May 29, 2014

Da Vinci Was a Loser: Why Failure Stories Are the Ones You May Need to Hear

Genius loserThere 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 -- "

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3NCN6tl_DY0

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!

[via Delve TVFilmmaker IQ]

Your Comment

44 Comments

I was pleasantly surprised that this article wasn't about Davinci Resolve. Great article!

May 29, 2014 at 9:14AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Haha great comment:) ...and agree; awesome article.

May 29, 2014 at 9:56AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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vince

Thanks. I needed that.

May 29, 2014 at 9:50AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Yes, thanks for the reminder! I thought about this similar theme a few years ago, made a short dramatic comedy about it and even used the same Frank Sinatra song for the ending!
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2yWccPnbe8o

At the time i made it I thought it was great - well before posting it on YouTube.
I appreciate now it may very well be 5, 10 or even 30 years of constantly sticking with film making before I stand a chance of making a work that is truly great - and that's just a chance!

Thank You again for the reminder Justin =)

May 29, 2014 at 5:48PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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You are quite welcome. I'll definitely check that out!

May 29, 2014 at 6:14PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Justin Morrow
Writer
Writer/Director

Yes. We ALL need this. God...(shaking head in disgust): "For being me." Two of my many favorite quotes about humility are apropos here:

"There are three and a half billion people at this moment living, breathing on this planet. I can guarantee you right now very few of them are thinking about you." - Sir Anthony Hopkins
(said to a young, wide-eyed Gabriel Byrne many years ago)

"... to be able to accept the paradox that everyone of us is the most important thing there is in the universe - and at the same time no more important than a fly or a blade of grass." - Erich Fromm

May 30, 2014 at 3:07PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Ed Hecht

Great reminder! Thanks!

May 29, 2014 at 10:01AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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It's nice to have something that helps you keep it in perspective in the morning.

May 29, 2014 at 10:02AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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moebius22

Great article, but it'd be great if it didn't support totally meritocratic views of artistic success by hiding that failure, many, many times includes unwarranted psychological & economic abuse or willful neglect by those who just want to see you fail, in addition to literal, fair-shake rejections. IMO, in this economy, most very good, trained and invested, hard-working artists are being systematically oppressed or intentionally picked off by this sort of thing. It's something that's of course been happening for a long time, but in recent years, I think it's escalated --only exacerbated by the creative class=free labor issue in the marketplace. The proof if it is that what's been happening to a goo number of artists in the past is now happening in a ton of other sectors as well. Maybe balance this out with a healthy dose economics & social psychology, because it's way too convenient to The Man to assume that everyone who doesn't "make it" even in some modest way just wasn't good, hard-working, invested enough or just randomly got tired of not succeeding in a given way. That may have been truer several decades ago, but nowadays it's an egregious error of omission to assume it's the anywhere near the main reason people give up.

May 29, 2014 at 10:07AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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BlueBonnetOnIt

I don't know if artists are being systematically repressed/oppressed any more than anyone else. The universe is morally neutral, contingent, and indifferent to our suffering, and people have been exploiting each other forever. If you watch that video, Leonardo was exploited for his whole career by rich gangsters who were, essentially, loan sharks. Being an artist sucks, that is why parents advise their children to become dentists. The creative classes have been getting the short end of the stick since there were sticks with short ends. You raise valid points, better suited for a longer, way more thoughtful article, written by a much less glib dude than myself. I am glad my idiocy sparked all this thought, though I am not glad that it sparked such unhappy thought. Cheer up! We're all failures and the sun is going to burn out and we are really just a speck floating in infinite space, dodging rocks and the cold indifference of nothingness. RIGHT?! Happy almost TGIF!

May 29, 2014 at 12:51PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Justin Morrow
Writer
Writer/Director

This is the funniest rebuttal with valid respect to the commenter. Good job on acknowledging perspective and not just reacting to a comment.

And to BlueBonnet, sociologically speaking, artists have been doomed to the corner since the caves. Our work is a necessity of culture, but not to the necessity of life, thus meaning our work is much more subjectively-determined worth. We choose to enter :CORRECTION: stay in the profession of creativity because we love the work, not because we want the pay-off.

