When you’re creative and in college (and possibly even earlier than that), you’re filled with enthusiasm, optimism and ideas. Ideas that you believe to be the most important things in the world. At a certain point, the optimism fades, the enthusiasm fades, and what’s left is bitterness. We’re told that this is called “growing up” and that this is what you just need to accept.
Get used to failure
When I was in high school, I was active in theatre. I was in all the school plays from my Freshman year on and I was good. My Drama teacher was impressed and encouraged me to continue. She even got me a book of Shakespeare quotes as a graduation present because of the several Shakespeare competitions I participated in. She also left me with a gift of another sort. As a form of parting advice in pursuing theatre in the future she told me to “get used to failure”.
I know this was a matter of just preparing me for the inevitable. But when I went on to the City College of San Francisco right after high school, and I auditioned for a musical, I was intimidated by all the other performers bringing a piece of music with them as compared with my really nervous rendition of “Happy Birthday”. That’s it, then, I decided. It didn’t matter how good I was in high school, this was another level that I just couldn’t compete on. And it wasn’t until a friend wrote an adaptation of William Blake’s Marriage of Heaven and Hell my senior year at college and invited me to act in it that I set foot on a stage again.
Similarly, in high school, I wanted to be a writer. And I was pretty good at that, too. Enough so that something I wrote so disturbed my AP English teacher that he had a talk with me afterward about what was in it to make sure I wasn’t, you know, crazy or anything. “This is really good,” he told me, “I just wanted to make sure it’s all fiction.”
My dad had had dreams once, too. He wrote, and he wanted to be on the radio. His plan was to study broadcasting in southern California. Then I came along and he went to night school, worked graveyard shifts at the grocery store, and is now in Human Resources — not exactly the original plan. Like my Drama teacher, he was skeptical of “making it” as a writer, and encouraged me to think and plan realistically about my future, telling me that almost no one ever actually makes it as a writer.
And so it goes. It’s similar to the “scale it down a bit” joke Eddie Izzard does in Dress to Kill.
And, you know, unfortunately for me, all the things I wanted to do didn’t involve sitting in an office in front of a computer or working in a store or becoming a doctor or a lawyer, and I wanted to do all of them — writer, musician, actor, designer. When I was in high school, “entrepreneur” was not a job title — certainly not a realistic one.
Several times this last year, I’ve come across variations on this advice: “Fake it until you make it”. Except it’s not really “fake it until you make it”, it’s (in the words of Amy Cuddy) “fake it until you become it”. This is illustrated in Amy’s TED talk and the story of Biz Stone (co-founder of Twitter) which was published in the 20th anniversary issue of Wired.
In both cases, they “faked it” until they started to believe their own hype and it became a part of them, and through that, became successful.
But why is faking it necessary? We’re so screwed up that we squash our dreams before we have an opportunity to pursue them. And it’s the people who continue to dream that we put on a pedestal and call visionaries. Because no one told them “get used to failure”.
Growing up shouldn’t mean forgetting to dream
I’m tired of being jaded.
I’m never going to fit into a cubicle. If I can’t believe in what I’m doing, certainly no one else will. I call for radical optimism. I call for a return to the enthusiasm that was so ingrained before we had to deal with “the real world”.
More than anything else, though, I call for an immediate halt on telling our kids ridiculous things like “get used to failure”. Maybe that wouldn’t have made a difference for me, but maybe it would have. I’ll never know. But that it wasn’t one person who said it, and instead was the overall, prevailing theme of what it means to “grow up” and go out into the “real world” that makes it so harmful. Instead, I say fuck failure.