Written by Alex White
Have you ever watched an “Epic Fail Compilation” on YouTube?
I watched far too many in my cloistered highschool days. From what I remember, it’s usually short clips, in the “Americas Funniest Home Videos” style, where we see some hapless person falling over, or getting doused in some way, or some other variety of an unfortunate event. In other words, the videos are about ten minutes worth of pure mistakes.
I recently read the book “Fail, fail again, fail better” which documents Pema Chodron’s 2014 Naropa commencement speech. The book opens with a quote from Samuel Beckett “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail better. Fail again.” This idea has probably helped me in my creative endeavors more than anything else ever has. Reading this book has helped remind me of that, and has helped me open up my creativity. It has helped me learn how to sit with the rawness and vulnerability of failing. What could you take away from this? How can you sit with your raw and vulnerable feelings? It’s about recontextualizing failure.
Watching epic fail compilations, it’s clear to me that these people are in the middle of an unfortunate event.
I know that it’s the events that are happening that are failures, not the people.
We can translate that same attitude over to giving a bad performance on stage or making a piece that doesn’t quite pan out. Certain things happened a type of way, and you don’t feel good about it. You feel raw and ashamed or embarrassed. It’s important to sit with those feelings and to be curious about them in a kind way. They didn’t happen to you, they just happened. A normal response might be, “Why am I such an idiot? I’m such a failure. I am so stupid” etc, etc. If you approach it with kind curiosity it might sound like “How can I approach this differently next time?” or “Oh, man, that was funny, it’s okay though, we all have moments like this.”
You can also start to question the negative thoughts themselves by noticing when they arise and asking “What causes me to think this way? What am I really feeling at this moment?” and sitting with the emotions and thoughts until they inevitably pass.
In one of my favorite passages from the book, Pema talked about a quote from James Joyce where he recontextualizes failures as mistakes and says mistakes are “the portals of discovery.”
Many of the most beautiful things that I make are not made by me. They are a result of happenstance. A fling of paint, a misspelled word, a process of discovery while trying to “fix” a mistake.
In the “Forward” by Seth Godin, he tells a story about trying to get a foreword from a successful and influential entrepreneur for his first book. Getting this foreword would have put the book in a very good spot to succeed. The only problem is that when Seth sent his request he spelled foreword as forward, and the entrepreneur declined to write the foreword for this reason. This is pedantic but important. Denying Seth’s request because of a small error like this is a very asshole thing to do, but we all need our assholes. They are necessary for the full functioning of the human organism. Without them, we wouldn’t have to confront all of the shit in our lives. It taught Seth the important lesson that sometimes we fuck up, make mistakes, and that we won’t always get what we want. We will be rejected. Many times. For many reasons. But the only thing we can do is move forward.
It’s ironic that once I started to let myself fail, I started to have more “success” in my life. I became more productive, efficient, and the whole process gained a more pleasurable feeling. I catch myself chuckling many times over how “bad” something I make might be. Failing helps me find more solid footing. In an interview I watched recently Tyler The Creator revealed that many of the ideas that were happening during the Odd Future era were first drafts. They were all getting together and having fun, they weren’t trying to perfect anything before putting it out into the world. Going with your intuition, what you know that you have to say is a valid course of action.
In a way, I view this article as a failure.
I know I won’t be satisfied with it. There will be some clunky wording or framing of ideas, The only way to learn though, is to put it out there. Get feedback. Sit in the vulnerability or expressing my ideas to the public. Pema talks about the “Fine art of failing” and knowing that this is another failure in the books is okay. There is a twinge in my gut when I write that because a part of me still holds onto the idea that everything needs to be perfect, well planned, well-executed. I don’t fully believe it’s okay that this might be a failure. That goes for most projects I work on. I am through with letting the fear of failure hold me back.
I aspire to be a good writer. I live with mild dyslexia, and that can make it challenging sometimes. I have trouble learning new words and spelling. I am a pretty slow reader. I believe in the growth mindset though, which Carol Dweck defines as “In a growth mindset, people believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work—brains and talent are just the starting point. This view creates a love of learning and a resilience that is essential for great accomplishment.” This attitude combined with the courage to repeatedly fail is a strong method for improvement in anything that you are truly interested in. I tend to work with my limitations and treat challenges kinda like jiu-jitsu where I take the momentum of my limitations and move with them. That is why I gravitate towards poetry because my mistakes can be viewed as creativity, and I pull the wool over your eyes and walk away sumg like I meant it.
“So how to fail”.
I find it funny that there is a correct way to fail. But there is truth to the idea. What’s important for me is that it doesn’t come with judgment. Judgment comes from thinking failure happens to us. “We move away from the rawness” of failure by blaming outside forces. The big problem is tying our identity up with unfortunate circumstances. One thing I find helpful is to not identify with the emotions surrounding events that didn’t go my way. Instead of saying “I’m angry, I’m sad, I’m a failure.” I say “There is angre, there is sadness, there was a failure.” I still fully feel these emotions, I just try to avoid tying myself up with them, with my “I”.
In a larger context, I think that it is especially important for artists to fail. Not only to discover their own unique voice but to give permission to everyone to do the same. In the song “I’m Gonna Have Sex” by The I.L.Y.’s the verse that stands out most to me is “Yins and yangs what do you do with these things? Cut my bangs, Gonna take on everyone's shame”. Now, as people, we should have strong boundaries, and handle our own shit, and not “take on” everyone's shame. But with our artistic personas? I think yes, that is a noble cause. Fail hard as fuck and don’t be ashamed about it. Take it on. Caught in paradoxes, both can be true or something like that.
This all reminds me of the other day when I was walking around the woods. I came across a river and had a strong instinct to go in it. I could smell the pine trees and feel the sun on my skin, and it felt so right to go in. I took off my shoes and socks and walked into the river. It was cold and my body tensed up. I started going upstream for a while until the water was over my head. I walked like this underwater for about an hour, and then gradually rose up out of it until I could breathe again. I didn’t really want to go back underwater, but I was compelled to keep walking, and sure enough, the water rose above my head. I just keep pushing through though, and it only took about 20 minutes to breakthrough and get that breath of fresh air. To feel the sun on my skin again. It went on like this for a while, until I was walking pretty steady with my head above the water. That was a nice day.