Don’t Fear the Reaper

Last night, I worked with the Class of 2016 and a professor in the sociology department to facilitate discussion around the 2011 documentary Bully. It was a sparsely attended screening- we spoke to a crowd of about 5 by the time the film ended. Given how much the film rights cost, we had hoped for a better showing. But, these things happen.

When a sparsely attended event happens, our first instinct is to assume that we’ve failed. We’ve misjudged our population. We didn’t advertise enough. It doesn’t reflect the will of the campus, and doesn’t need to be done again. No one likes to fail at something; when we do, we like to try and distance ourselves from that failure quickly and decisively.

But what if that original idea wasn’t a bad one?

A good idea can suffer in execution for any number of reasons. For the event in question, two bouts of rescheduling and proximity to the end of the semester hurt its case. Perhaps advertising to the wrong subset of students, or too close to the event, is to blame. Or maybe the atmosphere on campus isn’t ready to support the idea just yet. But even if the death of some ideas is truly justified, that seeming failure shouldn’t deter further creativity.

Consider the Landscape. How many events or programs are going on already? Do any of them serve similar audiences? Have those needs been otherwise served by someone else on campus? To continue with the present example, Bully had already been shown twice on campus in upper level psychology classes- many freshmen may not have known that, or the rescheduling might have hurt their ability to show the film on campus first. Whatever the reason, their poor showing may not have been the result of a lack of interest, but rather the fact that the interest had already been quenched.

Wallow in the Frustration… Yes, the event didn’t go over as you wished. Chances are, some analysis (or overanalysis) will come from that. Good. Look at the event from all sides, then do it again. What do you see that could have changed? What did go well? We’re trained as human beings to not dwell on the bad; when looking at an event with an eye on improving it, dwelling is what we should do. It’s uncomfortable, but it’s also a learning experience. And while it doesn’t feel good, we learn so much when we’re uncomfortable.

…But Then Carry On. Be a phoenix. Acknowledge the death of the event, but then rise with designs on something new. Whether that something new is a different iteration of the fallen program, or something completely different, don’t let a failure keep you from being creative. Could you fail again? Absolutely, you could. But these setbacks are very rarely something that cannot be fixed. What’s more, these setbacks could shake up the beaten path, redirect it toward something better suited for the population.

The title of this entry refers to a Blue Oyster Cult song that was parodied on Saturday Night Live several years ago. The running joke of the well-known sketch was about adding more cowbell to the song. Not everyone thought it was a good idea. But the cowbell player believed in it, kept going for it, and caused a little tension in the room. At the end of the (albeit fictional) Behind the Music, his conviction to go against the grain created a hit.

Years later, that SNL skit would inspire a tradition at Tropicana Field, the home of the Tampa Bay Rays. One of the executive VPs of the team, Andrew Friedman, is such a fan of the skit that he demanded “more cowbell” on a 3-2 hit situation. To this day, there are Rays-branded cowbells that are rung by fans throughout the stadium and across the country in a 3-2 scenario. I’m sure that someone thought that was a silly idea at some point. But at the right time, under the right circumstances, it stuck.

So don’t fear the proverbial reaper. Do something different to create a hit. And who knows? Maybe that new idea has the potential to spark a tradition. If it doesn’t, don’t despair. Stand up, brush yourself off, and try again.

2 thoughts on “Don’t Fear the Reaper

  1. “Whatever the reason, their poor showing may not have been the result of a lack of interest, but rather the fact that the interest had already been quenched.” This. So very much this. While a very confronting notion, we need to get out of our own silos and think about where else students are learning and developing, with or without us. An event where anyone, even if it’s only one, learns something is a success in my mind, but as we deal with the all too pressing reality of diminishing resources and increasing accountabilities, the need to collaborate with multiple partners on student-focused, outcomes-based programming (not events we ‘think’ students want) is essential. Thanks for the great reminder Amma. This should be required reading for all student clubs and student union/government/council executives!

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