I've been on a lot of job interviews. I mean a lot. Like a sarcastic amount of job interviews. I go to job interviews like it's my job. I have two ideas for books. One I’m currently working on is called "How Improv Comedy Saved My Life, Nearly Destroyed My Life and Saved Me Again." The other is called “Six Weeks of Everything: The Jeff Jenkins Guide to Employment, Dating and Apartments.” In these interviews for any and all jobs, despite my obviously unqualified skill set, I still apply and get interviews. “What is your biggest strength?” they ask. My biggest strength? I used to say some noble thing like my fortitude or razzmatazz or gumption. But recently? My failures. One of my biggest strengths are my failures. It's true. My failures are a part of my strength because without them I wouldn't know how to push myself up off the ground and keep on trucking. And I've had a lot of failures. A lot. But I've learned how to fail the right way and I'm going to share with you how I learned to fail the right way.
5 Ways I Learned to Fail in Order To Fly
Fail in Public
A lot of my failures were spectacular and viewed by thousands of people. Most people's number one fear is public speaking. Not me. I love it, but I can see why normal people would be freaked out by it. The natural fear stems from the panic of being judged and then shame and humiliation thrust upon them by the scorned masses. I'm glad a lot of my failures were public. I didn't hide in the shadows will all my failures. I put them out there where the scrutiny was rampant and the judgment fierce. I think my first big public failure was when I was a youth pastor (yes, that was a thing) and my first marriage collapsed (yes I've been married twice). Why was that such a big deal? Don't almost 50% of all marriages end in divorce? Yes. So it should be normal and accepted part of life. Right? Not when you are a licensed minister in a fellowship of churches whose national headquarters is a big blue building on Boonville in Springfield, MO. The spectacular burnout of the first ex-Mrs. Jeff Jenkins was not my fault. She made several choices that went against the grain of a biblical lifestyle and she walked away. So I had to get an annulment from the state and then one from the big wigs over on Boonville. So the whole messy situation was made public and had all came out in the open. The shifty looks and judgement like gazes were thrown around willy nilly by some but I will admit there were sincere people pulling for me. (Narrator: This would become a common theme in young Jeff's life). But most? Most were not so kind. I was at a gathering of ministers or folk of the same kind and I had snuck into a stall to cry because my heart was shattered. I'm there questioning, crying, asking for forgiveness and I hear people walk in. So I turn it down from sobbing to a slight sniffle to not draw anymore attention to me. I recognize the voices because they belonged to two of my dearest friends from bible college. They'd already seen one public failure because I had been asked to leave that bible college and of come back. (Narrator: Now folks, young Jeff had been kicked out of some of the best bible colleges in the country. This one in particular down south of Dallas, TX) This particular college told me right before I was asked to vacate that they didn't have any more probations to put me on. I'd run through them all and they MADE UP PROBATIONS FOR ME!!! There's a solid chance that I personally added several key rules and regulations to the student conduct handbook of scorn and shame. Nothing super nefarious, just good ole bible school hi-jinx. So these two "friends" had, just moments before I snuck into the bathroom to break down, told me "they're praying for me" and they are "there for me. They loved me as a brother." So I'm about to open the stall door to say hi when I hear them begin to just run me down and judge me and heap scorn upon me. So I just sat there. And listened. And listened. And listened to them tear me down. I was devastated. I stayed in the ministry for another two years and was good at my job but eventually I left full time pulpit ministry and jumped into comedy full time. Now I could spend hours talking about specific other public failures but you get the point. I'm glad my failures have been public at times were because they taught me to put failure in proper perspective and realize that my failures do not define me. My scars don't make me ugly but they make me beautiful because they're a reminder of finding strength I didn't know I had.
My brain works at an incredible quickness. Improvisers as a whole are extremely quick witted and nimble, and able to think on their feet and adapt seamlessly to changing environments or circumstances. Our ability to listen and react with intelligence at the same time bring comedy into it is what separates us from people on the street. Usually, when someone first starts to spend any significant amount of time around me they are taken aback by how I interact. My brain moves quick and makes connections even quicker and can come off as odd at times. Then you get to know me and just see how charming I am. (Narrator: Young Jeff is charming but still odd). I've been doing improv full time for 21 years. 12,000 improv shows, thousands more scenes and classes. My brain moves quick. I was telling someone during "The Addams Family" about how my brain works on stage. We're chatting basic acting stuff and she asked me how it was like for me. Basically this: things slow down around me because my mind is working so quickly. I have eight different ways to respond organically, honestly to what the person on stage is saying to me. At the same time I'm thinking of four ways to fix whatever it is that guy over there is about to screw up and then deciding where I'm going after the show all while still existing and listening in the moment. Improvisers compartmentalize and move quick. These attributes ensure that when the inevitable failures come we move on quickly to the next idea without stressing over what was wrong with the previous one. Eventually we will have time to evaluate and ask what was wrong and how can it be fixed. We don't let failures derail us because we've still got a show to finish. In life don't let failures derail you, because you have a full life to finish out. In an improv scene humor is the great equalizer. The mistake becomes the game. We call it out. We own it. Everyone acknowledges it, we laugh at what went wrong and immediately move on and the failures power is dissipated. It's not burying your head in the sand and acting like it never happened. No. Now it's a part of the overall piece you're creating and later on you talk about what happened and how it could be avoided next time. You own it, you take the power out of it, you learn, and you move on. Don't sit in the mire and waddle in self pity. I've done that and it cost me a lot, almost my life. Laugh at it. Own your messy, figure out why it went south and move on. Quickly. The key to successfully failing fast is to give yourself permission to suspend judgement on yourself and at the same time in the act of creating something new. The mistake has then become the game.
