The Fear of Failure

December 13, 2018

In 1995 I was a normal, silly, gawky looking teenage boy, interested in going out with my friends, playing sport....and despite their lack of interest in me, girls! In hindsight maybe I should have focused more on my studies but it was the height of Britpop and with Oasis blaring in my ears I wandered from day to day without a care in the world....


23 years later and I’m still listening to Oasis but I’m in a Starbucks deep in the heart of Nantong, China; a city the size of Coventry, just with 7 million residents, but so much has changed in that relatively short space of time, especially for a young person. 


NO! This is not an; “Oh it was better in my day” type of thing - because, in all honesty, it wasn’t. However there has been a significant change in the way young people interact, communicate and develop resilience; all skills that can be developed through the arts and all vitally important skills we need to develop as teenagers so to enable us as to be those better adults.


Having spent the past month here, in China, I’ve been struck by the advancement in society and social norms. Here, waiters or waitresses taking your order are a thing of the past. QR codes sit on the table awaiting your phone to scan them, telling the kitchen staff where you are sitting and your order that has been selected via an online menu. The WiFi is free and connects everyone.


The app in control, WeChat - is the app to end all apps! Combining a feed like Facebook, video calling like FaceTime, text messaging, contacts and payment possibilities for anyone. The connectivity of it is incredible and everyone has it..... including me now. 


It soon becomes clear that this high level of connectivity will soon spread and the idea that restaurant chains won’t click into the possibility of reducing staff through technology in the U.K. seems, unfortunately, a little naive. 


Our meal arrives and Emily and I devour a delicious bowl of noodles, tofu and some of the weirdest vegetables I’ve ever seen. Behind Emily I see a young group of girls out for the evening and they’re taking selfies.... a lot of selfies! Hair is meticulously placed, phone angled correctly, mouth open, click, many photos are taken. Once done, the editing begins before posting on to WeChat; they’ve documented their meal. This moment, in time. 


Hey, I’ve got a teenage daughter, I totally understand. However as I see them leave, the girls in question aren’t girls at all, they’re woman in their late 20’s to early 30’s. I’m amazed. Why did they feel the need to take so many pictures? They leave the restaurant and I start to remember the workshop I’ve just taught and a little boy in a space jumper. 


3 hours previously, Emily and I were teaching a group of children. Emily’s taking them through a game of ‘Follow The Leader’, a simple exercise where you copy a designated leader in the group. So far Emily, a shy young girl in red, and a charismatic boy with the cheekiest smile have all had a go at directing the group with their movements. Next up is the boy in the space jumper. The lovely free flowing movement that has been developing stops, we all stop, the space jumper remains still on the little boy’s torso. We sit motionless. The only thing moving are his eyes; sussing out the situation, determining what move he should make... silence. 


”There are no wrong moves, everything you do is right,” I say....”be brave!”


The pressure is too much, I can see it in his eyes and so I quickly distract everyone by being silly - a trademark move learnt in those gawky years! 


As the workshop continues, I watch as the boy in the space jumper slowly grows in confidence. We split into pairs and I work with him, demonstrating how, actually there are no wrong answers within the work we are doing. Today’s about finding their own creativity and developing their own inner confidence. By the end of the session, he’s got it! His onlooking mother starts to beam with pride as she sees him grow in a very short space of time. So pleased in fact that she pulls out her phone to document this ‘special time’. Upon seeing the phone the young boy freezes and the space jumper once again becomes still. It’s not uncommon, I’ve seen it happening all over the U.K. in different workshops. I initially thought it was a ‘shy’ thing but the more I see it, the more I’m starting to think it’s a fear of failure and those failures being documented for all to see.... who doesn’t like watching a video fail? ‘You’ve Been Framed’ has made over 20 seasons of tv shows from them!


As the ladies leave the restaurant I realise that they are not alone. People are on their phones taking picture, texting, scrolling. A couple next to Emily and I, who are out for a romantic meal, have chopsticks in one hand, phone in the other.... that fear of failure hangs heavy on everyone’s shoulders; failure of not being a good friend by liking pictures, the failure of not being in contact immediately after a text, failure by being seen in an unflattering way.


I start to have flashbacks; that pressure, that’s 1995 all over again!....


...and then it hits me; we are all so well connected now. Technology has surpassed our wildest dreams (a blog written in China this morning for you all to read this afternoon lays testament). But technology is increasing our fear of failure, making society turn into a big secondary school state. By embracing social media so tightly, are we making ourselves live in an eternal teenage void of anxiety? 


Don’t get me wrong, the fear of failure can be a brilliant energy - enhancing device but it can also be crippling, especially in children and young people. 


The work Emily and I have been doing over the past month has allowed us to view our teaching practice differently. Without the added advantage of speaking the same language as our students, we’ve been able to focus on not what they say with their mouths, but with their eyes and what’s going on inside their heads. We’ve seen so many of them grow in self belief and confidence; something that I hope will stay with them forever. Some, like the little boy in the space jumper, will have a longer journey. But what we as adults need to keep encouraging is the ‘need to fail’, not the fear of it.


We learn and grow from those mini rehearsals (not failures) and I can’t think of a better and safer way to make those mistakes than through the arts..... and I know a gawky teenage boy from 1995 who would agreed with me!  


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