on failure, depression and creativity
Just as vulnerability is helpful in the right doses, so is failure.
Failure is powerful, transformative, enhancing.
Heck, I would know. I have failed a lot in my life so far. Last year, I applied to 50+ crappy low wage jobs. Every single one rejected me. I went home and cried after each interview, convinced there was something intrinsic wrong with me. How could I ever do creative work if I was considered 'under qualified' to wait tables or serve pizza?
I have started 5 blogs. The first failed because I was 13 and had no idea what I was doing. I tried to code my own site and that failed. The second, a few months later, was quite successful (in part because my age made me a novelty.) Then my motivation dwindled and I began posting less and less.
Around that time, I fell into depression and failed at the simplest things of all. Getting out of bed, having conversations, writing, looking after myself, eating and sleeping all became challenges I could not overcome. I remember feeling genuine pride at having got out of bed and made it downstairs to get a glass of water by 6 pm one day.
I failed at these basic life skills with enough consistency to land me in hospital for a year. Wow, I thought as I signed the admission papers, this has got to be the ultimate failure. Well done me. In hospitals, that capacity to not do basic things is taken away. Don't want to get out of bed? Someone will pick you up and drag you out. Don't want to shower? Expect to be picked up and placed in the water. Don't want to eat? Good luck fighting off six trained adults who will force you. And so on and so on.
Treatment for depression in the UK is built on physical force and threats until some sort of survival instinct kicks in. It doesn't always, though. I met many girls - smart, beautiful, wonderful girls- who hadn't spoken or walked or been outside or done anything not forced for years. Some got better. Some are still stuck like that, passed between different hospitals every few years. For a while, I kept failing and failing and failing. After a few months, I began to make small wins. A combination of therapy, much-needed medication, proper nutrition, sleep and intense friendships with other girls chipped away at the black depression. I remastered the art of doing the basic stuff needed to stay alive.
Then I started writing again. I wrote more than ever before. Every 10 days, I filled a Moleskine notebook. My tiny hospital room filled up with stacks of them, each full of messy handwriting. On bad days, I drew and made collages, turning images into eventual words. It began with drivel, which turned into stories, rants, letters never to be sent, plans. I wrote about the home, family, friends and college which I ached to return to. From the writing came hope, and from the hope came fewer failures.
A year ago, I turned 18 and the hospital could no longer use force on me. So I left to rejoin the real world, taking with me all I had learned about myself from a year of introspection. I knew I had lost a huge chunk of my teenage years, but I accepted that and was determined not to fall so far again. I went back to college, having worked hard enough to avoid going back a year. I got As in my exams. I spoke to people. I appreciated everything. I got into university and moved out. I kept writing. Then I started this site in March, wanting it to be something I would not allow myself to fail at.
During that time I had failed a lot, though I was lucky to have somehow remained in the middle of the bell curve. Enough failure to make me push myself harder than ever before. Not enough failure to make me give up and resign myself to a life in hospitals like an invisible strata of society do. I have kept on living.
Picture a graph with that same bell curve. A consistent lack of failure (often due to fame) leads to ivory tower syndrome. We see this in the cases of many an actor, singer, scientist or designer who is lauded for too long. Over time, their self-awareness wanes and their work/lives descend into chaos. That's not the only factor, but it plays a role. The hard work is over, money assured and their creativity becomes a commodity. When the inevitable failure comes, the resources to deal with it have withered away. Insulated cocoons can only last so long. We glamourize the artist gone insane to ignore our collective role in their decline. When we cushion people from failure, it is all too likely to backfire in the long run.
On the other end of the bell curve is consistent, crushing failure. The kind which forces so many people to give up on their creativity. Maybe the ability (honed through deliberate practice) is not there. Maybe the world isn't ready. The world is often not ready. Or you are not ready for the world.
It's a scale which varies from person to person. Some quit after one rejection by a publisher, jeer from an audience or critical comment on a post. Some continue to the point of bankruptcy, isolation and ill health.
Between lies that crucial balance. Enough failure to keep you driven and realistic. Enough success to ensure you maintain the discipline to keep going.
I have written before about my thoughts on reacting to criticism of your work. In my opinion, not giving a fuck is the wrong way to go. I believe you should care deeply and embrace negative reactions. If you can feel the pain of failure deeply and still continue then that's a good sign.
