Embracing Failure

Out of the blue, I received an e-mail from someone who described themselves as a “personal brand strategist who helps creative people shine online and share their talent with the world.” He wanted to talk with me about failure. To be honest, I was sure it was a scam and so I put up all my defenses. To his credit, Jonathan Tilley persisted and we ended up having a life-changing dialogue. This blog entry will take you through the process I went through and maybe change your life in some small way.

To get the most out of this you need to do some work yourself. Cut and paste the following questions into a new text document. (These are the exact questions Jonathan asked me before we spoke and then again during the interview.)

1. What does success feel like to you?
2. What does failure feel like to you?
3. Surely you’ve experienced a mini-failure this week. What was one of them?
4. What is one Oh My God failure story that you’ve had?
5. Think back to a proud moment in your career. There must have been moments along that journey to success where you failed. What’s one story of failure from that journey?
6. What is the biggest tip you’d give a creative just starting out and wanting to turn their dream into reality?
7. One last question… how do you embrace the F word failure?

BEFORE proceeding to read the rest of this blog entry, if you want to get the most out of this process, write out your answers to the above questions. Do this now before proceeding!!! DO NOT obsess about getting perfect answers. Do not minimize your successes and your failures by comparing them to other people you know. Your successes and failures are yours and yours alone (in good and bad ways.) After you have written your answers out, you are welcome to read my answers below.

I wrote these answers out before my interview with Jonathan because I was intrigued by his focus on failure. In my process of thinking and then writing out of the answers, I was reminded that though I am constantly failing, we collectively focus mostly on success. Jonathan’s mission is to turn that paradigm on its head so we embrace failure as the route to satisfaction and success.

What does success feel like to you?

Success feels like freedom, in the terms of achieving some kind of project, commission, grant or publication that gives me the ability to do what I want to do with my own work. I have had a long and varied career, which included years of very serious therapy and plenty of time working through issues that are the result of my childhood. I now know that I am competing with myself first and foremost. Success is thus getting the opportunity to do my own work, to test myself, ideally on an assignment on behalf of a client who trusts me.

What does failure feel like to you?

I divide failure into two categories. External failure feels annoying but I have no problem putting those experiencers in their place since external failure and rejection is part of the normal process in the creative professions. Internal failure is much harder to accept since it means that I have personally made a mistake that impedes my own pursuit of my desired opportunities to do my own work.

Surely you’ve experienced a mini-failure this week. What was one of them?

Those are almost constant. Typically it involves misjudging myself, misjudging another person or misjudging a situation. It usually means I either miss an opportunity to do something or I wasted time on something that is pointless.

What is one Oh My God Failure story that you’ve had?

It took me a while to accept the fact that I had failed with an opportunity a couple decades back, which still resonates with me. It was a kind of a social service start up before things were called that. Specifically it was the “Homeless Families Initiative” in Philadelphia, which became the seed of what we now know as President Clinton’s welfare reform. I could have been in on the ground floor of a major political project unfolding in front of me, rather than telling the story after the fact which is what usually happens. I failed because I did not understand the human dynamic involved in executing the story. That failure was a result of the fact that I did not know my own particular weaknesses and strengths.

Think back to a proud moment in your career.

Getting a portfolio of my “Foreclosed Dreams” images published in Witness magazine of the Black Mountain Institute at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas which looked beautiful and paid serious money. That money enabled me to do more work on that project. All of my notable moments of pride, of success, subconsciously or more recently, consciously were moments when I achieved some modicum of freedom so I could do more of the work that I do best.

There must have been moments along that journey to success that you failed.

The “Foreclosed dreams” is where I finally realized that I am competing against myself since I largely constructed the framework for that project and I then went out and executed the project, rather than embracing someone else’s approach/framework/structure for that project.

What’s one story of failure from that journey?

“Foreclosed dreams” which started as a profile of the cleaners who empty the foreclosed houses. That project is a direct outgrowth of “God’s houses” a previous failed project that focused on places of worship. Those were to be photographed with the same approach as I used with my previous light studies projects on 30th Street Station, Center City Philadelphia, the Western Wall in Jerusalem and the Al Aqsa Mosque.

What is the biggest tip you’d give a creative just starting out and wanting to turn their dream into reality?

Despite the caricature of the tortured artistic genius, the sooner you get to a relative level of mental health, achieve a good bit of self awareness and arrive at some solid self-acceptance, the sooner you will get to making work that is authentic to you and is not driven by your need to outdo or simply please others. Having said that, I am quite comfortable with doing work for others since I have down that my entire career. While I sell some work as fine art, the vast majority of my work involves the dialogue between myself as a creative practitioner and the client as the end user of the byproducts of my creative practice. With my best clients, I thrive on that dialogue.

Knowing what you are best at doing (and knowing what are not your strengths) means you can be the best professional creative practitioner possible for your clients-to-be. This does not mean you should ignore feedback. Feedback is vital. Feedback is what makes your deeply personal work comprehensible and even compelling to outside audiences, (and thus usable by paying clients.) But understanding who you are working for and what drives you is even more important. The funny thing is that intuitively, my best clients know some part of this and are drawn to me because of it.

One last question… how do you embrace the f word failure?

By separating external failures from internal ones. Once I do that, I am continually refining the question of which failures to embrace as my own failure(s) and which to ignore as being beyond my control.

So NOW, go back and look at your own answers to the original questions. Consider how the interview that I did with Jonathan, how my written answers may have changed your thinking about success and failure. Revise your answers to those same questions based on the process you just went through. Put the date at the top of the answer sheet, print it out on actual paper and file it away so you will look at it in about a year. I am pretty sure you will have different answers to those same questions the next time you look at that same page.

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