The ones who give up are the ones who see another option, but the artists who succeed, are the ones willing to lose it all for their craft. To sleep in a van. To go in debt for the foreseeable future. To avoid love and family to make their art known. I am not saying everyone has to do that, or that its healthy to do that. But art has always been a lower societal priority.

May 29, 2014 at 3:01PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Ken

At least it makes them come up with bonmots such as "The creative classes have been getting the short end of the stick since there were sticks with short ends." Quote of the day for me. Well done, good sir.

May 29, 2014 at 8:26PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Hahah. Thank you.

May 31, 2014 at 12:12AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Justin Morrow
Writer
Writer/Director

Justin, what kept you from slapping the shit out of your Central Park girlfriend the moment she uttered those words?

This is a great post that, to some degree, bears witness to the insane concept of entitlement the youth of today possess.

I read once, some elementary school had posted a sign above the mirrors in the restrooms... "You Are Special".
I thought it should have read, "You Are NOT Special. You Have Yet To Do Anything Special but, If You Study, Work Hard and Perservere, You Might, One Day, Accomplish Something Special".

We mollycoddle, fetishize and pander to youth, which, goes a long way to instill that concept of entitlement in them. To encapsulate my point of view on this, I think all kids toys should be made of metal and have sharp edges so, their hands get cut and bleed and they learn, at an early age, what life and the world really is... Cold, hard and indifferent. If your parents are rich, maybe it's not so bad. Punk.

I was hoping Freidkin's message (different post) to young 'filmmakers' whould have been...
Put down your cameras and don't touch them until you're 30. If, after your 30th birthday, you still think you have something to offer, film-wise, think about it for another 5 years. You don't know shit about life until then and maybe not even then. Yea, some might say, "but, some young people DO make good films". My answer to that would be, "they would have been even better if they waited till they got some life under their belt".
And the Internet, film landscape and general everyday life would be far less polluted with the endless fecal matter choking society now.

In the days prior to cheap, high quality video cameras, there was a barrier to entry which, I don't think was, necessarily, a bad thing. The cost of photography equipment, film and processing forced you to seriously consider the commitment to photography or filmmaking as a livelihood. You had to study the technical aspects of the craft. Weigh the pros and cons of the business. If you actually worked for a living (no rich parents), you scrimped and saved until the day came when, after all that, you still wanted it... plunk down that hard-earned cash for a nice camera. It had a way of filtering out the riffraff and wannabes that clutter the landscape.

Please, if you're under 30 and making some little videos with your 5d or GH2 or whatever-the-F it is, keep making them. Just keep them to yourself. If you just HAVE to inflict your little insult on the rest of us via YouTube, Vimeo, shitheadvideo.com or wherever, consider the disservice you're doing to those out there that do have talent. And some life experience. I promise you, your world will be a better place for it.

Have a nice day.

May 29, 2014 at 11:42AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Glad nobody told Hendrix to keep his music to himself before he turned 30.

Also glad Justin was able to restrain himself from "slapping the shit" out of his girlfriend. Jesus!

Not a great comment at all. I just read bitterness, the writings of an individual who perhaps once felt entitled and now is incredibly negative because it didn't quite pan out.

May 29, 2014 at 8:54PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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james

Nah, dixter has a point there! Young people these days think so highly about themselves, it is often quite unbelievable... but it's not really their fault, because we tell them as soon as they can walk, that they are soooo special, and they are sooooo great, and everything they do is soooo great.
Nothing that a kid does is ever criticized anymore, noone ever tells them "the drawing you made is not good, you didn't put effort into it, do it again!" But instead they receive praise and more praise for it. How can they learn that not everything they do is great? That they should put a lot of effort and work into things? They can't learn that when all they ever hear is "you are so special and so talented!"

Kids who are bad at school these days are never just lazy - no, they're intellectually gifted, that's why they are so bored by school. At least this is what parents tell teachers when the teachers try to talk to them. But a kid today is not lazy, no, it is a special, misunderstood genius. Every single one of them is a special, misunderstood genius!

