I stood outside, a nervous twitch building in my right hand. My heart pulsed in my neck and my gut pooled and tensed into a foreign knot. Finally, the cool metal door opened and a woman with a tight bun and coral-red lipstick popped her head out.
“Emma?” she asked with a warm smile. I grinned back, greeting her with a firm handshake.
I was halfway through what would become a year-long job hunt. I had my résumé down pat. Every week I’d send off two or three applications, and in return receive one or two requests to interview. I’d dress up, smile and recite pre-rehearsed answers to common interview questions. And every time it would end with the same phone call: “We’ve decided to go with someone else.”
Our careers make up a huge part of who we are. The idea that I wasn’t good enough to step up into the kind of work I wanted to do made me feel fundamentally flawed. No amount of planning or preparation seemed to help. “We’d hire you in a second,” one interviewer told me. Except he didn’t. After the third or fourth failed interview, I expected to get better at accepting rejection. Then the fifth and sixth and eleventh and twelfth rolled around and I found myself in the exact same position: sitting on my couch with a bottle of shiraz and my bottled-up tears.
Society has a taboo around failure. It’s fine to talk about once we’ve overcome it. But when we’re right there in the thick stink of it, there’s nothing people want to hear less. “You’ll get the next one,” my friends would say. They meant to be comforting but it just felt dismissive. I didn’t want to talk about the series of unknowns that may happen next—I wanted to talk about the present. And the present wasn’t comfortable enough to speak of.
Three months after that series of failed job interviews, I found myself standing in the centre of a circle of strangers. They looked at me with tense anticipation, some fidgeting, some with gripped fists.
“I’m Emma,” I told the group, “and I’ve failed.”
Immediately, they erupted in hoots and hollers. They clapped and stomped their feet. “Congrats,” one said. “Amazing!” yelled another.
It was the very first hour of my very first improvised comedy class. On a list of things people fear, public speaking comes in at number one—right before dying. I soon learned that, within improv circles, fear creates energy—positive and motivating—and so too can failure. In fact, in improv, failure is where the magic happens. There’s a common fable in improvised theatre circles that goes like this: A man steps onto a stage, ready to introduce himself. Then, right as he enters the spotlight, he trips and falls flat on his face. It’s mortifying—the crowd is dead silent. Then, another performer steps out, trips and falls. Then another, then another. The audience loves it. They laugh and clap, like the stunt had been planned all along.
There’s comedy in recognising our mistakes and sinking deeper into them, until they’re no longer mistakes at all. But there’s a lesson there for the rest of our lives as well. When we trust ourselves and the people around us, getting rejected from something like a job stops being so personal. It’s not about my value as a human being, but that individual moment and the small lessons I can take from it.
Later in the class, when I panic and try to make a quick joke for a cheap laugh, the teacher stops me. She calls me over and looks deep into my eyes.
“You are enough,” she says. And for one of the first times, I believe it.
I’m standing by the door, an excitable twitch growing in my right hand. My throat’s clogged and my heart’s thumping like a beast. Then, suddenly, the door in front of me flings open to reveal the audience on the other side. They’re clapping, some already giggling. I march onstage with my improv team, anxiety mingling with excitement until I can no longer tell the two apart.
I don’t know whether I’ll make people laugh or look like an idiot (and I’ve certainly done both). I can’t say whether the show will go well. But every time something goes wrong—every time I mess up and fail—I grow more comfortable sitting in that moment. I learn how to become present with failure and turn it into something useful, even delightful. And when others make mistakes, I learn to appreciate them for the gifts they are, and sink into that moment like I want them to sink into mine.
Learning to see the potential in failure—the laughter and the joy—doesn’t take away the sting of rejection entirely. Failure still hurts, and it’s still uncomfortable. But my new perspective on failure has taught me to embrace the spontaneity and opportunity in it, even when I feel like there is none. Getting rejected for one job can open the doorway to new friendships, to freelance work, or to recognising the areas of myself that I need to work on. Failure is never as bad as we fear it will be. And now my job hunt has ended, my love of improv definitely hasn’t. And my love of failure has only just begun.