Failure: From Theory to Practice
On Wednesday 7th December 2022, Emma was invited to speak at the Failspace Conference, Queen Margaret University Edinburgh, in their capacity as a Failspace Champion (Basically a bunch of people dedicated to find better ways to think, talk and be with failure). Emma has been collaborating with Eoin McKenzie to explore how the many theories of failure can lead to behavioural change and culture shift.
The text below was written to be read aloud in a time limited presentation, as a starting point for discussion.
You can also listen to it here: https://on.soundcloud.com/h76bw
My name is Emma Jayne Park, I’m a white femme in my mid-thirties, with tied up blonde hair, black skinny jeans, an informal floral shirt, and white trainers. I’m wearing bangles that will jingle as I speak, and I walk with a medical walking aid. Today I have opted to avoid using a visual presentation as I would like to invite you to soften your eyes and check in with your body as I speak because my research is bodily!
Can you feel your feet right now?
Can you pace your breathe?
If you have discomfort – can you give yourself what you need?
Please to go to the toilet, check your phone or tend to whatever is distracting you – I can provide a transcript for anything you miss – because I would prefer that you be present for a limited time rather than faking focus for fifteen minutes. Because if you are faking that focus as I speak, in a way we both fail at attending this conference!
I am a dancer, theatre maker and intimacy coordinator whose practice focusses on closing the gap between ideologies and actions. My work centres around the question of how we live in our whole bodies, instead of using them as a vessel to carry our clever heads around, and by nature this work is hyper contextual because depending on the culture you were raised or spend most of your time in, your relationship with your body will have been cultured by your environment and the permissions it affords you.
I worry about these spaces and these conversations, because in over a decade of research about failure, I’ve heard all the failure talk in looping cycles. Failure dressed as success, understandable choices labelled as ‘failure’ and the notion of success skewed to give people the opportunity to pretend to embrace their relationship with failure. Failure has become dangerously fashionable. So, I’m a sceptic – because I believe this surface level approach does not only limit our capacity to shift culture but it perpetuates the status quo – those who already dominate the power structures of society use the frameworks offered to better position themselves so they can continue to fail upwards, or sideways and position themselves as humble, enlightened or simply as the ‘good’ people.
I’ve also done this myself – On a professional level, I can bullshit my way around an evaluation as well as any of you, on a personal level I can also apologise humbly with no intention of addressing or adapting my behaviour. I don’t think I’m a dick, but I can be a dick – as I would argue all of you can be too, and if we are honest being a dick makes bad art, bad arts experiences and a poor quality of life.
So, my question to you today is not
How do you discuss failure? Or,
How do you understand failure? But,
How do you FEEL failure?
Because until we are equipped to feel the tension in our bodies – and therefore the tension between each other and our work – that failure generates, I would propose that we cannot actually address failure. If we only talk about it in safe theoretical rooms, when the shit really hits the fan, we won’t have the muscle memory to enact the great theories we have posited.
True failure causes tension in the body and, as the animals that we are, this tension is interpreted as a threat and this leads to responses that you may be familiar with – fight, flight, freeze or fawn. And, in an arts sector where people are notoriously under resourced and overworked, anything that leads us to people please is innately dangerous.
This bodily tension excites me, because once we can start feeling the sensations of failure we can start to create practices for holding that tension and it means we can find ways to hold the tension between us without creating personal conflict, even when our needs conflict.
I have a body of work around this, evolved over decades in collaboration with many brilliant people and organisations, name check to the brilliant Eoin McKenzie who is evolving this work too as part of our collaboration as Failspace champions but here are three practices for embodying failure, with the caveat that they must be transferred carefully because bodily work must be developed hyper contextually to create real impact and avoid harm. Harm which I have also perpetuated and experienced by the actions of those not willing to feel failure.
Personally, I would offer you the process of bodily check in.
When confronted with a failure, can you scan your body and see if you have any strong sensation.
Can you place it – your gut, your brain, dry mouth, heavy limbs…
If you can start to distinguish this information you can develop strategies for dealing with unhealthy sensations.
Sometimes I’m not failing, I’m tired and thirsty but I confuse this with failure.
Sometimes a seemingly small thing has tapped into a sense of failure that is deeply rooted in trauma and I need serious support to see, unpick and cope with this.
And sometimes, I feel nothing.
I initially studied at QMU – physiotherapy, and I left after my first year – in Failspace terms this could be labelled as a conflicted success*. Others thought it was abject failure*, others applauded my bravery – I felt and still feel nothing about it. It’s a story others tell that does not resonate with me. By acknowledging that I feel nothing I don’t have to feel forced to linger on it as a supposed failure.
