The upside of failure, the downside of success
Failure sucks. It sucks so much, that we do everything we can to avoid it. We live in a failure adverse world, and to fail, is the worst thing that can happen to a person. But to create is to invite the possibility of failure, and every creator will experience it at some point. It's the reality of being an artist: You Will Fail. And that's very, very okay. In fact, it's a good thing.
I know, that looking at failure as a good thing goes against everything we've been taught. I know this sounds totally ludicrous, and even as I type this, it feels wrong, but stay with me.
We view failure and success as end results, and that's a problem. If they were just moments within our narratives, rather than the result, they could aid us. To fail means an attempt has been made, and that's a positive thing. The attempt did not go the way we hoped, and that's knowledge we can use on our next attempt. We can learn so much from failure.
My partner and I failed recently. We worked for months on a show; we were going to practice what we preach and put on a show that we, as audience members, would love. We adopted the attitude of aiming for the best, and never accepting 'good enough'. But very few people saw our show. It was disappointing to have worked so hard on something, and be unable to share it with more people. Financially, it was also a bust; we put a lot of resources into it and were unable to cover the costs of our efforts. We had made an error in judgment; we thought that putting our energy into a quality show, would mean people would want to see it. Our failure made us realize that we hadn't put enough energy into promoting the show, and the marketing we had done, didn't properly express what the show was about. We accepted that this had happened because neither of us had any interest in marketing. Next time, we should bring someone on board who does know and enjoy marketing.
Realizing this was all well and good, but we still felt pretty awful about the whole thing, until we took another step back and re-examined our goal. Our goal wasn't to fill the theatre; we wanted it, but it wasn't our original purpose. We had begun our project with the aim of creating a show that would surprise and delight our audience. We wanted them to leave the theatre smiling, and in that, we had succeeded. Once we got into our run, we had allowed ourselves to fall into other people's metric of success, and forget our own.
In our general world view, when someone is described as a success it means they have achieved a certain amount of prestige or money through their efforts. But that doesn't mean that individual has succeeded at whatever goal they set for themselves. When we got into our run, we began worrying about a metric that hadn't been ours; because others aimed for large houses, we began to as well. It was only when we examined what we had actually set out to do, that we could see that we had succeeded.
It's useful to ask yourself when setting out on a new project, what are you aiming for? What does success look like to you? What are your metrics of success? I was recently listening to The Moment with Brian Koppelman and he was chatting with Seth Godin. Godin was discussing metrics of success and pointed out that if the scoreboard at a soccer game recorded every kick a player made with his left foot, that's all that anyone would care about. We have the ability to choose our own metric of success. When making art, what is yours?
We've looked at failure as a learning opportunity, but what about success? Success clearly means that you know what you're doing, right? Wrong. Success means that you achieved something you set out to do, which is great, but it doesn't mean that your next project will benefit from the same methods. The danger of success is that it inhibits creativity; it causes successful people to aim for maintaining their success, rather than growing and achieving higher goals. When people are successful, they become even more focused on avoiding failure; they stop being creative with their work, and trying new things, rather choosing to replicate the kind of work that helped them achieve their success. This kind of work, the be- safe- and -please everyone kind of work, tends to be boring, passionless, and as Peter Brook would say, dead. Put on work that inspires you, and you will inspire others. Put on work that doesn't inspire you, but you think might inspire others, and it will fall flat, because it will be a lie.
Success is great, but don't let it frighten you into avoiding failure. Failure is a necessary step toward growth of any kind. When we fail, we should applaud our efforts, and that they were great enough to allow us to fall. And then, take a look at why we failed, and what we can learn from that. Know what you're aiming for, and go for it. You will fail, and that's great. You will eventually succeed, and that's cool. Enjoy that success, then put it aside. Let yourself fail once more. Success and failure are not the end goals; they are just moments, pit stops, on the journey of your creative life.