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The Aerialist

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As the new term begins, I will teach an improvisation class to two types of people: some who want to learn, and some who want to learn without being observed publicly. The latter doesn’t want the humiliation of failing in public. It’s natural that nobody wants to sign up for public humiliation, but putting fear and learning into such close proximity makes me uncomfortable. In truth, there are no great success stories without lots of previous failures to talk about.

Fear of humiliation is the number one gate-keeper to success. Who hasn’t heard a loud, overly-critical voice in their head at one time or another? This voice embarrasses the joy of adventure right out of us in order to preempt someone else’s judgment.

I suggest that we take a lesson from children. When we see toddlers wobbling around, banging into furniture and falling, they’re not failing at walking. They’re beginning to learn. Every Riverdancer on Broadway started out that way!

On one extreme are those who rationalize that it’s better not to try anything with the risk of failure attached. These individuals often do nothing at all. They may even attempt to discourage others from taking risks for fear of being left behind. What if toddlers thought that way? Imagine a nation of people scooting around on their backsides because they fear the risk of an embarrassing stumble!

The bravest of the brave feel the same amount of fear as any one else. Show me someone fearless and I will show you someone who doesn’t quite have a grasp of the situation at hand. Even the best prize fighters are afraid of the first round, and most are afraid the whole time. I was always afraid. The difference between the brave and the timid is that the brave can and will do something when they are gripped with fear. The timid will just sit there frozen in despair.

It’s ironic that giving in to fear brings the very thing that we fear the most: failure. It’s doubly ironic that giving in to fear actually requires the courage to accept certain failure—it takes nerve to sit on the track when the train is coming right at you! When you weigh the options, it’s more rational to act in spite of fear rather than to give in to it. (I don’t advocate acting out of fear—panic invites chaos.)

In the end we are all participating in one big high-wire act. Few of our friends ever advise us to take risks that they don’t understand or haven’t experienced themselves—they love us too much. However, doing only things that our loved ones understand limits our growth. Conversely, I have burned myself numerous times underestimating the practicality of “conventional wisdom.” When that happens, I counter calamity with a stiff resolve not to let a set-back define me.

The new school year is here. The circus is about to begin. My advice: stiffen your resolve to experience life to the fullest, then choose your most colorful parasol, put on the snappiest tutu in your closet, and get out there and strut your stuff! Good luck!


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