Da Vinci Was a Loser: Why Failure Stories Are the Ones You May Need to Hear
There have never been more people who believe that they are not only talented, but destined for success, and early success, at that, to the point where they feel like an abject failure if they don't have multiple Oscars by the age of 30. This is, of course, a load of hooey (that's right, hooey), and the good people at Filmmaker IQ have posted an excellent two-part video essay on why failure is an integral part of success, and consequently no one (I mean no one) who does good work has an easy time of it. Click through to see just how much failure goes into overnight success, and not just in the creative field.
When I was a younger, stupider man, I remember sitting with a girlfriend in Central Park. I don't recall what we were talking about, but I'll never forget when she turned to me and said words to the effect of, "I just want to be famous. I think I deserve it." I tried to bite my tongue, but had to ask, "For what?" After all, she wasn't much of a juggler, and her plate spinning was mediocre, at best. "I dunno," she said, utterly straight-faced. "For being me." Then I went home and wrote a really terrible song about it; I mean, it was really bad.
But, maybe if I'd kept writing songs, I'd be a famous musician today. After all, The Beatles were told that they had no chance of success; John Lennon said that by the time they invaded the US and changed popular music forever, they'd been playing several shows a night for years, for almost no money, at strip clubs in Hamburg, Germany. And even after all that, they were rejected by almost every record label; Bob Dylan was considered a "folly" and a failure after his first record, and Stephen King wrote, every day, for nine years before he ever saw a word published. But these are not the stories we remember.
There are enough quotes about success and failure to fill a book (someone should write that book; it would be a huge hit), and these quotes range from the sage ("A professional writer is an amateur who didn’t quit," said the fantastically successful author Richard Bach) to the sublimely ridiculous and yet totally true, e.g. Woody Allen's observation that 80% of life [was] showing up. He clarified the statement in a 2008 interview:
People used to always say to me that they wanted to write a play, they wanted to write a movie, they wanted to write a novel, and the couple of people that did it were 80 percent of the way to having something happen. All the other people struck out without ever getting that pack. They couldn’t do it, that’s why they don’t accomplish a thing; they don’t do the thing. So once you do it, if you actually write your film script, or write your novel, you are more than halfway towards something good happening. So that, I [would] say, was my biggest life lesson that has worked. All others have failed me.
Again and again, this is the theme you'll find among successful people in all fields. An oft-quoted bromide puts it that most people fail because they quit just before success is within their grasp. Of course, there is knowing when you are just bad at something, e.g., me and my awesome songs. But if you have an inkling that you might be not terrible at something, and maybe even good, the odds are that you are going to have to suffer defeat, continuously, possibly for years, before reaching any notion of "success," whatever that is by the time you get there.
Filmmaker IQ has posted a two-part series on failure from Delve TV, and it's an eye-opening look at the defeats and humiliations of some of history's greatest success stories. For instance, at the age of 30, Leonard da Vinci was 16 years away from his first artistic "triumph," and the intervening years brought nothing but humiliation. Famous scientist Marie Curie had 7 fallow years before she made her triumphant discovery of radium (which was a mixed blessing, actually, considering she died from radiation poisoning, but let's not split hairs) and jazz great John Coltrane spent 17 years practicing before achieving his first substantive success.
These videos are, needless to say, fascinating, encouraging, and slightly depressing, at least when you realize how far you have to go. But go you must!
One of the moments of more acute profundity to be found therein features late-night comedian Craig Ferguson discussing the subject at hand, and his hypothesis that, ever since the 1950s, when Madison Avenue began actively selling to, and festishizing, youth, there has been a commensurate decline in respect for the wisdom of age, which was, for most of human history, a fairly respected thing, given that it took such a long time to obtain.
But now, when you can get dinner in three minutes, waiting ten or twenty years to make it as a filmmaker or screenwriter seems nigh on intolerable. But tolerate it we must. I had another girlfriend (n.b., I am like catnip to the ladies) who read a short story of mine and later told me that if it hadn't been good, she probably wouldn't have gone out with me. Her reasoning was that if I was taking the rather enormous risk of pursuing a career in writing, I'd better be at least competent. Not successful, just good enough to keep failing, until maybe, one day, I'd (maybe) succeed in spectacular fashion, but by then, probably be too old to care.
And that, guys, is life. Now go make a movie about it! Caveat: it might not do that well. But, as Frank Sinatra sang, "You're riding high in April, shot down in May/but I know I'm gonna change that tune, when I'm back on top, back on top in June -- "
Listen to his anecdote about being the house comic for an olive oil company; whether or not he made it up, Frank was famous and washed up and famous again in the amount of time it takes most of us to get out of bed. But, then, again, he was Frank Sinatra. That's life!