When It All Goes Wrong

Something went awry onstage the other night. Horribly, uncomfortably, awkwardly wrong.

There was no way out of it. Nothing I could do could help me cover it or divert the audience’s attention. I just had to die a slow painful death onstage. I was embarrassed and humiliated.

And as I stood sheepishly onstage my mind was racing. Unsure of what to to do or say next, I began sweating profusely. The lights seemed to grow hotter and my heart started beating faster.

I could sense that I was losing the crowd. The momentum I had worked so hard to build was dissipating. The stories and jokes I had used to endear myself to the guests were all for nothing. My failure onstage cancelled everything else out.

And then it hit me. I knew what to do.

I talked about it.

I made a joke. And then another. Then I told an anecdote - a true story - about another time years ago I had experienced a similar fate.

Everyone laughed and we moved on.

Within minutes, the audience was back on my side and all was forgotten. They were laughing and applauding again. I may have lost them for a moment but they were back on board. We were a team once more and the show ended on a high note.

It was a new piece and I was worried about it. I anticipated something going wrong and it did.

It happens. And it’s going to keep happening. But I have to keep trying new things or I’ll never get better. I have to keep doing the things that scare me or I’ll never get where I want to be.

Maybe you have something scary coming up soon, too. Perhaps you have a big audition next week or you’re starting a new job. Maybe you’re about to move across the country or you’ve been really wanting to start a new business. I don’t know what it is - but I can tell you this:

It’s going to be really nerve-wracking. It may be scary or painful or embarrassing or humiliating. You may find success on your first attempt or you might suffer a crushing defeat. And even if it doesn’t go wrong this time, I can promise you that sometime soon it definitely will.

But you have to try. You have to go after it. You have to make the jump and take the risk. Just put yourself out there and, no matter what happens, you’ve already won.

That was the single most embarrassing moment I’ve had onstage in years. But the next day I woke up, made coffee, and got back to work. The sun came up over Lake Michigan and my cats followed me into the office to keep me company. It was just like any other day.

When it all goes wrong, life goes on. I survived and you will, too.


My first big performance was a huge disappointment.

I was in first grade when I found out they were holding auditions for the school talent show. They shouldn’t have made the announcement in the morning because I couldn’t focus for the rest of the day. All I could think about was getting to do magic in front of the whole school.

I remember bursting through my front door and calling to my dad, “I’m going to try out for the talent show! Will you help me practice?”

He helped me read the rules for the audition, then we pulled some tricks from my shelf of magic props and headed downstairs. He plopped down on the couch and patiently watched me as I stumbled through my makeshift performance.

I had asked my friend Tim to perform with me. He was the only other person I knew who liked magic as much as I did. So we worked on our tricks nonstop, hoping we would get a spot in the talent show.

A week later, I packed my props into my backpack and left for school. The big day had arrived. I was more nervous than I’d ever been before.

All of the hopeful performers were ushered into the gymnasium. We sat in clusters around the room as each of our names were called. People sang and danced and hula-hooped and did skits. I heard the other students playing outside and wondered what my friends were doing. For a split second I zoned out - and then:

“Up next are Mark and Tim, the magicians!”

I heard my name and suddenly I couldn’t stop shaking. Luckily, I had my friend Tim to back me up. We walked to the front and began our performance.

Our showstopper was a numbers trick. I wish I could remember the exact trick but I’ve mostly forgotten. All I know is that when I went to reveal our prediction, my principal just looked up at us with complete disappointment.

“I’m sorry. That wasn’t my number.”

We were crushed.

Something had gone wrong with the trick. I had failed in front a hundred other students and embarassed myself. When they called the final acts, our names weren’t on the list.

When I got home, I shoved my props on the shelf and swore I hated magic. I told my dad I didn’t want to do any tricks ever again. When I calmed down and wiped the tears away, I went outside and shot some hoops to calm down.

Then I heard a voice. It was my dad saying I had a phone call.

I walked inside, said hello, and was surprised to hear my principal’s voice on the other end.

“Mark, I have an apology to make. I messed up your trick. When I got home from school I tried it again and realized I made a mistake. You were right and I don’t know how you did it!”

I didn’t know what to say.

“We want you and Tim to be in the talent show. Can you guys do that?”

Of course I said yes, then hung up. I’m sure I screamed at the top of my lungs or something of the sort. All of our practice had paid off.

Not only did we get to be part of the talent show, but we actually ended up getting to be a featured act at the entrance of the school. As everyone entered for the show Tim and I were there in the lobby doing tricks for anyone who would watch. It was easily the greatest night of the first six years of my life.

If it wasn’t for my dad’s encouragement or my principal’s phone call, I might not be writing this essay. You might not be reading this post. And I might not be a professional mind reader.

Some of life’s lessons are intuitive, some are learned, and some are just downright lucky. I’m not sure where this one falls, but what I do know is that it’s impossible to fail if you never quit.

Mark and Tim's Magic Show.jpg