The problems of failure feel like huge ships crashing into cliffs. They feel like rot. I think when we start out with a dream and our ideas are sparkly and wonderful and exciting, it is easy to forget about failure. It is easy to forget that failure is what shapes us and makes us who we are. And when we get going and our little engine is chugging along and all seems well and fine and dandy, nothing can get us down. We have plans and nothing will stop us. That track laid ahead will curve just the way we want it to.
Until it doesn’t.
An author’s book might bomb even though it was published with a huge publisher. A dancer might break their ankle and never be able to dance the same again. A huge actor might pick the wrong role and become a laughing stock forever. Any number of things can go wrong. Those are all big things. Small things happen too. In fact, it is often the small things piling up on top of each other that can bring us down even more than those big things.
Neil Gaiman gave an incredible keynote address to the University of the Arts in Philadelphia. It is a speech filled with love and honesty and, well, failure. The speech is not a failure, but Gaiman talks about failure, and he talks about it in a way that you know he has been there despite his success. And so people listen to him because he has been there and he has delicious, beautiful things to share. But the very thing he says about doing what you want to do even though you have no idea what you’re doing, is what makes failure so wonderful and not so problematic after all. Because from what I’ve seen, many who fail get up again. They get creative, and those who get creative eventually succeed more than they would have if everything had “gone right” the first time around. And “the problems of success”, Gaiman says, “can be harder, because nobody warns you about them.” Things like not believing your success even when it stares you in the face with all its glitter and sparklies. Or fearing that someone is going to reveal you as a hack. Or, worse than anything else, believing you don’t deserve it and subconsciously creating a way for yourself to fail after all that success.
I think that beyond any of the problems we might face, whether they be problems of failure or success, there is the art we create. In a way, it stays in its own little bubble, whether it sells or not, whether it stays in a drawer or not, whether it makes it to a household name or not, whether it is praised or booed off the stage. It is always what it is and nothing changes that. The work is done. Something was created. Neil Gaiman says in his speech: “The things I did because I was excited, and wanted to see them exist in reality have never let me down, and I’ve never regretted the time I spent on any of them.”
I haven’t either, even if they fail in every other expectation.
But Gaiman’s biggest failure in heeding advice, he said, was that he worried. He did not take advice to enjoy what he was doing. He worried instead, and he missed a lot. “But there were parts of the ride I missed, because I was too worried about things going wrong, about what came next, to enjoy the bit I was on.”
How many times have you heard that? To enjoy where you are at? Well I need to hear it a lot, apparently, and I’m sure many others do, as well. STOP WORRYING. Stop biting your fingernails. Stop wondering how big you can make it. Stop berating yourself for not getting to the greener grass. STOP IT. STOP IT. STOP IT. Just enjoy where you are. Success. Failure. Knowing. Unknowing.
Do something with you creativity. Fail. Enjoy it. Get up. And live.
And by the way, I highly recommend listening to Neil Gaiman’s speech. You won’t regret it.