As a Conversational Practice, helpful with teams who are scared to share you can establish a physical scale in the room. At one end you feel safe, the other you feel anxious or unsafe. Conversations happen travelling up and down this scale in threes. Someone speaks, someone provokes by repeatedly and only asking why, a third captures meaningful statements made and bodily reactions. The speaker then travels along the scale in relation to their felt discomfort, pausing as they cross the line between tolerable and precarious failure* to check if continuing may become unsafe in this moment. Highlighting that more structure may be required to safely dig deeper.
Finally, as a practice for making space or holding space, you can engage in what I call ‘Don’t Flinch’ training. Managing your response to information that feels uncomfortable to hold. This, for me, is the key to avoiding perpetuating blame culture.
Part one, is training your body to not react with tension when you hear something uncomfortable. It’s tricky… but outright failure* comes in the form of shutting down others who are vulnerable. Irrespective of what your words say, if your body jumps to tension the bodies of others with sense this – and sense it as a threat.
Part two, is finding safe ways to buy time when you need it by practicing stock phrases. Your tongue is a muscle. Helplines know this and in mental health helpline training, volunteers will sit together and practice asking, ‘are you thinking about suicide?’ so that when they really need to use the phrase, they can do so without judgement, flinching or with a shaky voice.
Stock phrases are crucial because jumping to blame is human and cultured into us, you might not be attributing blame but others may be so prepared to feel it the slightest reaction creates a sense of it. When someone shares a failure with you and your body panics, if your muscle memory has a stock phrase you can safely buy you some time to think about your approach without distressing the vulnerable person who is sharing with you, you can actively mitigate relationship breakdown that leads to harm.
And lastly, simply making space in your day. When are you approachable? Not busy? In spaces that are approachable for different kinds of people? Quiet spaces, walking together, smoking areas… what space creates openness in the bodies of those you would like to open up.
Is it this space, facing the end of a room with a group of strangers?
Can you feel your feet right now?
Can you pace your breathe?
Do you have discomfort or any heightened sensations in your body?
What is this sensation telling you?
Maybe it’s obvious (the chair is uncomfortable) or maybe you don’t know what it means, yet.
I would offer that if you dig into these sensations and start to identify the different feelings of failure you can hold them and understand what you need to lean into them. By moving to holding the sensation in our bodies we remove the top trumps of the failure game where we imagine that for everyone having to make staff redundancies creates a greater feeling of failure than not being invited to staff drinks– when in truth some people don’t feel any sense of failure with the former and others can be utterly destroyed by the latter. Bodily working shows it is crucial to realise that it’s not the situation but the feeling of failure that creates resistance to confronting, changing, or simply living with our failures.
If we really want a culture of embracing failure, we have to grow just that - a culture.
And culture lives predominantly in our bodies and bones.
In our muscle memory, our actions and not just our words.
From listening to understanding to embodiment.
- Practical methods of ensuring theory does not overshadow practice.
As embracing failure evolves as a theory for change, is there a danger that those controlling the narrative use their position to ensure their involvement with failure remains simply that - a story of learning? In this presentation, Emma Jayne will share research outcomes from using somatic approaches to closing the gap between words and action, that ensure the ability to cope with the tension of failure becomes a physically embodied skill, meaning that when our minds are overwhelmed with crisis, our bodies can support us with the skills we require.
* Degrees of failure/success as defined by FailSpace.
- Outright failure – even if there have been some elements of success the prevalence of failures resulted in goals/intentions fundamentally not being achieved. Opposition and criticism is great and/or approval and support is virtually non-existent.
- Precarious failure – failures may slightly outweigh successes and few if any of the secondary goals/intentions are achieved. A number of the primary goals/intentions are only partially achieved. Opposition and criticism outweighs approval and support.
- Tolerable failure – failures may slightly outweigh successes and few if any of the secondary goals/intentions are achieved. A number of the primary goals/intentions are only partially achieved. Opposition is small and/or criticism is virtually non-existent but any support/approval may be limited to specific groups of stakeholders.
- Conflicted success – failures are fairly evenly matched with successes and the achievement of goals/intentions is varied. Criticism and approval exists in relatively equal measure but varies between different groups of stakeholders. It proves difficult to avoid repeated controversy and debate.
- Resilient success – successes may slightly outweigh failures and a number of the secondary goals/intentions are not achieved. However, none of the failures significantly impede the fulfillment of the primary goals/intentions. Opposition is small and/or criticism is virtually non-existent but any support/approval may be limited to specific groups of stakeholders.
- Outright success – even if there have been some elements of failure, the prevalence of successes resulted in all of the goals/intentions being fully achieved. Criticism and opposition is virtually non-existent and approval and support is almost universal and from a diverse group of stakeholders.