Fail Free of Judgement
Huge. Big. Important. No one can feel free to fail or, on the flip side, feel free to take risks if you're focused on being judged. People will do that but choose not to focus on it. Failure can be harnessed and used only when it's allowed to exist inside a judgment free zone. That means those on the outside looking in keep their big mouths to themselves. You don't know what's happened, so stay out of it until it you are asked to be a part of the restoration process. Several of my failures towards the end of the Skinny Improv caused great delight in several people because they thought they had information on what happened and they didn't. But they told anyone who would listen about what a horrible person I was because of this rumor or this assumption but they judged me and by them not respecting a judgment free zone hindered and almost crippled my healing process. If you are not asked to help restore and create, stay out of it until you are. I would tell students in improv if you're standing on the side watching the scene and go "wouldn't it be funny if I... " No. No. It wouldn't. If the scene needs you someone will call for you. A true friend or decent human being will know when to listen and support. Know when to observe and be ready to come in and help move things along at the appropriate time. Failure can grow into great innovation when it's allowed to proceed not shackled down by judgement.
Fail with Confidence
Man, there is a lot I can't do right. Professionally and personally, there is a long list of things I just don't do right. One of my biggest strengths is I'm a scary judge of talent on stage. I see your potential and I know how to help you find it and grow it. I'm not an easy teacher but I'm good at it. My job is to make you good and trust me I can do that. Like I said. I'm a scary judge of talent onstage. I knew how to pick the right talents and personalities to make the best ensemble we could. It's more than just funny people. It was balancing a lot of things and as a director I could do that well. I've always said and I'll stand by it, when Skinny Improv was at the top of our game and doing our show I'd put us up against anyone in the country. We produced some killer shows and have hundreds of alumni from our training center working as working actors. I'm proud of what I directed and cultivated on stage. Now the flip side is I consistently hired the wrong people for the wrong jobs in terms of the business side. I hired them because... well whatever reason I had at the time. Most of the time administration and office people had an uphill battle because in honesty, they were nice people at first, but just wrong for the job. As a manager I hired them and for some reason personality didn't match performance needed. I made a lot of mistakes and failed as a leader in that respect and that's on me. And it eroded my confidence to do other things. Now as I'm beginning to build and grow Turn Creative (Narrator: It's going to be amazing) I can't let the failures I made in the past erode my confidence to build the future. So I've learned that if I just failed with confidence the rebound time was quicker and I learned from it and made it better.
One of my favorite improv sayings is "bring a brick, not a cathedral." That tells me that the best improvisers understand that they don't have to bring wholly formed, finished ideas into a scene. It's on the ensemble working together will create what the scene will be. So it's the individual's responsibility to only bring one idea or piece of information to advance the scene. That's so freeing! No one actor carries the burden of creation. Because it's a group creation and because it's one brick at a time, no one idea will kill a scene, and it can still be an amazing piece even if a couple individual contributions aren't the best or strongest. I always try to play and teach as if both great and meh ideas can still make a good scene. See it like this people would be so much better off if they viewed their ideas as not finished thoughts to be judged but simple a bridge to better ideas, thoughts that caused others to be inspired to move the scene forward. If we took that pressure off ourselves of thinking it had to be perfect and complete and not just a single idea that is then taken by the group to be made into awesome art. You'd recognize that the only way to fail in this context is to not contribute at all. Your ideas are critical, important and brilliant. They're critical because they inspire and encourage other people to open the flow of their ideas. Take the pressures off yourself and realize that not every idea is high stakes. Don't hold back your ideas and dreams because you have a better safe than sorry approach. We're taught that early but break that cycle and show yourself and the people around you the positive consequences of taking a risk.
I've learned to simply laugh at the failures. It's not flippancy or not taken serious. It is but you've got laugh at it. Because I'm an artist and create imperfection is much more interesting than perfection. So fellow journeymen and women or, however you identify, because of these lessons I've learned from failure here is my approach. By learning to fail the right way this process let's me work fast, take risks, respond more nimbly and have fun in life. Life used to not be fun not until I learned how to fail. Fail early and fail often and you'll have a much better chance of achieving something that is gonna blow you away. As Winston Churchill said, "Success is not final, failure is not fatal; it is the courage to continue that counts.”
jeff Jenkins is an award winning comedian, actor, writer, producer and director and writes about how improv comedy helps him in his ongoing battle with depression and living his best improvised life.