from the November 15, 2001 edition -

To improve my business, I practice making mistakes
By Deborah Shouse

I stand on the stage and feel my stomach tighten. I'm supposed to walk over to the phone, but I'm pretty sure I can't move. Even if my legs still work, I am very sure I cannot speak.

"This is for fun," the acting teacher reminds me.

I try to smile, but my lips are so dry, they cling to my teeth. I am about to tell him I can't do this, about to walk off the stage, when I remember why I'm here: I'm working on being a better entrepreneur.

The path that led me to this stage had some interesting detours. I'd studied the traditional aspects of business-building: planning, strategizing, financing, marketing, and networking. I was conservative, analyzing every risk. I always moved with turtle-like caution. Then an international consultant gave me some surprising advice: "You need to make more mistakes."

"What?" I spent a large portion of my waking hours trying to avoid making mistakes.

"Think of yourself as a maverick," the consultant said. "A maverick has ideas that push beyond the norm. Lots of these ideas fail, and that makes people uncomfortable. But to be a great entrepreneur, you need to practice making mistakes....'

I wanted to find some inexpensive way to finance my discomfort, and a friend recommended Celtic dancing. As I walked down the cement steps to the church basement where the group practiced, my stomach felt queasy. I had last danced in junior high, or rather, I'd stood on the dance floor and desperately tried to follow the assistant editor of the yearbook as he marched his way through a waltz.

"Let's get into groups of eight," the leader of the Celtic dance group said. He led me to a cluster of seven others. Everyone seemed to know one another. Everyone seemed coordinated and competent.

The caller walked us through the intricate 19th-century dance steps twice, slowly, letting us get used to the movements and patterns. Images of corners, partners, and hay-for-fours flooded my mind. Yes, I could do this.

Then, I had to face the music. Instantly, I became lost in the flowing movement. My triple step faded into a sloppy shuffle. My turn became a stumble. I lost my partner, my corner, and didn't know what to do. I was not only making pathetic mistakes, I was making them in real time, in front of seven strangers. I didn't know which was worse, staying in the tangle and ruining the dance or leaving and ruining the dance.

"Over here," I heard a gentle voice coax. A man held out his hand. "We're going around the circle, and then you're going inside to form a star," he said, as he skipped me around the outside of the circle.

Then a woman took my hand, and we joined with two other women to form a pivot point. "Triple step," she coached. I got around the inner circle, and then someone led me into a promenade. "Next, we do a turn, and then you go back in the center for another star," he whispered.

I was coached literally one step at a time. I focused on my feet and on figuring out who my next guide would be. I was sweating by the time the dance ended, more from embarrassment than exertion. I could barely bring myself to raise my head and face my fellow dancers.

"Good job," said the woman across from me, smiling.

"You've got a lot of guts," said the man next to me.

"You show real potential," said another.

I felt a buoyancy as, one by one, the group praised me. I was not a hopeless klutz; I was their prize student.

For the next dance, we repeated the process, going through the motions of the dance, and then the group guided me through the actual dance. Once I got over the fact that I didn't know what I was doing, I began having fun. Goofing up and having fun.

That evening transformed my attitude about making mistakes. I saw how my vulnerability inspired people to help me. I saw how a group working together could succeed even if one person was clueless. I saw how wonderful it felt to receive help. And, by the end of the night, I was doing something that nearly resembled dancing.

Since I had officially made mistakes in front of many strangers, the next day it was somehow easier to call and bid on a project. Days earlier I had agonized - what if I bid too much? What if I got the project and found I had bid too little? Now, I imagined the client and I working together, figuring out the right rhythm, agreeing on the proper amount of money.

I got the job. And I continued dancing. Dance after dance, the group gently led me through. After four sessions, I could do a hay-for-four. After six, I had one of the step combinations memorized. At the eighth session, a new man joined, and they asked me to help him out. Each time I laughed at myself for forgetting a turn or stumbling over a step, I felt stronger, less afraid. That feeling translated into a calmer, more adventuresome attitude in my business.

So I'm still standing on this stage. I haven't gotten up the courage to speak or move. I'm taking Advanced Mistakes 301 - officially called "Acting for Beginners." I'm now ready to make mistakes alone, right in front of people.

My voice quavers as I pick up the ringing phone and say my first line. As I speak, suddenly I feel confident. I forget about the audience as I remember what I'm supposed to do. In this scene, I'm supposed to act like an entrepreneur.

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Deborah Shouse and Ron Zoglin
(816) 361-7878