Alexis Ohanian wrote 'you are a rounding error' on the wall of his office after an executive said they only met with him about his site due to a traffic rounding error. If you have been living under a rock, that little site (Reddit) is now one of the largest on the internet.
Stephen King hung each rejection letter he received from a publisher on a nail in his study. When the nail got too full, he got a larger one and kept writing. Again, if you have been living under a rock, he has since sold over 350 million books.
Seth Godin said that he regards his mistakes and failures as prized possessions.
I'm sure you have heard countless stories like that, so I won't list more. But when we hear stories like that, we tend to focus on what came afterward. The success, fame, extraordinary talent. Those people must have been to begin with. Their failures were just the mistakes of other people who did not recognize that, right?
Wrong. Talent is not innate- plenty of research has shown that. Certain physical characteristics can help or hinder in different areas. Beyond that, it comes down to persistence and deliberate practice. That is what we develop through failure.
To cap off this mammoth post, here are some of my mental models for handling failure.
1 - Imagine it as a training montage. You know those scenes in countless films where we see the hero go from hapless loser to cool superhero? My favorite is from Mulan. After much struggle and practice, she climbs a tall pole and impresses everyone. I like to picture myself in one of those whenever I suck at something. I imagine a time lapse of me writing at my desk, culminating in me publishing my first book. With a lot of scrunching up paper and swearing. It is a powerful visualization. I also use this when revising for exams or exercising. Mulan falling off the pole was the necessary initial step towards her climbing it. If she can do that, I can finish this essay and reach the stretch goals I am working towards. The basic stuff (like, you know, getting out of bed) doesn't even make it into Mulan's training montage, so it shouldn't be part of mine.
2 - Expose myself to it until it loses its meaning. I was VERY unpopular at school. Unpopular enough to have chairs thrown at me, my work torn up and my books spat on. My means of handling it was to record insults and snide comments. I would then reread them again and again. Before long, those words lost their capacity to hurt me. I reclaimed control over my my responses. In the words of Scroobius Pip, in the end, they are just words, you give them power when you cower. Failure is just a word. It is something subjective. Are the failures I have mentioned here really that? Who knows. It's up to me (and you) to decide.
3 - Eradicate all traces of it and move on. This was the advice my older brother gave me once and it has stuck with ever since. Sometimes I don't want to accept or rework. Sometimes I just need to forget and move on. In the words of Rev. William L. Swig, 'Fail early and get it all over with. You learn to breathe again when you embrace failure as a part of life, not as the determining moment of life.' Failure doesn't always mean anywhere near as much as we imagine.
4 - Read about the failures of people I admire. As long as you avoid the aforementioned risks of this, it is very helpful. Try reading Just Kids by Patti Smith - the story of the life she and Robert Mapplethorpe lead before they became cultural icons. Or read On Writing by Stephen King, which details his complex path to getting published after many nails full of rejection slips. If that still doesn't work, then try Seneca's letter to his mother about exile. Or, try listening to any talk by Tony Robbins (this one is good in particular.) That holy group of inspiring people always shake me out of worrying about failure. Also, listening to Conor Oberst for pretty much every waking hour keeps me sane.
5 - Focus on maintaining a growth mindset. Here is a wonderful extract from the first thing I ever wrote- archived by my mother: 'my dog blak prins is a majic dog who eats majic food which he liks so much that he gobuls it up and smils.' My five year old self did not win any awards for that gem. That is doubtless a good thing as I am sure some people would have found a dog called Black Prince problematic. I digress. My writing has come a long way since then. The hundreds of blog posts which no one ever read, the rejected applications for writing roles, the ignored submissions, the burnt notebooks, the deleted Word documents, the scrapped drafts, the ideas which never even made it onto a page - they all contributed to where I am now. Along the way I have learned how to hone my work and write stuff which people like to read. Some people. Some of the time. I still experience the same failures on a daily basis, except the wins are there too. That is what a growth mindset is all about.
(S)he who dares, might fail. (S)he who fails, also wins sooner or later.
I have been writing this for the last 7 hours and it is time to stop now. This might be the most personal post I have written and one of the longest. If you have read it all, well done.