Most Things Don’t Work Out

"I Don't think I'm Making it on the Show"

Through dint of brutally waged, all or nothing, creative battles, professional artists learn something amateurs never do. They discover that the visions inside their minds that enthrall them at the outset of a new endeavor rarely come to pass in the way they think they will.

They learn that recognized success is not all strawberry sundaes and sunshine. It can morph into something altogether different when realized. When a work requires that a writer cold turkey out of the PhD program at the University of Heineken, a National Book Award can prove disturbingly unsatisfying.

I quit drinking and bled out a book just to be honored at a gin soaked awards ceremony by people I’ve never met nor have ever cared to meet? Really, that’s the big payoff?

For the entrepreneur, the dream start-up venture can turn out to be a monotonous series of 80 hour work weeks that leave no time to enjoy the moolah pouring into the bank account. For the painter, a sold out show at Larry Gagosian’s gallery only reminds her of the empty canvasses lying in wait back at the studio.

No wonder fear of success cuts us off at the knees five feet from the finish line. If that’s success, why bother?

The only thing more bone chilling than succeeding is failing…the fear of the Big F keeps us from even beginning to attempt to move a thing in our brain into the real world.

But pros know that just as success doesn’t bring transcendental ethereal bliss, failure ain’t the end of the road either.

A publicly recognized failure often shape shifts into something clean, true and self-validating. Not while you are experiencing it of course…later when you’re waiting at the Department of Motor Vehicles without a cell phone, thinking about some impossible situation you’ve gotten yourself into, running through the old internal emotional ledgers.

I got through that Hell, no reason why I can’t get through the shit coming at me now…

The pro relaxes.  He knows that to create something meaningful—a painting, a story, a perfect wooden box, a partnership, a 92 yard touchdown pass, anything—is to fail.  Again and again and again. He gets so used to it that without it, he feels like he’s cheating.

This is why pros are impossible to compliment. You can sense their inner wince when they hear, “loved…loved…loved your One Act! It was worthy of Becket!” It’s not because they aren’t proud of the work they’ve created, it’s that they’re playing back the series of escalating failures that led them to the final printed draft.

So while they are unconvincingly thanking you for your kindness, inside they’re thinking…

Remember when you made an ass out of yourself at that dinner party… that humiliation gave you the despair necessary to crank out that monologue in the third scene…of course it worked on the page, it nearly killed you living it!

Failure is painful, but the pro knows she can’t bury her blunders in her subconscious.  She has to keep them retrievable, re-live-able in her own mind, or she’ll have nothing to say in her art. If she won’t accept failure as the currency of creation, she won’t be able to reach people.

Communicating with people through her work is why she’s an artist in the first place…to find universality in nano-specificity …to let them know that they aren’t alone in their torments or joys. To add something to the collective unconscious.

Without the specificity of her own experience at her fingertips, she’d just end up copying someone else’s work, generically, soullessly… She’d be an amateur, a hack running away from the risk of failure, stealing other people’s structural concepts without adding anything to the form…writing a Vampire romance because that’s what’s hot not because the form suits her very specific controlling idea of her art.

For the pro, critical or commercial “success” is not the endgame.  Pushing the boundaries of human experience is.

There’s a great scene in the movie Tootsie about this.  Bill Murray plays Tootsie’s (Dustin Hoffman) roommate Jeff, a writer working on a play called Return to Love Canal. He’s deep into his cups at a birthday party, holding court as only a solipsistic but charismatic artist can get away with.

“I want a theater that’s only open when it rains…I don’t want people to come up to me after a show and say ‘Hey I really dug your play man’ I want them to say ‘Hey, I saw your play…what happened?

I just checked the screenplay for Tootsie by the brilliant Larry Gelbart, and this bit’s not in there.  Murray must have improvised it. But I can assure you, it wasn’t a one shot, effortless improv.  I bet it took him take after take to get it right. I bet it drove everyone else crazy while he did it.

Then he nailed the six second bit so perfectly that they all recognized the pretentious assholes they’ve contended with in their own real lives. “Yes, that’s exactly the kind of thing Uncle Roy would say…”

It’s probably hard to believe, but Bill Murray knows failure. In fact he runs straight into opportunities to fail. When he became a cast member on Saturday Night Live, he floundered in every skit he got into.  He was so leaden and unremarkable that he asked Lorne Michaels if he could have a minute or two of airtime to apologize to the viewing public personally.

It became the I don’t think I’m making it on the show bit that revealed the patented Bill Murray genius.  Failure as art. Check it out.

What’s telling about the piece for me is that everything Bill says is true.  His father did die when he was seventeen.  He is one of nine children.  He is from Wilmette, IL. His sister is a nun.  His mother was supporting his entire family.

The speech is laser specific to Bill.  He didn’t make shit up.  He told the truth and painful reality of his own life and somehow he made the horror of blowing the chance of his career hilarious. But more importantly, he made it universal.

We all feel like we’re not making it. Isn’t that funny!

