We need to talk about failure.
I am failing every day and petrified. I am so petrified that sometimes I feel so paralysed by this fear that I cannot achieve the everyday tasks that make me feel like I am failing less. The cycle continues and my fear feeds my failure which feeds my fear in spirals.
I am tired. And not a healthy tired, where I feel the joy of a hard day’s work every night before my head hits the pillow. I’m tired of being tired, fear does that to you.
I’m scared to write this because some may read it as an admission of not being good enough or not being responsible and decide that I am unemployable. I have recently applied for a leadership bursary to explore my role as a potential ‘leader in the arts’, what if the panel read this and think that I clearly have no potential as a leader because I am failing.
Yet a larger part of me feels that the responsible thing to do is to admit that there is a problem so that everyone knows what is going on and why. I can only hope that the ‘sector’ is understanding enough to want to offer support and understanding until I find a healthy balance again.
After all, I witness people in more privileged positions fail often and with greater impact than the current repercussions of my predicament (some emails requiring long overdue replies, a month of unsent invoices, two summary reports of sessions I delivered long overdue and a strategy report desperately needing updated). The failures of those more resourced than me are often are met with support, training and space to fail again as opposed to a tarnished reputation that inevitably leads to unemployment. Of course, some of these reputations are whispered about quietly in corridors by people that have been personally impacted by their failures but support is not withdrawn.
Talking like this dangerously teeters on sounding like a ‘poor me’ or a ‘them and us’ narrative, which I really do not believe is useful but there is a disparity of support that we need to discuss and resolve. If we don’t, the mental health of the independent practitioners who sustain the arts will continue to be decimated by the trickle-down pressures of a sector that allocates resources based on a nostalgic and elitist system of prioritising buildings, reception drinks and tote bags over people, at a time when austerity continues to impact the poorest the most.
I am not asking that the privileged are tossed aside for their failures, I am asking that independent artists are supported enough to escape the cycle of feeling as if they are permanently failing. Of course, this cycle does not kick in over-night. I have been wrestling with this feeling for around three years now, culminating in an extremely serious period of mental ill health last year that I am still not over and may never recover from.
In many ways, I am vocal about my experiences in the hope of destigmatising mental ill health. In many ways people who have known me throughout my career have allowed me to fail over the past year as I try to play catch up from this illness which has and will take far longer than a year to recover from. Yet, in many ways the root cause of the issue is not changing and so the cycle cannot be broken – it is systemic.
Transference of failure is another cycle that is not changing, largely demonstrated by passing the blame or, in its worse incarnation, gaslighting - each situation having horrendous knock on effects.
People often question whether I take on too much – I am eager, I will accept that. However, as I hope many who have worked with me would attest to, I understand my limitations and I am capable. The ‘you are too busy’ trope is an easy insult thrown around by those who want to pass the blame, neglecting the reasons I am ‘too busy’ and more importantly ignoring their potential role in my unmanageable work load. Whether that role be their failure to challenge the unrealistic timescales they ask people to work to or continuing to offer fees that do not cover the cost of the work being done.
Of course, it is likely that I will miss a 24 hour copy deadline that I did not know was coming. Or, in the example set by a national funder, a three-hour copy deadline. I can, at times, differentiate between the sinking feeling I get when I realise that I’ve missed this unrealistic deadline and the pang of shame that precedes feeling like a failure because of something else I have not achieved. However, this is perpetual emotional labour and is an exhausting part of my job that I should not be expected to do. The system needs to change so that nobody has to differentiate between useless feelings of shame and failure that arise from inefficient working methods that fail to recognise that practitioners don’t sit at their inbox all day.
I recently started working with an unbelievably awesome producer and the feeling of relief was shot lived. I now lay awake at night worried that they will stop working with me because I know I am not giving them everything they need to be able to do their job well. Largely, this is because I am regularly distracted by people on other projects who are not meeting the expectations of their job, leaving me to pick up the pieces or allow them to continue to fail. The latter does not really feel like an option because if I am working on a project I want it to succeed independently and contribute to the longevity of the arts. Is this me entering the blame game now?
Some of these people realise they are failing to meet their role, yet I am not resourced enough to support them and I fear that their permanent state of apology is having a detrimental impact on their mental health. Some of these people are unaware they are failing and some of these people willfully ignore the areas in which they are failing because they have made a career of knowing that someone else will pick up the slack. It feels scathing to say this, yet it is painfully true.
Where is the space to talk about failing? Where is the space for people to safely acknowledge their strengths and the gaps in their knowledge so that they can be addressed or step back from a role that they are not equipped to achieve. Where is the space to explain to those in senior positions that their approach is failing the people they are responsible for? Who is having these difficult conversations? Who is checking in to see that improvements are being made? Are the same mistakes happening on loop without being challenged? Who is benefiting from being able to continually fail without being challenged?
Where is the appraisal? Am I repeatedly failing without anyone having the space to tell me this? Right now, I know I am in the midst of a backlog of failure and can only hope those supporting me stick around long enough to see me balance things out again. However, for this to happen I need those around me to also recognise their failures and address them. Who is going to start this conversation?
I have been contemplating putting together an appraisal document and circulating it around those whom I work with on projects, not because I need my ego stroked but because it is healthy to want to know where I am failing. However, once again, I would generally be asking freelancers to undertake unpaid work to make up for the sectors short comings.
Funnily enough, of all of the areas where I feel that I am consistently failing, the studio is not one. In my work as a dancer, theatre maker and facilitator, I rarely feel anything other than challenged and eager to improve. However, in all of the other roles I must adopt in order to create the circumstances that give me permission to do my job, I feel like I am consistently not good enough, must improve or have let someone down – even when I am working fourteen-hour days and have a relatively empty inbox.
As an independent artist, I have always been under resourced but as my career continues I am encouraged to think more ambitiously. Yet without increased resources or support, more ambition creates more administration and more space for unhealthy feelings of failure. This ‘other’ work results in deprioritising my studio practice and leads me to question my confidence in my work, my actual work. As such, the cycle of failure continues and I become more fractured as a person.
In all of this, my biggest fear is that I am permanently walking through environments where people promote the arts as having mental health benefits without acknowledging that the lynchpins of this activity are becoming increasingly unwell. I have been told for years that we need to talk about mental health but, on a personal level, I have been for over three years and the support needed still does not materialise beyond the kindness of individuals. Were some of these individuals to leave their role, there is no guarantee that the level of support would continue with their successor. The sector is failing to make this support part of the institutions that dominate our work and as such is failing its work force.
Where will this end? I don’t know. Perhaps, as many of my friends suggest, I am simply no longer resilient enough to work in this environment. Perhaps, I have failed and I am not good enough. However, something in my gut resists this because the work I love to engage with is sensitive, vulnerable, nuanced and complex. This work has a healthy relationship with failure and risk. This work is willing to ask contradictory questions and deal with a range of responses. This work suggests that resilience is not the only currency we have and that the opposite of failure is not success but hope. I still have hope that dance and theatre can change, that we can shake off the nostalgia and broken systems to create new approaches that support and make space for failure as a means to recognise that we are just a group of fallible people trying to do something we believe in. After all, it is usually that fallible characters that connect with audiences the most, right?
With that, if I am failing you now, I apologise. I am working hard to readdress the balance but that is very hard to do in a system that is failing. If anyone has any ideas of how to do this better, I would be very eager to hear them.