And this is not just some generational misunderstanding - I am not that old, I am 36, so it's not grumpy grandpa speaking when I say: a lot of kids these days, ages 16-20, do not realize that they still have to learn stuff - they are already the greatest in their own minds, no need to learn anything anymore.

I am not saying that there are no talented kids under the age of 30 - but usually the really talented ones are the most modest of them all. The less talent, the more highly they think of themselves...

May 30, 2014 at 9:18PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Heiko

^^^^^ this ^^^^^

May 30, 2014 at 11:40PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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"A wise man thinks himself to be a fool, and a fool thinks himself to be wise"

Pretty much sums it up for me. I'm 23 and am ever aware that I've got a lot more studying to do before I write something really excellent. A teacher once told me- you're first million words are going to be terrible so try to get them out of the way as soon as possible!

August 26, 2014 at 9:19AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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London Writer

Wow. Somebody didn't live up to his own (or perhaps his parents'?) expectations of where he'd be in life by now, huh?

May 29, 2014 at 10:41PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Swissted

Leonardo was a genius. Period. All of us reading and writing in a blog and wasting time are the Losers.

May 30, 2014 at 6:21AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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samuele

Wow, nice elitism here, snobby fucking fuck.

June 1, 2014 at 11:07AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Natt

You must live a very depressing, anger filled existence.

June 1, 2014 at 11:18AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Coty

dixter, great comment!

May 29, 2014 at 12:47PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Robert B.

At 70 years old, after watching these videos, I went online, purchased Sinatra's "That's Life," ... put it in my car (a 2000 SL500 convertible ... turned the music up loud and took myself for one great ride! That for this wonderful video, and reminder ... it's the LONG GAME that counts.

May 29, 2014 at 12:57PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Rebecca Ronstadt, you are my hero.

May 29, 2014 at 1:24PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Justin Morrow
Writer
Writer/Director

Well, one, I would never hit a woman. Or a man. Unless he hit a woman. I once punched my brother, I think, but I imagine he totally deserved it. And I wasn't trying to get down on the whippersnappers (I'm kind of one myself) but yeah, I mean, this softness in general is, I think, a product of the entire baby-boom generation, if we want to take it back that far. Film is hard to make, yes. Digital is easier. It sparked a revolution. More content means some of it will necessarily be not so good, especially when it requires less effort to produce. Yet, technology removes barriers that previously hamstrung young filmmakers, who I was not in any way, shape or form trying to vilify. If anything, I was shrugging at the idea of the 'artiste', of any age, who produces nothing, yet pisses with elegance and moans sonorously about the 'creative process.' Woody Allen is correct; once you have some work done, you are light years ahead of someone of who does not. Because when someone asks to see something you've done, you can see, "Here," instead of hemming and hawing. Art is a job; it is a blue collar job, for the most part, and furthermore, there is no pension or union, unless you are among the very few fortunate assorted guild members. So yeah, if you're going to be an artist, get ready for a life that could be lame. But understand that you walk in the footsteps of lameness, you stand on its shoulders, and if you are good, really good, people will find you. The genius suffering in obscurity is hiding under the bed, or had the Miniver Cheevy-esque bad luck to be born at the wrong time. Life isn't fair. Man, this post is depressing. Who wrote this damn thing?

May 29, 2014 at 1:07PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Justin Morrow
Writer
Writer/Director

As always, great stuff!

May 29, 2014 at 2:41PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Jorge

Good shit.

May 29, 2014 at 3:24PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Micah Van Hove
Writer
director, producer, dp

I learned a lot while writing this. Chiefly, I learned that I want to be Frank Sinatra. That guy's got it all figured out.

May 29, 2014 at 4:17PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Justin Morrow
Writer
Writer/Director

Well, not really. Frank Sinatra's got a cold.

August 26, 2014 at 6:13PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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I think there's a bit of a difference between a failure and a non-success. Failure is part of the learning curve, non-success is a test of willpower or maybe integrity. I've only made a tiny handful of films, and an even tinier amount of those were scripted narratives, but I have luckily had a small taste of both of these...

The failure was when I didn't have the guts to cast good actors and work with them properly and didn't have the experience to focus on multiple things at once, like really bad sound and getting what I needed to make the sequence work (but the lighting was great!). At the end it just didn't come together.

