To Fail Or Not To Fail

Every failure is a stepping stone to your next success. Failure is something that we all experience. No one on this planet has lived a life without failing at something that they tried to do. Putting your best efforts into something and falling short is often a source of shame for many. A lot of us use our missteps as a weapon against ourselves and enter the dangerous neighborhood in our brain that I like to call Comparisonville. Bad things happen there. The act of comparing our insides with someone else’s outsides is a recipe for despair and disappointment. Culturally, we are so obsessed with succeeding. We work ourselves into a tizzy and sacrifice our emotional and physical well-being to achieve status, wealth, beauty and the like. We fail to see that no path to success and achievement is without failures. A meaningful life isn’t built on one big achievement, it is pieced together by connecting many moments of tiny wins and tiny losses.

Hearing my friend share wisdom about failure today reminded me of the many times that I thought I failed at something. Little did I know that a blessing was right around the corner. When I was kicking myself for not “measuring up”, or wallowing in my own self pity for not meeting my own expectations or perhaps the expectations of others; I was being “seasoned” by the Universe to meet my next opportunity. In hindsight, if I had achieved everything I thought I wanted, I probably would have sold myself short.

I remember when I was about the age of 15 and a young dancer in CT; a mentor of mine used his connections in the NYC dance scene to get me a coveted spot in a Twyla Tharp Summer Intensive. Before he told me about the opportunity, I had never heard of the famed choreographer. I was happy about the chance I was being given, but in retrospect, I was swept away by his excitement more so than my own. As a young, shy, sensitive boy, the prospect of traveling daily to NYC from CT alone and dancing with strangers who were perhaps more talented and sophisticated than I, was a heavy load to bear. I can now envision a young Steven standing before the workshop administrator, sharing that I had decided to drop out and being berated by her for “wasting” an extraordinary chance to learn. Just steps away was Mikhail Baryshnikov, my dance idol talking to another dancer. I barely heard a word the administrator said because I was so star struck. I left the studio that day and headed back to Grand Central Terminal for my train back home and felt like a failure. I thought my fears had gotten the best of me, but I was powerless over them. I didn’t realize that the experience had given me the gift of determination to pursue my dream of being a professional dancer in NYC. The next step was to audition for colleges and be accepted by a reputable school. New York University’s Tisch School Of The Arts was the school and my education there prepared me to have a successful dance career.

When I was 28 and established as a professional modern dancer, I began the task of auditioning for musical theatre and more commercial work. I would read Backstage, the trade paper for performing artists in NYC and decide what job posting seemed most suitable for me. I often felt like an outsider looking into that world of song and dance. I began to study voice in order to compete at the cattle call auditions. I can’t tell you how many times I was rejected. Standing before the folding tables full of casting directors, choreographers and their assistants with blank stares on their faces. During those moments I tried my best to perform the choreography and if I was lucky, sing my 16 bars of music. Often hearing some version of, “Thank you for coming, but you’re not what we are looking for”. So many days I questioned why I was pursuing theatre work. I felt like a complete failure. One day, I saw a posting for dancer/singers in Disney’s The Lion King. I felt drawn to that production since the day I saw the show. I knew that the dance vocabulary was natural for my body and the music was so enchanting and soulful. I showed up for the audition, along with about 50 other men. I danced the choreography well and made cut after cut until there were only 5 or 6 of us left. I even sang my 16 bars of music. I felt so at home in the audition. Despite the warmth and excitement I felt, I still heard the words that no dancer wants to hear at an audition, “Thank you for coming but, you’re not what we are looking for”. I had a feeling that I wasn’t going to walk away with the prize that day. When they asked for tumbling passes by dancers with gymnastic backgrounds, I knew I was out of the running. For some strange reason, on that day, I didn’t mind hearing the words of rejection. I already had a good job, I did my best and I was proud of myself as well as grateful for the remarkable experience. Fast forward one year, and my phone rings. On the other end of the line was the casting director I met the year earlier at The Lion King audition. I was invited to another audition. Days later I walk into the room and to my surprise, I was the only attendee. A private audition! That doesn’t happen every day. I was overwhelmed. I danced and sang my heart out. By the end of the day, I received word that I got the part with the Canadian cast of the show. Within weeks I relocated to Toronto and that began an 8 year relationship with Disney Theatricals. What a thrilling endeavor! So, every other failed audition prepared me for that triumphant experience.

During my time dancing in the Pridelands, my taste for wine, spirits and drugs grew. For years my drinking and drug use was something that I could do without great consequences. However, something changed. Three years into my Broadway career, I was crashing and burning. Some of my dearest relationships were suffering because I valued partying more than my loved ones. I was poisoning my body and mind. With every drink, toke of a joint, line of cocaine or swallowing of a pill, I was surrendering more and more of my soul to darkness. I struggled to look at myself in the mirror. I couldn’t understand why it was happening to me. “Steven, get it together” was what I thought at times. After a weekend of binging in late July 2002, I admitted complete defeat. I could no longer drink casually. I drank desperately and I had to stop. I felt so defeated and didn’t know how I was going to go forward without my “tools” that helped me take the edge off of life. I felt like I failed at living. While envisioning my life without mood and mind altering substances, I thought I would never be creative again. Well, when I entered recovery I was shocked to discover a vibrant, passionate and creative life waiting for me. I always sensed the Divine nature of creativity but never considered that my substance use might have hindered the expression of the deepest parts of myself. Without the interference, my creative spark was allowed to burn bright. A perceived failure transformed into a huge success. Probably my biggest success in life.

When you find yourself backed up against a wall or in the fetal position on the floor because life handed you a loss, great or small; trust that you are being “seasoned” by the Universe. You are being prepared for your next win. The wins are so much sweeter after the losses. They are hard earned and well deserved. Celebrate your journey my friend. There’s always a rainbow in a cloud.

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Steven Washington

I am a man who has lived a rich life. From the projects of Stamford, CT to Broadway stages to the beaches of Malibu. I write to share my experiences.