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For those who suffer from “fear of success” I have a modest proposal: become a professional artist.
In all those non-artist careers I’ve never had, people apparently learn how to be a spit-shined, double-breast-suited success, turning out successful memos from some top floor successful office suite. The artist, by contrast, distinguishes herself by learning to tolerate failure on a consistent basis. Nine out of ten artistic projects – according to a scientific survey I just made up – are doomed to result in humiliating face plant.
Even when you do succeed, you will still fail. For every glowing review you receive in the New York Times, you will get at least one critic suggesting your work is derivative and shallow. Mainly this is because critics are spiteful, bitter people who can’t let anyone be happy, including themselves.
But artists should not fear failure so much as embrace it.
Failure, unlike success, can motivate you to endure those requisite dark nights of the tortured soul™ where you will stockpile the ego-crushing doubt you’ll be needing over a long poet’s career. Failure motivates you to hide out in the desert for a year, where you pick up a guitar and discover the e-minor chord. Or you will hot box yourself, learn to paint, develop a taste for peyote, and change your name to something like “Moon Beam” or “Charcoal Briquette” or “Steve.”
More importantly, failing will give you street cred. You’ll be able to brag about the many times you have not been deterred by your failure, but have gotten up, brushed the dust off your knees, and started all over again. If you do this enough times you’ll eventually do something else amazing, turning every catastrophe into a story about how you discovered you didn’t care about what your reviewers said, because you were becoming an authentic artist, discovering “the edge” of your field and pushing yourself over it, like a barrel plummeting over Niagara Falls.
Sometimes when new artists ask me if I have ever failed, rather than lie or try to hide the headless gopher from my recent science experiment, I have a comprehensive list of abominations I keep in my desk drawer that includes huge swaths of poems that went into the shredder, singing off-key in my high school audition for The Music Man, and that one night in Culver City when I bombed so badly at stand-up comedy the U.N. got involved.
What then, you ask, separates the successful creative from your average workaday derelict?
I have business cards that say, “Tresha Faye Haefner: Professional Failure.” I also have business cards that read, “Tresha Faye Haefner: Professional Writer.” but I only hand those out one out of nine times. One out of every nine times you do something, you might actually succeed.
The second important thing is day-planners. I regularly schedule failure in as part of my working week. If I know I have a one page poem due on Friday, for example, I usually schedule in enough time to write ten pages, knowing at least nine of them will be a brilliantly-phrased turd. This piece, for example, was originally terrible. It consisted of eight drafts of pure fart noises, and one of gibberish translated into Swahili. It wasn’t until I got to page ten, I remembered how to use English again, and was able to write.
And thirdly: Not giving up.
To be an artist means you are an adventurer into the deepest, wettest, most urban-decay-filled jungles of the human mind. There’s no telling what panthers and spleen-eating spiders live there. There’s no telling which miniscule piece of flora or fauna might turn out to be a cure for cancer, and no way to find out, but to keep trying.
So when people ask you, after a terrible routine dies on stage or a poem gets rejected 180 times by The New Yorker, what you are doing with your career, don’t be nervous, don’t be ashamed, don’t be scared. Lift your head high, pull your chin up, and hand them your business card, “Your Name Here: Professional Failure, Ph.D.” At worst, they’ll be confused; and then you hit them with your next joke.