What the aerial community has taught me about failure
I’ve been thinking a lot about aerial arts lately. It’s the thing I miss most from the before times. The thing is, my primary discipline is pole, and I have a home pole. It’s not totally the same, but I can still practice a lot of the things I’m comfortable with, so what do I miss so much?
This got me thinking about what specifically draws me to aerial and the aerial community, and I started to realize something unexpected. It’s what aerial has taught me about failure.
Failure is a necessity in my aerial training. There is no progress without accepting and being comfortable with failure. There are moves you will never learn without being willing to fall, fail, and embarrass yourself over and over again. It’s a prerequisite of the sport. And as you progress, instead of magically not failing anymore, the period of failure actually increases as moves become more technical and challenging.
Normally I hate failure. I once had a teacher say “if you aren’t failing you aren’t trying hard enough”, and it stuck with me the way something sticks in your teeth. Although rationally I believe that failure is a requirement for growth and the only way to avoid it is to never step outside your comfort zone, for most of my life, my subconscious has had very different thoughts on the matter. I’m stubborn enough to still try new things, but throughout my various careers I’ve burnt myself out repeatedly by trying so hard not to fail at new things or to hide that I am struggling. How is it that something that has scared me so much is the very thing I love about pole?
The difference is that my pole classes and community make it safe to fail. That’s not to say you will never get injured or frustrated, but in order for injury not to be an everyday occurrence, studios and community are built, not around minimizing failure, but around minimizing the risk associated with failure. You start working on new moves from a safe height. You learn how to break moves down so that you can fail one piece at a time. You use mats and spotters. You are taught adjacent skills and conditioning that minimize the risk of injury. For some moves, I have even had to practice falling safely before I was allowed to try the move. The whole system of progress starts with the assumption that you will fail first, and is designed to ensure that can happen as safely as possible.
I have found this supported failure incredibly freeing. Going outside my comfort zone is exciting when I feel safe doing so. Falling flat on my face onto a mat trying something challenging? Usually hilarious because the work has been done to make sure that I safely fall flat on my face. And because this is so common, the community doesn’t judge me for falling. They support me and cheer like crazy when I finally nail the thing.
Unfortunately, this is not the way that the rest of the world works. In my experience, the education system and the working world are almost always pushing a model of growth without failure and progress without imperfection. This is unsustainable and impossible. My fear of failure is not just me, it is the result of conditioning. It is finding myself in situations where I have learned that failure is not safe. Where admitting or experiencing failure might impact my access to education or a job. It is a lack of access to supports that make failures smaller and more manageable or that catches you as you are falling. While this is not universal, it is certainly pervasive.
So I’m asking a new question of prospective employers. What happens if I fail? If I’m trying new things, I will fail. I want to know if I’ll be able to grow from those failures, or if I’ll just end up with more anxiety. Because I’m tired of the latter.