The e-mail arrived on May 31st, 2018. Subject line: “Audition details.”
I had just been invited to audition for a role at a theatrical production company I had been dreaming of working with for some time. I had replied to their casting call a few weeks earlier, encouraged by a friend and some sparkling wine- it was the 1st of May after all, a good day to explore the boundaries of your comfort zone. In my role as an entrepreneurship educator at Aalto University, I often encourage my students to get comfortable with being uncomfortable in order to reach their goals. Even so, submitting the application, complete with headshots and a cover letter outlining my dreams, hopes, and very limited stage experience felt very personal. What if I was rejected?
In an industry where audition callback ratios of under 1% are not uncommon, putting yourself out there again and again can feel daunting. With that percentage in mind, the 90% failure rate of startups within the first 5 years doesn’t seem that bad. For me personally, auditioning has been a great way to get comfortable with failure, an important learning goal in many of my entrepreneurship classes. Failing fast, a philosophy that values testing and incremental development to determine whether an idea is worth pursuing is central to the entrepreneurship curriculum.
In my classes, I aim to give my students tools to cope with the ambiguity, uncertainty, and risk they will face in their own ventures. The key is to take low-stakes risks early on, put the momentary failure into perspective, learn from it, and try again. One way to do this is to “get out of the building”: show the idea you’re working on to potential customers at an early stage in order to get feedback. Practicing this in a course environment gives students the option to externalize the risk-taking as yet another course assignment, making the inevitable rejections feel less personal. It also allows us to build connections to people we’d like to know better, but don’t have a connection to just yet. “I know you’re an expert on this topic, could I get your thoughts on a related project I’m working on for a University assignment?” is a great icebreaker. Not everyone you approach will be willing to help, but often my students are surprised at how many are, and how easy it can be to reach people. I’ve had students successfully book feedback interviews for their projects with government ministers, CEOs, and potential future employers, simply by having the courage to ask for it.
Getting comfortable with asking for something, whether it be feedback on a course project or auditioning for yet another role, gets easier with practice, and can lead to unexpected rewards. In my case, this particular audition was a success, marking the beginning of an adventure that has sparked joy, created a wealth of experiences, and made me a better teacher. In the 5 years following my first audition, I have worked with tens of different production companies and theatres in various roles: as an actor, performer, stage manager, lighting technician, wardrobe manager, front-of-house staff, and floor sweeper. Similar to start-ups, theatrical productions often need everyone to try out their skills in various roles, some of which come with a steep learning curve. There is little room for hyper-focused roles, and everyone pitches in to get the idea off the ground.
While my theatrical side hustle is more for fun than profit, joining a performing arts group that produces, markets and sells its own performances has broadened my understanding of branding, entrepreneurship, and customer service. It’s generated experiences that I can bring to the classroom, connected me to others in the university’s entrepreneurial ecosystem, and created a mutual interest with my students, some of whom come to watch me on stage. The biggest benefit for me has, however, been the stage experience. Teaching is a form of public speaking, and my theatre experience has helped me immensely in delivering the content of my lectures in a way that helps students connect it to it. Improv training and the experiences I’ve had on stage have helped me handle mistakes, mishaps, and technical glitches with grace.
Often, just before I meet the students of a class that I’m just about to meet for the first time, I feel the same flutter in my stomach that I get while standing in the wings in a theatre. Fortunately, there is very little physiological difference in how the body processes fear and excitement. One of the key takeaways that students get from my entrepreneurship classes is to embrace that feeling: tell yourself that you are excited, not scared.
Meri Kuikka is a teacher of entrepreneurship and product design at Aalto University. Want to learn to think like an entrepreneur? Come take our courses: https://avp.aalto.fi/avp-startup-minor/