I have come nearly 2,400 miles to speak about my failure. The theater is full. The house lights are dark. The spotlights are bright, shining in my eyes. There will be a video posted. Unless the internet goes the way of the floppy disk, anyone will be able to watch for all eternity.
My allotted time is nine minutes.
Why did I agree to do this?
The last time I appeared as a performer on stage—not as a lecturer or a speaker but as a person with a program to memorize and spew—I was in the 8th grade.
My good friend Kluger had convinced me to take the part. Rehearsals were well underway. One of the lead actors had dropped out for reasons I can't remember. I don't know what possessed me. Kluger was cool, popular and a good singer, and all the girls liked him, a redheaded kewpie doll who would go on to play the leads in Fiddler on the Roof and Cabaret—think Joel Grey (born Joel David Katz) with his original nose. I remember I played an attorney. I don't remember whether I was the defender or the prosecutor. I think I appeared in every scene over three acts. I do recall one line I said repeatedly: "Where were you on the night of January 16?" (I must have been the prosecutor.)
That a bunch of junior high school students in an upper-middle class Jewish neighborhood on the outskirts of Baltimore were performing Night of January 16th, a play by the angry objectivist Ayn Rand, remains a puzzle to me. Maybe one of the teachers was trying to stick it to somebody? The year was 1969 or 1970. There was tumult in the air, unrest on campuses and in the streets. Older brothers I knew were being drafted and sent to Vietnam, others were fleeing to Canada. For our part, we little pishers were growing our hair long and fighting tooth and nail with the administration, demanding to be allowed to wear "dungarees" to school, outlawed at the time.
Another puzzle is why the hell I agreed to step in. I'm not the memorizing kind. Numbers, spelling, proper nouns, multiplication tables. Whatever side of the brain it is—I can never for the life of me remember if it's the left side or the right side—I have the side that's creative.
Of course, to act in a play one needs to memorize one's lines. (I guess I didn't really consider that. Do 13-year-old boys really consider anything?)
For the first several performances, I did the third act with the help of a clipboard, a convenient prop for a lawyer. Nobody could blame me. I had walked on to save the production.
For the last performance, I went off-book. Somehow, during the first act, I fed Kluger the wrong line—and we jumped ahead into the third act. Suddenly, we were on a runaway train. Unsure what to do, we broke from the script and began ad-libbing until we worked our way back to the first act again.
I'm sure some people didn't notice. Or maybe some of them thought it was funny, like a skit from Saturday Night Live.
Only it was really happening, and I was up on stage in front of everyone, with the house lights dark, the spotlights beaming down and nowhere to run.
So now I have to go onstage and do this semi-prepared monologue about my greatest failure—which was not, by any means, the very public early death of my acting career, though that particular memory remains posted in my permanent experiential dictionary as the definition of "mortify."
I guess I've failed embarrassingly at a lot of things over the years. I remember trying out for pitcher in Little League and losing the handle on a pitch—it sailed way up high and hit the top of the backstop and the coaches were, like, Next. The following year I switched to lacrosse.
I remember the band teacher in elementary school figuring out that I hadn't learned to read the notes in the upper register, necessitating a humiliating public demotion from first clarinet, having to stand and change seats with some former loser who was being promoted to my place. Somehow I ended up playing the bass clarinet, lugging the big-ass thing to school everyday.
Or the time I tried to run for student government president. Or the time I tried to build my girlfriend a coffee table for her dorm room. Or the thirty-some rejection letters from major newspapers I collected on my way to becoming a reporter.
Not to mention all the women over the years who've said no—to a date, a dance, a roll in the hay, each a little failure. And all the relationships that didn't work out. Three months, one year, six years, two decades. Or having to give away half my money to somebody because she decided she wanted out.
Early in my career, my editor, now a famous author, told me: "Sager, whatever you write is either great or terrible."
Sometime after that, I made up this little motto for myself: Dare to be bad. The first time I ever wrote the words was in a story called "Hunting Marlon Brando". I went all the way to Tahiti to discover that the famous reclusive (and by then, gargantuan) actor was in his compound on Mulholland Drive in Los Angeles, where I eventually found him. Some people hated the story—namely, the higher-ups at the grand newspaper that had commissioned the piece for its Sunday magazine and had paid the considerable expenses. But other people loved it. Objectively speaking, if not for that story, you might not be reading me now, 30 years later.
Anyway, the longer I've followed that little motto, Dare to be bad, the less often anything has actually been bad. I don't think it's immodest to say that terrible has long been left behind—though the vissitudes of life continue daily, failures large and small are a regular part of the program.
Nobody wants to fail. Nobody wants to fall down and hurt himself and have to pick up and start all over again. Nobody wants their precious kids to fail, especially these days, an era when children (and their parents) have come to expect a trophy for participation.
But fail we must if we are to move ahead—which sounds really obvious, I know. Except I speak to a lot of people, and I teach and I counsel. And what I know is this: The prospect of failure causes many to crumble; they don't even try. Lives of quiet desperation? That's fear of failure.
Which to me seems like the worst possible prison. One to which you sentence yourself.
Which is what I'm doing in East Lansing, Michigan, at the Wharton Center for Performing Arts on the campus of Michigan State University.
I'm participating in a little movement called Failure:Lab. Started by a quartet of thirtysomethings from Grand Rapids, the gatherings bring together students, faculty and members of the community to hear stories of failure from people who've gone on to success despite horrific failures. Tonight I'll be "performing" along with MSU's athletic director, a Detroit emcee who was in the movie 8 Mile and a woman who became pregnant at age 13. In all, six failures will present. In between each there are pallet-cleansing musical acts and an opportunity for everyone in the audience to tweet their impressions. There's also a form on which each audience member summarizes the lessons learned.
The catch—for both the performer and for the audience—is that you're not allowed to tell what lesson you've learned from your failure. You're just supposed to lay it out there nakedly. All in all, it's pretty brutal—though when I got a few laughs along the way I ad-libbed a bit and went over my allotted time. Luckily I was the last act.
To me, the most interesting part has been the audience takeaway:
Happiness is only real when shared.
Life is not always about you.
Sometimes you never know what's in front of you until you open your eyes.
You need to take care of your own needs, but also the needs of others around you.
Don't have kids until you're ready.
Don't ever spend $13k on crack.
I'm not going to tell you what I talked about. You'll just have to watch.
I'm sorry in advance if I seem a little nervous. They wouldn't let me use a clipboard.
Photo by Blend Images/Alamy