This article from Men’s Health Magazine was posted today on MSN.com and I just simply fell in love with it. So true. Failures make us stronger…so enjoy reading…
The best way to prepare for your next level of success is to experience complete and utter failure.
By John August, Men’s Health
(Note: John August wrote the screenplays for Go, Charlie’s Angels (and its sequel), Big Fish, and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. A feature film he wrote and directed, The Nines, starring Ryan Reynolds, was released in August.)
My first car accident happened in 1989, on a cloudy winter day in Colorado. The streets were snow packed. The windshield wipers smeared wet flakes across the glass. My mom was in the passenger seat, trying to exert verbal authority over the laws of physics: “Slow! Slow! Slow!”
We were already sliding toward the taillights of the Saab stopped in front of us at the intersection. No amount of brake pumping was going to prevent our 3 mph rendezvous with its rear bumper.
My mother glared at me. I shrugged. She braced, one hand against the dashboard. And still there was time. We’d entered into a kind of logarithmic slow motion, a science experiment designed to test one of Zeno’s paradoxes. Not only was time slowing, it kept getting slower, until it seemed we would never actually hit the Saab. More than the collision, I feared an eternity of my mother’s horrified, disapproving gaze.
Of course, the cars eventually connected. We broke a headlight; the Saab was unscathed. My memory of the incident isn’t of the impact itself. Rather, it’s almost entirely of the helpless slide and the accompanying time dilation. It seemed to be the slowest crash imaginable.
Until I worked in television.
In 1999 I created a show called D.C. for the WB network. It was the year of Felicity, and the show I’d come up with, about young Beltway staffers, seemed zeitgeist appropriate. Never mind that I didn’t care for politics and had zero experience in television. I’d written a movie that people around town liked (Go), and that little bit of heat was enough to have me named “show runner.”
Only, I wasn’t really running the show. I was teamed up with a TV veteran, a producer whose iconic shows involved crime scenes and banging gavels. From the start, the producer and I didn’t see eye to eye. In fact, we rarely saw each other at all, because I was stuck on an endless loop of flights from L.A. to Toronto to D.C., trying to keep the show afloat amid conflicting directives from the studio and network concerning budget, tone, casting, and wallpaper. (Seriously, wallpaper.)
By the time we started shooting the second episode, I realized I was back in the car with my mother, sliding toward an inevitable crash. I wasn’t going to win any battles with the producer. I wasn’t going to be able to catch up on the writing. I was going to fail. The only question was when. And time was slowing inexorably.
Sensing trouble, the studio sent an executive up to the soundstages in Toronto to investigate. I explained how I had a plan. How everything was under control. How much I appreciated his concern.
Unfortunately, I was convincing. We kept shooting. But I never doubted that the crash was coming. Our “midseason” slot became increasingly vague. Supporters at the network became unreachable. Phone calls were returned at odd hours, in the hope of not connecting.
When I stepped off a plane after filming episode 3, there was a voice mail from my agent: I’d been fired. The crash had finally, mercifully come.
I’d failed. It was one of the best things that ever happened to me.
Failure and I go way back. In junior high, I ran for student council and was soundly defeated. My big ideas about gym-class reform were no match for my opponent’s M&M’s handouts.
Years later, in college, I lost a bid for student-body president at my small midwestern university. It wasn’t a life-changing defeat. In fact, I was reminded of it recently only because a classmate, who had also lost in that election, recently showed up in the national news, part of an uncomfortable government scandal.
The classmate – we’ll call him Tom – had dated my college girlfriend, so we shared an uneasy kinship of common taste and mutual distrust. We were both student-government nerds, but his political ambitions were far grander. He planned to become a U.S. senator, maybe president. After graduation he earned his law degree from a top school. But then, a left turn: He married an undergrad classmate who seemed a very poor match. They divorced shortly thereafter, and Tom fell off my radar for almost a decade before this new scandal made him Google-able.
In college, I’d expected that Tom would be running his home district by now, not serving as a midlevel staffer. What, exactly, had gone wrong?
