Responding to Failure in Aerial Arts & Life – Part 1

Dreams don’t always come true

Things just don’t always go according to plan. 

In March 2019 I was two months away from opening a designated space for my aerial classes. It was going to be a gorgeous studio–not like our gym location where weights are loudly thrown around and death metal makes your ears ring (no shade, just not the vibe I’m going for). It would be the first and only designated aerial space in the rural town I live in.

Then covid-19 put our plans on hold. By the time I resumed planning, I no longer had a partner to split the rent with due to damages by covid-19. But I’d been dreaming of this studio for so long and could visualize it perfectly. I would break even at best if I went in alone, but I was still willing. I just wanted this beautiful space to exist…I wanted my dream to leave my imagination and enter reality.

And then it didn’t work out. It came down to brass tax and the space was rented to somebody else. A couple weeks later I was denied a loan I’d hoped would help me with the space, and then I was rejected by the school I had applied to after covid-19 shattered my plans of being a full time studio owner.

So you could say that failure has been on my mind.

I was wondering if aerial makes us more resilient, or tolerant of failure. The prospect of mastering beautiful and impressive skills can be a powerful source of motivation to work through repeated failures. Becoming comfortable with “failure” (scarequotes because this is subjective) is simply part of the aerial journey. On the other hand, aerialists can also be hyper-aware of everything they do imperfectly. Excellence is something many of us strive for, whether we are professionals or not.

I knew I wasn’t the only one coming to terms with failures, and I reached out and asked the aerial community to weigh in on this topic. The diverse responses to my survey reminded me that there is not one way to interpret or respond to failure…I think you will be surprised and relieved by some of these reflections!


Caught up in failure

Only seeing the imperfect is an error in perception.

One thing I have heard over and over from aerialists is…everything they did imperfectly. Aerial arts are performing arts, and even if we engage them on a recreational level, it’s natural to be analytical and seek to constantly improve. But we risk seeing the imperfect to the exclusion of what we did well.

Negativity bias is a term for the emphasis our brains give to negative experience. The theory is that we pay attention to problems and suffering because we need to attend to the thing that can hurt or kill us before we can attend to anything positive, pleasurable, or neutral.

I like to think of it this way: you have to be not-dead to get anything good, so the brain prioritizes anything that might be a threat to your life. In everyday life, that means your brain will first and foremost pay attention to anything negative. It’s easy to have a good day ruined with one negative thing, but hard to have your day made with one positive thing.

I’ve heard from many aerialists that their focus is predominantly critical, and I definitely experience this myself. Perfectionism is in a lot of us. Shelby Becker says:

Failure has definitely played a role in my aerial circus journey. I am a perfectionist, and the more involved I became in aerial circus the more I expected perfection from my body. I would become so caught up in my failures, I wouldn’t even recognize my successes. 

She’s not alone in that. It’s not unusual to have a critical view of the self, but if we’re not mindful, it can lead to imbalanced and inaccurate perception. And, though we use it to improve, that critique-dominant outlook can actually hold us back.

Getting more specific about failure and broadening our perspective can help us see a fuller picture and actually catch the value of failures, rather than getting caught up in them.


Drawing Distinctions

This is completely okay. 

Some failures are truly not okay and others are essential to the learning process. Learning to distinguish between these can help us soften our reactions to the less serious failures. 

Carmen Parcelli draws from career experience to clarify that line between permissible and unacceptable failure:

I have had a whole career as a practicing attorney where failure is pretty much not an option. Of course, a judge may not buy your arguments or your client may not take your advice, but that is not failure in that setting. Failure would be if your research did not locate some precedent that is squarely on point or you missed some important document in the review process. Failures like these really aren’t permissible, at the risk of losing your license. 

For this reason, you check and quadruple-check yourself and have others looking over your work also. In aerial, the closest equivalent is wrapping for a drop where generally failure is not an option. 

I found Carmen’s explanation helpful for letting go of less significant failures. Sometimes we get worked up about failures that really are okay, when that energy should be reserved for higher-consequence failures. Drops, rigging, and safe instruction are not areas that are appropriate to fail in, but struggling to master a skill for months is actually completely okay. Completely okay! What a different feeling it creates than the label “failure.”

I’ve been practicing thinking more objectively about my failures. Reminding myself the difference between a serious failure and a minor one has been helping me get over things more easily. I am relieved to have an option to move forward efficiently instead of getting ensnared in regret and self-pity. 


Avoiding and planning for serious failure

Hope for the best, plan for the worst.

In aerial arts, performance is another context that stands solidly on one side of the line. The stage is, by definition, not a place for failure. Carmen had an interesting point that pertains to this:

Personally, I like to minimize failure. I appreciate that it is not trendy to be perfectionistic and that there is a current philosophy of try, fail, and repeat. Try, fail, and repeat seems fine as a learning strategy, but delivering at the crucial moment is also an important skill in my view. So maybe fail a hundred or a thousand times in private practice, but develop a mindset that you must nail it when it counts, which may take ungodly amounts of preparation.

Again, Cameron draws a distinction between failure as part of a normal process and failure as a legitimate problem. She actually encourages failure in the appropriate context in order to reach a point where failure is extremely unlikely in the crucial moment. 

But even if we go to great lengths to prepare, failures can still happen, even on stage. No matter how prepared you are, you can’t prevent an earthquake from striking while you perform, and unexpected accidents do happen.

Planning for failure can help accelerate damage control and recovery, and sometimes that’s the best we can help for. Put in the “ungodly amounts of preparation” to avoid the most likely failure, but also put in some preparation so you have an action plan if something does go wrong. (My ebook/digital workbook Intro to Aerial Choreography goes over this!) 


Gathering meaning and moving forward

When it’s not okay, we still have a choice to make.

When higher consequence failures do happen, there may still be insights and lessons woven into them. Aerialist Shelby Becker lets you in on her process after getting injured:

I tore a ligament in my dominant arm after a fall in 2017, which forced me to accept that my body has limitations that can’t always be overcome. I really struggled in the aftermath of my injury, because I felt that I would never be able to perform at my full capacity again. Looking back, I was right. My arm isn’t the same and it probably won’t ever be, but I am no longer allowing that to taint my love for circus. Injuries are part of life and regret isn’t going to make me perform any better.

In this example, Shelby faces a massive challenge and significant consequences. One response could have been to give up her circus life. Instead, her love for circus wins out against the limitations presented by her injury. While we all prefer not to get injured at all, Shelby reminds us that there are ways to incorporate injuries and their lessons into the path, rather than giving up altogether. This is not mere rationalization–it is an act of meaning-making and a reminder that agency is possible even in undesirable situations.

Carmen also touched on this point in her response. She says:

I guess that the most positive thing that you can get from failure is the ability to brush yourself off and forge ahead despite. I know that we have all seen instances where some little gymnast in a big competition fails off the balance beam but gets back up to complete the routine, even knowing that any chance for a medal is gone. In my view, she is the bravest motherfucker on the planet.

I love the way Carmen’s and Shelby’s examples dovetail. When your highest hope is dashed–the medal is off the table, or your ideal vision of yourself is no longer viable–there is still a choice to make. The decision to continue on demonstrates a resilience and commitment to what you love and care about, even if things might never turn out the way you hoped.

But what if failure is trying to tell you something? What if sometimes the best thing to do is not to push on, but to walk away?

We’ll cover that and more in part two.