Learn from the Drops. Mistakes are stepping stones to success.

None of us want to make mistakes.  Many of us are actually terrified of making mistakes.

Often, this fear prevents us from taking the risk that could ultimately lead to an amazing achievement or experience. What if we mess up? What if it doesn’t work? What if we say something stupid? What will people think?!

What would you attempt to do if you knew you could not fail?

And what’s the cost of not taking that risk…not trying…what opportunity are you giving up?

I believe that intellectually, we all know that we can learn from mistakes, that failures or set backs are stepping stones to success, but that still doesn’t make them feel good and we still instinctively want to avoid or hide them.

In the spirit of celebrating the “drops”, I decided to share two stories from my performing career that help to illustrate different ways to handle mistakes.

Story #1: “The Case of the Unfortunate Bouncing Ball”

Several years ago, I was performing with NYC’s longest running Off-Broadway magic show, Monday Night Magic, at the Bleecker Street Theater in lower Manhattan.  The space had a cozy, intimate feel – a low platform stage protruded into the audience, with stadium-style seating rising up on all three sides of the stage. On this particular night, I was performing a 3 ball juggling act that showcased some very intricate juggling patterns combined with movement.  The juggling balls I used were made of silicone, which provided an amazing bounce. Yup, silicone balls (insert joke here).

Now, this bouncing quality allowed me to create some really interesting combinations – letting a ball bounce under the leg or around the body, adding in a spin. BUT, it also meant that if anything went wrong, the balls could bounce away VERY quickly.

So, I was in the middle of my act, all was going well, and then it happened – a throw was off just enough that two of the juggling balls collided, creating a massive explosion of bouncing energy, objects shooting towards opposite sides of the stage. I grabbed one of the balls, but the other escaped my grip and began to bounce quickly and chaotically towards the edge of the stage. Instinct kicked in and I lunged after the bouncing ball.  In an instant, the ball had bounced completely OFF stage and into the audience. And before I knew it, I was off-stage with it, frantically grabbing at it as it kept bouncing further away, just out of reach of my fingertips and dangerously close to audience members’ legs.

After what seemed like an eternity (and was probably only a few seconds) I got a hold of it, returned to the stage, acted like it never happened, and finished my act, smiling to the applause and cringing on the inside.

I will never forget the way I felt after that performance.

AWFUL.  Defeated. I LEFT the stage!  I’d dropped before, but this felt BAD.

In my rushed, frantic attempt to cover up my mistake (if the audience saw, they would SURELY all be talking about what a terrible juggler I was, certainly undeserving of performing!), I gave up a commanding stage presence and missed an opportunity to connect.

Did I really think the audience wouldn’t notice that I had just charged at them to retrieve the bouncing ball?

Story #2: “Close Call with a Tower of Glasses”

Not too long after this experience, I was performing in a variety show at an upscale NYC supper club. This time I was presenting a dynamic balancing act that involved boxes and a large red ball, with an excellent capacity for rolling.

My performance parameters were less than ideal. The stage was a raised platform circular stage, no more than 4 ft in diameter.  To my left was an upright piano and accompanist. In front of me and to my right was a sea of tables full of dining guests, wine glasses, water glasses, and glittering glass candle holders. And all around my feet were gorgeous tulip shaped frosted GLASS footlights.

The room was dimly lit with candlelight and ONE spotlight, positioned perfectly to shine directly in my eyes. I did my best, given the circumstances, but about 2/3 of the way through my act, I dropped the red ball, and it began to roll away. This time I didn’t chase it.

With wide eyes, I watched it roll between the tulips, off the stage, under a few tables around the legs of the diners, and right over to where a waiter had just come from the kitchen on his way to the bar, carrying a large tray above his shoulder with a huge tower of glasses.  I felt everyone around us hold their breath as he gracefully stepped over the rolling red ball, and the glasses clinked, but the tower remained intact!

Everyone breathed a sigh of relief.  I smiled sheepishly and said something like “Whoops, did I do that? Could someone please grab that for me?”  The audience laughed, and I stood firmly on stage with arm extended until another waiter picked it up and returned it to me.

I finished my act and it felt amazing!  (Full disclosure – I was not asked back to perform at this venue…haha!) But it didn’t matter. The experience reinforced the lesson that good performers learn and understand on a deep level…a lesson that has gotten me way further than that nightclub ever would.

Relate to your audience.  Be real.  Your audience wants to feel a genuine connection to you.  They want to see you succeed and are put at ease only when you look comfortable and confident.  (How do you feel watching a visibly nervous or uncomfortable performer?)  A smile can work wonders!  And when you make a mistake, it’s a little proof that you are human and if acknowledged, can be a secret, honest moment shared with your audience.

These two performances contained VERY similar mistakes, but two completely different reactions and feelings of failure vs. success. The second time, I didn’t rush to hide something.  I didn’t leave the stage and give up that power. The MISTAKE became an OPPORTUNITY for a moment of connection and humor with my audience.  

Reflect on how you handle drops. Do you try to cover them up? We all know this never really works. Are you afraid to try because you’re so worried about dropping?  You might be missing out.

Although your brain may get this, you will only truly internalize it through experience. Take the risk to perform or create and you will learn how to do it more effectively as you drop. 

The next time you drop, I challenge you to do the following:

  1. Acknowledge it.
  2. Pick up the ball.
  3. Learn from it. Find the humor or good. 
  4. Try again. Continue on your way to greatness with confidence and poise!