How Failure Worked for Me

For years I had a deeply personal secret. Only family and some acquaintances I knew from the era of bell-bottom pants and a CB in every car were/are aware of my shame. I failed seventh grade.

You may chuckle or chortle but it still remains a deep wound to my spirit. One that I exposed in ACTING: Make It Your Business. And my choice to do so in the book and again here remains a terribly uncomfortable offering of honesty.

If repeating seventh grade weren’t a humiliating wake-up call enough, with teachers when I first re-entered their room for another round asking, “What’re you doing here?”, I foolishly seemed to keep wanting to repeat my recidivism for academic failure. I spent several semesters attending required summer school during my high school years. Including my senior year. My adolescent academic failure got to the point where it disallowed my participation in the graduation ceremony. The ugly details of which are in that aforementioned book.

Why did I continually fail at academics? Was I an intellectual nit? No. Laziness and a lack of priorities were the culprits.

How did failure work for me? The self-inflicted emotional scars that linger arduously drive me to make certain that I am never again, for lack of earnest effort, to fault for a failure I will encounter in the future. I can fail for lack of skill to which then I will learn how to improve myself. That’s not a shame. But to fail for lack of trying; there is no forgiveness.

Actors encounter failure often. But let’s focus what is and is not failure. If you’re auditioning and a more qualified actor for the role is hired then you did not fail. Someone who was better suited for the role was chosen. There is no blame. unless you have been lax at improving your art. You are culpable if both you and the actor were dead-on for the role but what kept you from advancing was an aspect of your craft that could be improved by you. But a desire for improvement is not an entitlement to being better. There are many ‘actors’ or ‘actor/singers’ who can’t act or sing for sh*t and just shouldn’t be in the business. To which those people are at fault for not recognizing they are out of their league and should pursue a career in which their bank account and personal fulfillment will be better sated.

If you’re unprepared for an audition (you didn’t study the material given, you arrived late and flustered to the audition site, your personality in the room was cold and unbecoming, etc.) you are to blame for the failure. Take then from that experience the knowledge of what you did wrong and strive not have a repeat performance of such in the future. That’s how failure can be a good thing. It’s like the worn old adage; “Learn from your mistakes.”

Mistakes? Yes, I have a few that I own. And if I fail again (and it’s more than possible; so to for you if you’re honest with yourself) then I will make damn sure not to repeat the cause(s) for my defeat.

Determination to succeed is the bastard child of failure. Embrace the off-spring as if it were your very own. Only then will failure work for you as it has for me.

My Best,

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Paul Russell’s career as a casting director, director, acting teacher and former actor has spanned nearly thirty years. He has worked on projects for major film studios, television networks, and Broadway. Paul has taught the business of acting and audition technique at NYU and has spoken at universities including Yale, Temple and the University of the Arts. He writes a column for Back Stage and is the author of ACTING: Make It Your Business – How to Avoid Mistakes and Achieve Success as a Working Actor. For more information, please visit


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