Lil' Curmudgeon is a younger more petite Andy Rooney type series where I discuss things (sometimes within the design world) that irritate me.
Let me start by saying that the above is one of my favorite quotes. I first came across it when actually studying/discussing Beckett in one of my theater classes (I think it was Intro to Directing). To be completely honest, this quote is not just a "favorite", it is beyond that, it is meaningful to me, and has been a mantra that I have repeated to myself during difficult periods in my personal and professional life.
This is why it makes me upset to see this quote often spun off of or gleefully referenced by many graphic designers. I have been to countless lectures/speeches/seminars, many by people I respect greatly, who stand up on a stage and cheerfully announce that I SHOULD KEEP FAILING. That this is THE ONLY WAY to become a "proper" designer. That they became WHO THEY ARE TODAY because of all the CONSTANT FAILURE, because since they KEPT FAILING they then became GOOD ENOUGH. And I'm sorry, but I think that's complete bullshit.
Failing, true failing, is not something you march onto a stage and yell about- I don't care how self-confident you are. Actually really failing, especially at creative pursuits, punches you in the gut, stabs you in the back, breaks your heart and simultaneously any other cliche you can think of. Failing is embarrassing. Failing is demoralizing. Failing is HARD.
Last night I watched the movie "Inside Llewyn Davis". I really enjoyed it for many reasons, including the cinematography and the soundtrack, but mostly for the honest portrayal of failure. Failure in this movie is trying to move on with a personal life and a career after great personal loss (a death). It's wondering if you can possibly balance your personal and artistic life without sacrificing the other. And most of all, it's being able to sing beautifully, but no matter how beautifully you sing and how much you try, you are told no. You fail.
Amy Klein wrote a lovely blog on "The Art of Failure" in this film, spelling out these kinds of harsh truths:
"For every Bob Dylan, there are a 1,000 Llewyn Davises — hopeful young men whose voices crack in all the right places, but reach in all the wrong directions... Like most people in the business, Llewyn Davis doesn’t really get anywhere with all his talent and hard work. He’s talented and expressive but doesn’t have much to say. He’s good, but not good enough."
One of the best scenes in the film is also one that the Coen brothers told Vulture was the "toughest scene" to write. Llewyn finally gets a chance to play for an important music manager, Bud Grossman, one-on-one.
Failure. Pure failure.
Now, maybe we use our imaginations and think that in this fictional world Llewyn goes on to become incredibly successful, a millionaire, and someday when he's getting inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame he tells his story about how one time he FAILED but LOOK AT HIM NOW.
But that's not the story the Coen Brothers tell. And I don't think that's how it works. I think failing like this cuts you down. Yes, maybe it's character building, but it makes you question if you ARE good enough. You may never talk about it (I think it depends on your personality). And you certainly don't want to brag about it.
Most of all, I think it is sad to tell an audience that if they haven't "made it" yet, it's because they haven't failed enough or failed in the "right way". This reeks of pretension. It makes me wonder if you remember that the reality of failing is that you miss a deadline, you get fired, you get an "F", you start a project completely over again. THAT is the reality of day to day failure.
Now, I want to stress that I do think that the intention of some of the design professionals who throw around the Beckett quote is to say "Don't give up!" "Keep trying- even when it gets tough!" "Learn from your mistakes!". That's fine. That's great, actually. But don't patronize me by telling me how much you FAILED when you aren't showing me an example or even telling me a story about it, because that just cheapens it. You're not going to share those visuals or anecdotes from before you were a Successful Designer because as I said above, they are scary and embarrassing, and very real, even if you have learned from them. Or, even worse, even though you are shouting it from the rooftops, you don't really know, (or maybe you forgot) what failure feels like. Then I wonder if you actually know what failing is. And in turn, that discourages me even more when I fail.
I think other art forms sometimes discuss this better or have a better lexicon for it. Writers are encouraged to "free write"— and the value of this is in the exercise itself— the physical act of writing. The writing is accepted as possibly not "useful", but it's not simply divided up into "successful" and "fail".
And to come full circle back to theater, I think actors understand this better than almost anyone else on the planet. Oscar Isaac, who played Llewyn Davis, even comments on this in an interview:
“You’re being rejected constantly. I don’t think there’s another profession I can think of where rejection is actually the thing that you have to get used to. On a regular basis.”
Theater is to me, where it is the most stripped down. It is just you, alone, standing in an empty space where you have to face pure rejection. I am forever grateful for my theater training. I think it makes me a better designer. It makes me realize that when I fail I can go on. That my self-worth is not determined by where, or how, or the number of times that I fail. It matters what I do afterwards: that I "fail better".