Commentary: The fear of failure in the arts, 5/26/11

The road to success runs right through failure. It's an idea that's getting a lot of attention lately. Earlier this month, the Berghs School of Communication in Stockholm organized an exhibition around the whole premise that "success never happens without taking risks. And risks are what you're capable of taking when you overcome the fear of failing." But how to do that? How to take that leap? The exhibition put that question to artists and thinkers who know success in a very intimate way. (See full list on BrainPickings here.) That includes Paulo Coelho, the author of The Alchemist, a book that has sold 65 million copies across 150 countries, and he had this to say:

I'm never paralyzed by my fear of failure... I say "Ok, I'm doing my best... " And, from the moment that I can say that I'm doing my best ... I sit down, I breathe, and I say "I put all of my love into it, I did it with all my heart." ... And whether they like [the book] or not is irrelevant, because I like it. I'm committed to the thing that I did. And so far nobody has criticized or refused it. When you put love and enthusiasm into your work, even if people don't see it, they know it's there, that you did this with all of your body and soul, so that is what I encourage you to do.

It's a good thought, which gets pursued on a parallel track by Tim Harford. In 2005, Harford wrote the bestselling book, The Undercover Economist, and now he returns with Adapt: Why Success Always Starts with Failure. Speaking yesterday on KQED in San Francisco, the writer, sometimes likened to Malcolm Gladwell, talked about the importance of experimentation, taking calculated risks, and creating room for failure, something that matters as much to individuals as it does to corporations or nations trying to solve difficult problems. You can listen to the full interview here.


Commentary: If your nonprofit wants to innovate, be prepared to fail

Erica Williams, 5/9/11, Harvard Busainess Review

Innovation [has become] the theoretical one-size fits all answer for every challenge.  Donors no longer supporting your work?  Innovate!  A harsh, unyielding, volatile political climate?  Innovate!  Shrinking staff?  Innovate!  [However,] innovation, however sexy and necessary, is much easier said than done. Why is this? Well, for starters, failure is a critical part of innovation. In order to try something new, one must be willing to fail on the path to success. Unfortunately for many non-profits, failure is perceived as more than an uncomfortable and painful outcome, but a grave and dangerous one. In my experience, however, I've seen real progress made when companies can take small-but-meaningful first steps down this path. Consider these suggestions as first steps:

1. Ask a simple question. Encourage everyone to frequently ask the question: Is there a better way to do this?  You'd be surprised how much the tiny, seemingly unimportant changes can lead to "the big idea" down the road that will completely revolutionize the way you do business.

2. Engage members. Don't allow the pressure for innovation to rest solely on the shoulders of the staff. Encourage board members and [your] constituencies to brainstorm and experiment. Periodically ask: What are some ways that we can better serve you?

3. Partner, partner, partner. If the goal is truly to change the way business is done in your field, there's no reason to be proprietary over the experimentation and resulting innovations. Chances are others in your area are strapped for resources like yourself. So bring together likeminded partners to discuss new ideas and share resources to test them out. This balances the risk and spreads the impact of possible failure - and eventual success! - amongst everyone.


Commentary: On Broadway, your failure won't matter for long

Brisa Trinchero,, 4/27/11

You are going to fail. I hate to be the one who has to tell you but there it is. It happens to everyone at one time or another. Odds are there are going to be disappointments, rejections, heartbreaks, bad reviews and embarrassment. So toughen up - learn to get used [to] it and get over it.  I was talking to one of my most talented musical theater friends the other day. He had written a musical that all signs (including the marquee) indicated was going to open on Broadway. Then, overnight, funding fell through, the marquee came down and his Broadway dreams were dashed. It was all very devastating, heartbreaking.  Now, in every conversation he wonders if the person he's talking to is thinking, "This is that guy who failed to get to Broadway." He still wakes up most mornings, remembering the bad news.  But let me tell you something. That failure was 7 years ago. If he hadn't told me about it in the first place, I never would have known. And when I did find out, it didn't affect my opinion of him one bit. I'm still a huge fan of his work.  We all want to wallow in our pain now and again and I give you permission to go for it (for a short time) - but then you need to brush yourself off and move on. This is a business of self-involved people. You know it's true. And actually, that turns out to be a good thing. It means that nothing you do is ever going to matter to anyone but YOU for more than the split second of time that folks in this industry will even give you a thought, before moving on to thinking of themselves again.


Quote of the Day

"Anyone who gets anything done in this world forgets about failure ... and sticks to their heart and vision."  --director Julie Taymor

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