was a big test. It tested my preparedness, my resolve, my talent, my nerves, and my ability to learn and grow from feedback. I needed at least a year of “failure” to work on my weaknesses, as well as on my strengths.

I also learned to reframe that word “failure.” I started looking at my situation in terms of results. Just because I wasn’t getting the results I had hoped for, didn’t mean I had failed, or that I was a failure. I began to ask myself questions like:

– What results did I get?

– What part of it was something I could  influence, and what part was beyond my control? 

– What did I learn from it that was positive and practical?

– What would I need to do to improve?

– Who could help me make those improvements? 

– How was this process helping me become the professional I want to be?

And finally, just as it can take many years to learn a foreign language or master an instrument, I knew that it would take me a while to get good at doing voice-overs, and running a freelance business. Every “failure” could bring me one step closer to success, as long as I used it as a chance to learn something new.

If you happen to be in the middle of that process, and things aren’t going so well, please remember what one of my teachers once told me:

“No matter where you are in life, never stop learning.

Quite often, the best students get the hardest test!”

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

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