The non-success was something I loved and would hardly change a thing about. Maybe 5 other people on the planet would love it too, so it's not at all successful in terms of other people, but it is a great work of art in my opinion, something I am proud of because I see my soul in it. I get the feeling that this is what the great masters were up to... creating something that they enjoy. Sometimes the world changed with them and their style became popular. Led Zeppelin probably wouldn't be on MTV these days, but they'd be doing their thing anyway. Though they are objectively kind of great, technical musicians at least. No disrespect to Bob Dylan, I think he's amazing, but maybe he's a better example of an idea whose time has come..

The trick with being an artist though is you've got to pay the bills. So until your unique style is popular, you can either make successful-enough stuff that sacrifices the art, or you can work some other day job, or don't pay the bills... All 3 of those cut the opportunity to create in different ways and all 3 provide the opportunity to create in different ways. That would be an interesting idea to explore maybe, maybe a Sliding Doors type story about the gung-ho artist who tried those different paths and had an unexpected mix of success and failure... Anyway...

May 29, 2014 at 5:02PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Put it this way: at the end of the day, we ALL end up in the same place anyway. Might as well give your dreams a shot.

May 29, 2014 at 9:30PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Swissted

GREAT ARTICLE. When you change the way a person thinks you have accomplished something.

May 30, 2014 at 11:39AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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PayDro

Really enjoyable video to watch and the information is inspirational.

May 30, 2014 at 3:06PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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stegokitty

Another mind-expanding piece of work by the inestimable Justin Morrow!

May 30, 2014 at 3:12PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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amanda wayne

It's great advice for filmmakers. It took me six years to make my first film "Space Trucker Bruce" (www.spacetruckerbruce.com) but the time was more about learning than producing a good product. I watch it and see all the things I did wrong. I've learned more about every aspect of filmmaking and story writing that I now get to apply to my new project. I think it will probably be another six years and maybe two more films until I figure this out. I just hope I can stick with it that long.

May 30, 2014 at 5:46PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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The video is basically good advice, but it fails to mention that there are countless people who never made it at all!
How many painters never painted a masterpiece, how many musicians never had a hit single - they are the majority!

However, not being a world famous ASC cameraman myself doesn't bother me too much. I have well paid jobs and work is always fun, so I am happy with what I have and I'm realistic: only a small percentage of people can do world famous things and create masterpieces.

For me, the saddest stories are about people who are always unhappy with what they have because all they want is to be famous - and then they never make it because most people will never be!

So, of course, do your thing and it will pay off at some point - but don't expect to become world famous at some point, because most probably you will not. And you don't have to be! Just being good at your job and being paid well by customers is a good thing, and it is probably the best you will ever get, so be happy about it!

May 30, 2014 at 8:49PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Heiko

Excellent post! Thank you :)

May 31, 2014 at 12:46AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Francky

This is a great post. My artist friend sent me here. It's a relief to me that it takes so much time. Now I can be patient and work every day and not stress that I "Should have been successful already"

June 15, 2014 at 11:20PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Jonathan

If you become a dentist/lawyer/doctor for the money and then hate every day of your life, you may have a nicer house and car, but that isn't success. How do you define success? Is it fame? Money? Or doing something you love? If it's the latter (that's how I define it), then you don't need external confirmation. And the former might or might not come, but that's not the point, isn't it?I believe that's part of what Woody Allen meant as well.

August 26, 2014 at 8:09AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Wayne Gretzky: "One hundred percent of the shots I don't take don't go in".

August 26, 2014 at 11:43AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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JIMI FINLINI

We teach at The Dallas School of Music and find so many people quit when they realize that becoming good at anything takes time and work. At DSM we emphasize the process - as in "embrace and enjoy the process" of learning music. Sure we use high-tech methods and updated material, but nothing will make you a better musician than good old fashioned repetition and practice. I'm certain educators in most all disciplines can relate...loved this post. Looking forward to sharing with our students and members. Cheers form Dallas.

August 26, 2014 at 3:21PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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I needed to see this...:)

August 26, 2014 at 7:11PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Thank you.

August 28, 2014 at 5:05PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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A.C.