“You know, he never got over losing student-body president.” That was the informed opinion of a mutual friend who’d kept in touch with him. I was dumbfounded. Tom and I had failed equally. But a decade later, it was an inconsequential footnote in my life’s story. How could the same event affect us so differently?
Maybe failure isn’t the problem. Maybe expectation is.
After I was fired from my TV show, I was certain I’d never work in television again. I’d been given a great opportunity and blown it. The studio and network were out millions of dollars. But then the phone started ringing, with studios and networks asking whether I’d consider doing TV again. What had changed?
Nothing. I’d simply forgotten what folks working in TV take as a given: Most shows fail. Every spring, the networks introduce new products to replace the fall and winter die-off. When a show tanks, they don’t spend weeks wondering why. They put a new show in its place.
They expect failure, and are delighted when it doesn’t come.
In the case of Tom, my hunch is that he’d become stuck in an expectation loop. He’d spent years carefully mapping out his ascent: student-body president, law-school review, a great internship. He expected to succeed – we all should – but he hadn’t considered alternate paths to success. One misstep sent him scrambling, questioning all his other assumptions. Of course, it’d be wrong for me to write Tom off. Maybe his latest failure will force him to reassess his expectations. Maybe it’ll be what finally propels him to success.
Most of us will never run a TV show or run for elected office. But we will all fail, repeatedly. Failure is a universal condition. We lose our jobs; we lose our marriages; we lose to the dealer’s flush in Vegas.
When these traumas happen, we generally find ourselves on the familiar Kübler-Ross stages of loss: denial and isolation, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. But how we cope is less important than how we remember the experiences afterward. The best failures aren’t forgotten; they’re incorporated into our life’s narrative.
My D.C. debacle, as miserable as it was to live through, has become a cherished memory. It’s a small scar that invites a big story, with big personalities. At first, I framed myself as the innocent victim in the drama, but over the years I came to view the whole thing as more of a hurricane that we all weathered together.
The great thing about surviving a storm is that you’re much better prepared the next time the winds start kicking up. You recognize the early warnings. You stock up on essentials. And, most crucial, you go in knowing that no matter what happens, you can always rebuild.
Failure makes you ready in ways that success never could.
The next time I found myself pitching a show, I had a much clearer idea of what I wanted. I knew what I was good at and what I was better off delegating to others. I knew that as much as I believed in the show, if it all went south, I’d be okay.
Because I’d failed, I wasn’t afraid of failing. And that enabled me to push a lot harder for what I believed in.
This year I directed my first movie, part of which was based on my experience with D.C. I was risking a lot more than my investors’ money. To make the film, I took a year off from my writing career, passing up a lot of lucrative assignments. I let a film crew into my house for a week, risking my hardwood floors and my family’s patience. And I let an actor into my head, playing a largely unflattering version of me.
The movie is unconventional and questionably commercial. In its wildest success, it might play festivals and arthouses before hitting DVD. Given all these risks, why do it?
Because even in failure, I knew I’d grow from it. There were things I needed to learn about movies – and myself – that I wasn’t going to learn from writing another script.
It’s just like weight training, really. You push yourself until your muscles fail. That’s how you grow stronger. Likewise, in life, unless you seek you’ll never mentally develop beyond that scrawny kid from high school.
That’s why you have to drop to one knee and propose to the girl you’re pretty sure you love. That’s why you have to send out your résumé, even though your job is just fine. That’s why you have to climb that 14,000-foot mountain. It won’t always work out. You may get divorced. Or fired. Or frostbitten. But the alternative is a life of vague disappointment.
When that nagging little voice pops up, wondering what’s going to happen if you fail, just ignore it. Yes, it’s hard. As humans, we’re programmed for loss aversion. But money is just money. Your job is just your job. Your life – the adventure of your life – is all you really have that’s yours.
When things go wrong, when you’re sliding toward an unavoidable crash, don’t panic. In those long seconds before the impact, look around and figure out how you entered into this mess. Think about how you’ll frame the story a year from now, over a few beers. Can you come up with an honest version that ends, “So in a funny way, it was the best thing that ever happened to me”?
Perfect. Then brace yourself.