The Gift of Failure

Dear Friends, Ladies & Gentlemen:

It is our pleasure this month to present a piece written just for you by our Dean, Eugene Burger:



Eugene BurgerFor the past several years, the task of writing an October Museletter has fallen upon me. I think this is partly because images of Halloween goblins are on the same wavelength as my continuing fascination with things spooky and mysterious. And so it has been with a certain delight that I have accepted the task of writing the October contribution. After all, I do love the Halloween season!

But this year my thoughts are moving in a different direction. I am not thinking so much about things mysterious. Instead, I have been reflecting on much more, shall we say, “practical” matters. These thoughts spring from my work as a teacher and also from my great interest in the teaching process itself.

A thought has been in my mind for some time now. It surfaces at some point almost every day and, when it does, I try to understand it once more. I find that my understanding changes and even grows at times. Here is the thought that has been echoing in my mind:

Sometimes the greatest gift of all is failure.

Among other things, I have been thinking about how much time is spent in the teacher-student relationship with the teacher helping the student deal with failure—and, more specifically, the fear of failure. The fear of failure can be crippling and even paralyzing, whereas failure itself can be an important way to learn and grow. It’s an important difference. Perhaps to see this, to see it clearly and deeply so that the very seeing is action, requires personal courage. For fear can be met only with courage.

Then, another voice in my head rises up and says, “Wait a minute, Eugene, nobody wants to fail! Including you! So, if failure is a gift, it is a pretty weird gift. In fact, if you don’t mind, it’s a gift that I would just as well refuse to accept! Thanks anyway!”

Yes, I hear that voice, which is also my voice. Yet when I look at this closely, I see that failure can be a gift—perhaps, the greatest gift of all. Here is what I mean: first, when I fail (in the performance of a magic effect, for example), I may be inspired to work harder, to go back and fix the problem, and to move on. Learning from failure might be called “learning by fire.” And it works.

Second, failure may bring me new insights, new ideas that had previously never entered my mind. Some of my most creative thoughts have been generated by having something go terribly wrong during a performance.

Third, failure can be the gift that tells us to stop, to give up on a particular performance piece, to remove it from our show and stop performing it. The end. It’s over. Period.

Over the years, there have been many times when I have worked on a piece of magic for a very long time (sometimes on and off for years) and then finally, after repeated failure, I just gave up.

Sometimes, I think the best thing to do is to give up, to stop and spend my limited time working on a piece of magic that is within my reach. As Alan Watts put it so well, “When you get the message, hang up the phone.”

So I wonder, isn’t failure the greatest gift of all?

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