What Bill knew then and still knows now is that failure is nothing to be ashamed of. Embrace it and you’ll take away most of its power.  Not enough to stop dry mouth or butterflies in your stomach, but enough to create something of real value.

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  1. Robert McCall on February 8, 2013 at 4:09 am

    Wow, does this speak to me. I encounter this in the people that work with and for me and I encourage them to keep trying, that if you aren’t making mistakes and failing regularly it doesn’t mean that you are competent and skilled, it means you aren’t attempting anything challenging or interesting.

    So, why is it always so freaking hard to give myself a break when I feel the same things?

  2. Rick Matz on February 8, 2013 at 6:35 am

    You have to do the work. You can’t guarantee (or even really predict) the outcomes.

  3. Basilis on February 8, 2013 at 7:16 am

    We all feel like we’re not making it. Isn’t that funny!

    Thanks for the tip! 😉

  4. Jeff on February 8, 2013 at 8:32 am

    Loved this, Shawn.

    And it’s funny, because I was just looking through a list of the 32 Greatest Unscripted Movie Moments when I realized that Bill Murray has TWO of those moments: the scene you mentioned and his legendary “Cinderalla Story” from Caddyshack.

    Your line of “to find universality in nano-specificity” keeps running through my head, and it’s bracingly medicinal. Not to sound too much like an Aqua Velva commercial, but “Thanks, I needed that.”

    Also, the “most ideas don’t work out” reminded me of this very funny but NSFW video from Ze Frank called “Brain Crack”. Hope you like it, too.

    • Shawn Coyne on February 8, 2013 at 7:48 pm

      Thanks for the link. Very funny! I’ll confess to a problem with brain crack myself. Great to hear from you as always

  5. David Gillaspie on February 8, 2013 at 8:34 am

    A divorced lady said her ex is a jerk. She said she wished he’d been a great husband like me. I helped out, telling her all men are jerks and we work through it, except those who don’t embrace their jerkiness.

    Failure? Come on down and we’ll go a few rounds to stay sharp.

    Side note: why do award winners thank so many people in their business? Manager, agent, the rest? Because no one in their closer group thought they had what it takes to fail successfully.

  6. Jerry Ellis on February 8, 2013 at 11:32 am

    Good stuff today. Bravo!

  7. Jerry Ellis on February 8, 2013 at 11:33 am

    Good stuff today. Keep it up!

  8. David Y.B. Kaufmann on February 8, 2013 at 12:22 pm

    Yep. Casablanca, one of the greatest chess players ever, the man who lost the fewest professional games ever, said, “I had to lose a thousand games before I could win one.” And that was back when just playing a thousand games took a long time. No computers and most good opponents were an ocean away.

    Drew Brees’s book Coming Back Stronger (hey, I’m in New Orleans) makes the point. Rejection, failure, revision, being a pro.

    Oh, and Shawn, I think I’ll just show this to everyone who wonders why I’m not a graceful thank you person – I really appreciate that part there, I’m so grateful, you wrote it so well. Thank you, thank you, thank you. 🙂

    Seriously, spot on! And write on!

  9. Angelique LaCour on February 8, 2013 at 5:36 pm

    Spot on, Shawn! This piece could also be titled for “No Substitute for Authenticity!” I’ve directed many teen actors and my mantra is a constant reminder to “Stop acting!” Creating anything with a preconceived idea of how it should look, or sound, or read will always fail! Thank God for that!

  10. karenlee on February 8, 2013 at 7:48 pm

    compelling as usual Steven Pressfield…

  11. Jim on February 9, 2013 at 2:59 am

    I’ve been reading articles like this one for some time now and they’re usually good, but I do wonder about one thing: why, when talking about writers and artist in general, the personal pronoun “she” is exclusively used? It’s always “she has to…”, “she needs to…” etc. I get the impression that that there are no male writers out there, which I find somewhat insulting.

  12. Alex Cespedes on February 10, 2013 at 4:50 am

    So many gems in this one, I could quote the whole damn thing. It’s obvious you’ve gone through your share of failures, and are all the better for it. Keep these coming, Shawn!

  13. Renato Wardle on February 13, 2013 at 1:32 pm

    I like what you’ve written about failure. I’m only writing because what you said reminded me of a very poignant example of what you’re talking about. Specifically, regarding the “Tootsie” instance….while I can’t verify that Bill didn’t do a one-take on that….and they do happen….from time to time….mostly I agree that it will be grueling repetition to get the right take. A great example of this comes from the special features of Ben Stiller’s movie “Tropic Thunder.” There is a section that shows the interplay and repetition between Robert Downey Jr. and Ben Stiller….they spend 30 minutes brutally rehashing the same 15 second segment to get the perfect timing. Unfortunately I can only find a small sample….but for those into this subject…tracking down the dvd and watching it will be revelatory.

  14. LarryY on February 23, 2013 at 5:53 am

    This article is one of the truest, most motivational I’ve read. Goes into a file to keep me going and “failing forward.” Not so sure about Murray’s SNL confession, though. Where’s the line between honesty about who you are and prostituting your history?

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