Epic Fail Part Two: Believe it Or Not Failure Isn’t (Always) Someone Else’s Fault

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As promised after the Super Bowl Sadness, I looked into people who have made mistakes and bounced back. When I googled and asked others about this I found three interesting things:

1. Lots of people have made mistakes.

2. No one wants to talk about their own mistakes.

3. It’s much easier to think even our heroes were unrecognized — that they were unfairly rejected — than it is to think about how many times they had to sweat it out and improve to get good at what they were doing.

When I asked others face to face about famous people who recovered from big mistakes, several people paused, looked at me, and then said something like:

“Well, I’ve made lots of mistakes, but I don’t want you writing about me.”

Then I often learned of the writers or artists they know who were rejected over and over again until someone finally saw their greatness.

But, I kept thinking to myself, if that’s totally true and the writer or artist changed nothing about her/his work, then the people who rejected Harry Potter, Mickey Mouse and Jaws are the ones who made the mistakes, not Rawling, Disney, or Spielberg.

What’s worse, the rejectors had no redemption. They never recovered from their mistakes because the other organizations who saw the greatness made all the money.

What bothers me most is the idea that your stuff is either good enough, or it’s not. Either the world sees you’re already great or it does not. In this view, there is no room for the reworking a book, a drawing or a movie until it’s even better.

I”m still pondering this and what it means for my own work. But for today I will tell you of one successful artist who made mistakes, learned from them, worked hard to make corrections and went on to become a name you all know. I read of his failure in A Curious Man: The Strange and Brilliant life of Robert “Believe it or Not “Ripley by Neal Thompson.

Robert LeRoy Ripley got his first job as a cartoonist in San Francisco with a respected newspaper when he was a young man. Soon after, he was fired from his dream job because his work was not good enough for the publication.

Rather than rail against his fate or go back to the small town he was raised in to live out his days doing work he did not love, Ripley started taking drawing lessons and studying other cartoonists. He kept the lessons and study up even after he got his next dream job and worked ridiculously hard long hours to improve his skills.

Ripley did not resent his firing. He knew he needed to get better and put all his energy into doing just that.

His quest for improvement sometimes bordered on obsession, and I’m hoping to avoid manic no sleep sort of behavior. Still, I admire Ripley’s focus and determination in the face of his own deficiencies.

This encourages me much more than the stories of needless rejection because the amount of effort I put into getting better is under my control.

I’d also like to think those mistaken rejectors might have gotten better and gone on to recognize the next great person who knocked at the door. I’m that kind of optimist.

To finish this up today, I’ll leave you with Ira Glass who says the hardest part about beginning is allowing yourself to crank out enough stinky material until you get better, knowing all along that what you’re making smells like the fish those guys at Pike Place Market fling into the air. In other words, put in the time making mistakes.

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