Fail your way to Success

“Notice the difference between what happens when a man says to himself, I have failed three times, and what happens when he says, I am a failure.” — S. I. Hayakawa

Failing is an essential part of life. I sincerely hope you failed at something this week. Perhaps you botched a recipe, missed a few questions on an exam, or were rejected by the opposite sex. Congratulations.

If you’re not failing, you’re stagnating. Instead of moving forward, falling and scraping your knee, you’re pedaling in place, on the stationary bike that is your existence. You’re comfortably getting nowhere.

Failing is essential to the creative process. Ideas and creative works perish, in a process akin to natural selection: multitudes are born, most will die. The best make it, and provide seeds for future growth.

I’ve always been a fan of the Onion, the satirical newspaper that offers some of the most cutting, clever humor you’ll find anywhere today. Consider the work that goes into it: the writers of the Onion start with 600 potential headlines each week, and over two days, select a mere 16 to appear in their paper:

This American Life – Tough Room, 2011

I found this story to be rather inspiring, especially with my background in stand-up comedy. It made me feel better about all my failed jokes. If anything, it made me realize I wasn’t writing, testing and refining enough bad jokes.

A good artist needs to maintain a high, exacting standard. Produce and create first, and soberly assess, revise or discard afterward. Repeat!

Stephen Colbert and Finding your Voice

I was pleased to see this!

The comedic and the poetic are cousins, and Colbert’s enthusiasm reaffirmed my committment to this new blog. I used to perform stand-up comedy, and since I’ve let that go, I’ve been trying to fill the resulting void. Colbert’s recital of poetry and interview with Caroline Kennedy about her book, “Poems to Learn by Heart”  hit me like a good omen.

One comment of Colbert’s that stuck with me is when he said (in a radio interview, perhaps on Fresh Air): “I’m not a comedian, I’m a character.” This resonates with me: my best moments on stage occurred in the guise of a character.

I also recall the words of Lenny Bruce: “I’m not a comedian, I’m Lenny Bruce.”  The successful artist must be willing to find his voice, his persona, his signature style – no matter what. Otherwise, he will remain a mediocrity. A successful mediocrity, perhaps, but he will never set himself apart.

Everyone has limitations. Conan O’Brien noted that it would be absurd for him to play a comedic actor in a romantic comedy, Jon Stewart feels like a failure in the realm of movies, and comedian Mark Maron invigorated his career when he turned to pod-casting.

One thing that intrigues me is when genius strays from its realm of talent, only to fail utterly. I love the German philosopher Nietzsche and I love the writer H.P. Lovecraft, but they both failed at writing poetry. It was not meant to be.

We mock celebrities when they fail in a new endeavor: an actor who tries to sing, a singer who tries to act, etc. Consider the reverse: the unsuccessful artist who doesn’t try anything new, but had untapped potential elsewhere. Maybe the struggling comedian would have excelled at acting.  Maybe the bassist in the band who excels at marketing could be making big money — promoting better talent.

And then there’s Mitch Hedberg, who illustrates the need to stay the course and resist being led astray:

“As a comedian, I always get into situations where I’m auditioning for movies and sitcoms, you know? As a comedian, they want you to do other things besides comedy. They say ‘alright you’re a comedian, can you write? Write us a script. Act in this sitcom.’ They want me to do shit that’s related to comedy, but it’s not comedy, man. It’s not fair, you know? It’s as though if I was a cook, and I worked my ass off to become a really good cook, and they said “alright you’re a cook… can you farm?”

Hedberg found his calling, but what if you’re residing in the wrong slot, in the wrong niche? Perhaps you need to create your own niche, because the pre-exisiting ones can’t contain you. Perhaps you are complacent with average competence — when you could be shining with greatness!

One example: Early in his career, Jim Carrey excelled at impressions. He made very good money in Vegas, but after a while, he knew he was stagnating. So he stopped doing them, cold turkey. Someone remarked – Why would you stop?! That’s like cutting off your right arm! To which he replied – I’ll just learn to use my left. (I’m paraphrasing.)  He didn’t settle, he deliberately chose to innovate.

I hate when people say, “Don’t ever give up! If you believe in it, it will happen.” This is a pile of bullshit, with some corny kernels of truth mixed in. I’ve watched people attempt stand-up comedy for years, slogging away at open mics, and going nowhere. Some of it has to do with their work ethic: they think that merely appearing at open mics is enough. Well, a body-builder doesn’t win competitions by relentlessly entering them and displaying himself on stage, he wins by working on his body of work in private, outside the limelight. Nearly all comedians could benefit immensely by increasing their writing output. They complain about it all the time: “I’m so tired of my jokes!” (I know I did.) But then there are people who I instinctly know will never be funny! They aspire to attain a character trait they admire, because that trait is nearly absent from their personality.

I believe in the virtue of persistence – very much so.  Don’t give up, yes. But after a some hard work, step back and assess. Occasionally you need to shift gears, branch out, try new things. You will fail, perhaps spectacularly. But it could be that you’re failing now. You’re trying to farm on land in a desert, when you should be drilling for oil. You need to tap that.