We worry a lot about failure. Some more than others, but we all do it. At the back of everybody’s mind, there is that little voice that asks, “what if my best isn’t good enough?” On our most treasured and precious projects, we can become so fearful of failure that we’re often too paralysed to complete them (or even start them!). Failure, we’re told, is shameful and bad. We should do everything possible to avoid failure, up to and including never trying at all. That’s the popular view.
Well I am here to tell you an uncomfortable truth. No matter what you do, no matter how well, no matter to what quality, it will most assuredly end in failure. Even if it is a screaming, rip-roaring success, in many people’s eyes it will still be an abject failure. Failure is everywhere and it is the default state. It doesn’t matter how excellent your work or how well you develop yourself, it will ultimately be a failure. Don’t believe me? How come I can pick up sixty of the most successful number one hits of the seventies, which must have cost hundreds of thousands of pounds to produce and market and which rode high in the charts for weeks, for just three quid at the local supermarket? There are cuts of meat that cost more.
That’s a pretty bleak assertion, isn’t it? I bet some of you, if not all of you, are vehemently disagreeing with me at this very minute and writing me off as “just very negative”. On the contrary. I hope to show you that because everything ends in ultimate failure, that failure doesn’t matter. I will show you that it is important to embrace inevitable failure and act as if the penalty cannot be worse than never producing your work at all. That’s because it happens to be true. Never producing your music or your poems or your paintings is far, far worse than producing them, but having them judged to be a failure. The truth about failure is that nobody can agree on what a failure is. Failure is in the eye of the beholder.
Lee Evans is a comedian of some repute in the UK. His original act was as a song and dance man, but he will openly admit that he was wholly useless at it. He will tell you he was an absolute idiot, on stage. It was that idiocy that became his act. The more seriously he took his musical performance, the more absurd and marked his ineptitude and idiocy at taking himself so seriously became, so the more audiences laughed. Lee makes a handsome living as a failed song and dance act.
Lee Evans grew up in a household where failure was met with frowns and disdain. That early childhood experience made him so agile at dodging the bullets of criticism raining down upon him, that his performances became a fidgety, self-apologetic, rapid-fire, frenetic monologue, delivered in a futile attempt to avoid being found out as a fraud and not-quite-good-enough. This nervous energy, built on the foundations of a devastated self-confidence, is actually what makes his humour so endearing to audiences and why his comic delivery is like some sort of blitzkrieg.
Every band that ever formed and had some success ultimately split up, shrank, kept going, but played to smaller and smaller audiences or went broke. For every formerly massively successful rock star, there is a middle aged man in a day job who still sees himself as a wonderful musician, but who the world has chosen to tire of and ignore. This has nothing to do with the quality of his music, his musicianship, him as a person or anything else the former rock star can control. It’s just a simple fact that, at some point, the critical mass of those that regard him as a failure (who were there, but in smaller numbers, right from the very start of his musical career) have somehow become the majority. This process is independent of the musician’s actual talent, application, luck, output or any of a number of things that rock stars do in a vain attempt to extend their careers. It’s unfair, in fact, but it’s the way it goes. Every musician riding the crest of a wave should always remember that it is a brief and glorious moment in the sun. Even Paul McCartney, one of the most beloved musicians of all time, struggles to sell his new albums in anything like the quantities of his earlier works. Does that make him a failure? Hardly.
Record companies routinely jump the gun and drop artists prematurely, thereby snuffing out promising musical careers and foreshortening their development as artists, because they read some sales numbers and make a decision that the last record was a failure. Sales figures can be skewed for myriad reasons. To base a decision on whether or not a musician is a failure based on sales figures is a failure as a business man, to be honest.
Every politician’s career ends in failure. They are ultimately thrown out of office. Painters like Renoir and Monet, for all their wonderful paintings, lost their powers at the end of their lives. Monet had failing eyesight and Renoir had crippling arthritis. Do you think that the creations in their minds’ eyes were any worse? No. What they lacked was youthful vitality in their bodies. The failure of these painters was entirely due to circumstances beyond their artistic control.
Critics are the ultimate failures. They are unable to express their artistic preferences through their own art works, so in their stead they run a campaign of trying to force fit everybody else’s artwork into their imaginary aesthetic framework, demanding a standard that they themselves could not reach and which, in fact, may be unattainable. This ridiculous aesthetic bigotry is simply an attempt to comfort themselves for their own failure to produce, by making everybody else’s art somehow need to conform to their personal view of what good art should be. It’s a fraud and a con. It’s a power game, no different to bullying. Einstein famously said that every fish looks like an idiot, if judged by their ability to climb trees. Art critics simply apply an arbitrary aesthetic standard, of their own imagining, to everybody else’s work and berate those that won’t play along as failures. But what is that criticism worth? How much of a failure is somebody they deem to be a failure, in fact?
Self criticism is pernicious, too. We learn to be self-critical. Children are not. We learn it later in life. We should be aware that the arbitrary aesthetic standard we hold ourselves to (our taste) is in no way an objective measure of our success or failure. We may have a wildly unrealistic standard that we hold ourselves to. The harder your upbringing was on your achievements, the more likely this is to be. We often think of ourselves as failures, when we’re actually very successful.
No, at some point you will lose your artistic powers. At every moment, there will be people asserting that you and your work is a failure, because it doesn’t meet with their approval. There will be people that don’t know whether your work is good or bad, who will be easily swayed by those vocal enough to denounce you. But there will also be people that remain faithful to you, who regard your work as precious and unique. Those people may not prevail, or not while you are alive, but they are there. Somebody, somewhere, will regard everything you do as spectacularly successful, even if you, yourself, do not.
So here’s the thing. Nobody knows anything. You don’t even have an accurate idea about what does and doesn’t constitute failure. It’s all a failure, in the end. At some point, it all falls to pieces. Even Leonardo’s paintings decay and require restoration. Failure is everywhere. Failure is normal.
If failure is the default state, then you can’t fail any worse. When you start a project, it’s immediately going to be hated by some and loved by others. That’s from the very start. That’s pretty empowering, don’t you think? From the very first brush stroke, or opening chord, the audience will already divide into those that regard your work as a success and those that consider it a failure. Even before it is finished!
No matter what you make or do, you can’t be worried about it being perfect, because in somebody’s eyes, it already sucks. If perfection is not attainable, because not everybody will agree that your work is perfect, then you don’t need to worry about missing that standard of perfection you have in mind. It doesn’t matter. Perfect it to your own liking, providing you aren’t holding yourself to a ridiculous standard, and then don’t worry about it. The moment the artwork exists, it has a life of its own. The work will be received as ambrosia from heaven by somebody, but it will most assuredly be detested by others, some of whom may be your best friends and family. Don’t worry about it. They don’t know anything either.
It will all end in failure anyway, so you might as well enjoy yourself while you can and make whatever you are able to make. Making it is the thing that matters. If you never make it, nobody else can ever appreciate it. You also might as well be yourself, because everybody else is already taken, to quote Oscar Wilde. Make what you make, without fear of failure, because fear of failure is a little like a fear of air. Air is everywhere and so is failure. Ignore it.