The Art of Failure
Last night, I went to an event called The Art of Failure.
Three local artists, each famous in their own right, spoke onstage about their failures. The pain. The lessons. The gifts.
Lulu Miller, producer the record-breaking NPR podcast Invisibilia, said radio taught her to be a shitty idea machine.
Standing on stage, smile playing on her lips, Lulu rapid fired story concepts like an auctioneer.
“No? No? Maybe?” she laughed. “That’s how it is when you start to pitch. Collect your ‘no’s! Make it fun!”
Devon Sproule, a globally recognized singer/songwriter, talked about the moment she lost her voice—just before her biggest and most publicized break.a performance on a famous European TV show.
That performance, aired first on a famous European TV show, still gets the most views of any video she’s made.
“I always wonder how my career might have gone if I’d been feeling 100%,” she said. “Maybe like those annoyingly cute guys who performed the same night—Vampire Weekend.”
David Zahl, writer and editor of the Mockingbird blog and online publishing platform, referenced a failed conference that left him toying with the idea of killing his project.
But that conference led to his most popular book and long-lasting team members.
“Maybe I don’t even know what failure is,” he said. “I mean, who am I to judge?”
That’s the funny thing about slipping when you DESPERATELY want to succeed.
You have no way of knowing if you’ve failed—or sown the seeds for something great.
A few months ago, my fiancé said something that struck me as hilarious.
He looked at me across piles of bacon, eggs, and avocado—classic Saturday brunch at our place, standard food for our deep thoughts—and said, “You’re not afraid to fail.”
Au contraire, mon cher.
Like most high achievers, I’m VERY afraid to fail.
I grew up winning approval and straight As in school.
A teenage diet of creative and academic awards meant I continue to expect GREAT things from myself.
The trouble, of course, is that failure is easy.
Easy and scary and oh-so-taboo.
Right now, as I type this, I feel like a failure.
I’ve been going through a period of rapid growth and evolution in my brand and mindset. It’s seriously COOL.
But all that personal evolution means I’ve been inconsistent about posting on social media and speaking my truth in the world.
Essentially, I’m a extraverted creator who hasn’t been creating and sharing her work. Which leads to a serious case of the ICKS…followed by a bout of the “what’s wrong with you”s…followed by overwhelm, and frustation, and sadness, and a general desire to binge watch TV instead of wrestling myself back into creative flow.
Today, I woke up feeling like a failure…and yet.
And yet. And yet.
My feelings are not me.
Just because I FEEL like a failure doesn’t mean I am one.
Even if I failed to be consistent lately—
What cause is that to stop?
What cause is that to pause?
Might it be a cause, instead, to raise my voice and soar?
Might it be a cause to shout ENOUGH IS ENOUGH to the critic in my mind?
What if I took this as a sign to shed whatever misalignment keeps me bound?
To shrug off false expectations and those silly critical thoughts holding me down?
Because if I step back and look at REALITY—
I do not fault from lack of trying.
I do not fault from lack of purpose.
I do not fault because I fail.
I do not fault, not so long as my heart compels me—
To get up.
To stand up.
To speak up.
To resurface with clarified purpose and renewed intention to the burning flame that is my truth.
When a child gets on a bicycle, we KNOW he will fall. When he does, we help him stand and climb back on.
Why don’t we give ourselves the same grace?
Why don’t we accept failure as a matter of course, cuddle ourselves and climb back on?
WHY should I pretend it’s laughably easy to do what doesn’t come naturally to me?
Why do we slap a good face on the experience of riding through sleet and rain, wild winds and new terrain, grinning like maniacs and gritting our teeth when we’ve just lost our training wheels?
During last night’s talk, David Zahl said something else.
Failure, he said, is particularly painful because “we attach our projects to our identity with toxic veracity.”
In other words, we believe WE are the thing that fails.
We believe one rejected concept—
one shitty idea shot down by producers
one off-day in the recording studio
one less-than-optimal conference turnout
—means we, ourselves, suck.
This is especially true when we are our brands. You know, when you are selling yourself.
If you’re using your business to help fulfill your purpose, stakes feel high and slip-ups feel personal.
But thanks to David for the reminder that yeah, we are not our projects.
If one project, one concept, one offer doesn’t get the traction you’ve been looking for, maybe you’re NOT broken.
If you can’t seem to stick to one habit long enough to be consistent and visible and all the things that yes, you need to be, in order to make your business work—
Well, my friend, maybe you’re human and just fell off the bike.
Maybe you grabbed the handlebars and let go too soon, unnerved by their edgy, nervous flight.
Maybe you panicked and tilted too much into a weight you didn’t know how to counterbalance yet.
Maybe you haven’t found your rhythm, unlocked your body’s fluid motion, the flow that is unique to your nerves and joints and limbs.
What if, when we feel the sting of failure, we acknowledge that crappy feeling, then consciously remember it is only a feeling and not, in fact, who we truly are?
Maybe this time we wrestle our belief away from the smoke-and-mirrors perfectionism we see all around us.
Maybe this time we applaud ourselves for earning the hurt and being brave.
Maybe this time we dust off our palms and simply climb back on.
It might not be artful. It might not be easy.
But that might be all it takes.
Do YOU have a story about your own (or someone else’s) thrilling brush with failure?
Be a role model for others and share it in the comments. Together we can normalize this oh-so-normal-yet-weirdly-still-taboo topic!