A reader saw my story on Meryl Streep (we have so much in common!) She commented she has overcome her inner critic from time to time, had some success—and then encounters failure. In one case, resulting in a large financial loss. It stopped her dead in her tracks. How, she asks, do you buffer failure? Is it a sign that we’re heading down the wrong path?
Buffer failure? Embrace it!
No, I’m not crazy. I hate failure as much as the next person. It doesn’t feel good, it doesn’t look good, and it usually doesn’t smell very good, either.
But I’ve learned to call it something else. It is now a “life learning experience.” Or “an experiment.” A “calculated risk.” Or “an opportunity/possibility that has been tried, and simply did not pan out.”
Whatever you called it, you met it, you got through it, and now you have a precious gift. You can decide what you learned from it. And what you learn from it is entirely up to you.
We hear all those stories about Edison trying and discarding 423 different materials before he found one that could successfully be used as a filament in his electric light bulbs. Supposedly, he would say, “I didn’t fail—I found 423 things that didn’t work!” In reality, I doubt he was that chipper at trial #218. I’m sure he had some choice words.
But the important thing to remember is, it wasn’t a failure. It was a process. He didn’t take each failure as a “sign” he should not continue. He took it as a challenge, an opportunity to explore new possibilities.
There’s a book I read awhile back, title escapes me. A collection of stories as told by assorted famous people, on their failures. Yep. Every single one of them had failed somewhere, along their road to success. You don’t take on risk without encountering failure at some point. Not one person achieved their dream by accepting failure. Every single one of them walked around it, climbed over it, punched through it, ignored it, learned from it or changed it into a victory.
Look, these people aren’t really smarter, more beautiful, more creative, more talented, more anything than you or me. They’re people. Real people. They’re just incredibly persistent. Their common denominator was once they knew what their heart’s desire was, they kept after it. Just like me and Meryl, talkin’ down that buzzy whiney voice and doin’ the work.
It’s not easy. And it doesn’t come naturally, at least not to me. I’ve had to work at not giving up. And I’ve had to work at growing a new attitude about “failure.”
I don’t put it in terms at “what did I do wrong?” I think “What did I do well? And how could I do better? What did I learn? And do I have to do that same thing again to learn that particular lesson? Or is it okay to move on to try something else?”
My first few small town craft shows were “failures.” It would have been so easy to get discouraged. Fortunately, I was committed to making what I loved, not making what would sell at a church craft fair. I realized my work was not the bargain gift item one expects to find at such a show. Although, oddly, after every show, someone would call me and buy one of my very expensive pieces (around $125 at the time.) The lesson I learned was to find a better venue for my work.
I’m still recovering from a more recent, bigger “failure.” I tried a new summer wholesale show, traditionally more of a gift market. I not only did the show, I redid my booth—new floors, new walls, new lighting. I even took a larger booth space. I did the work—did two pre-show, advertising, updated my catalog, sent out my newsletter to customers and hot prospects, created new products. I set up my booth, put on my professional artist clothes, and went to work.
I wrote enough new orders to cover some of my expenses, but not the major improvements I’d made. And many of those new accounts, because the economy still sagged, ended up modifying their orders downwards as the months went by.
Did I fail? To be honest, it sure felt like it at the time!
A fellow exhibitor at the show asked me how I did, and I started to list all the pluses from the show. He cut me short and said, “Why don’t you just be honest and admit it sucked?!” I didn’t know what to say. Was I being a Pollyanna?
To help me put it in perspective, another friend in the biz said, “Is money the only measure of your success?”
Wow. I had to think about that. Yes, I eventually want to be financially successful with my art and business, and I consistently act and plan accordingly. But I also evaluate my progress by other standards. Money is an important measure, but not the only one.
I took a reasonable risk—to introduce my work to a new audience and to try a new booth design/layout.
What did I do well? The pre-show preparations were excellent, the booth was great. The improvements were pricey but they are a long-term investment in my business.
Everyone loved the work, so I know it’s viable. Most of my press kits were taken from the media room—always a good sign! I picked up a dozen new accounts. I made valuable connections, including an editor at a highly respected trade magazine who was fascinated by my work. The new director of an arts foundation, referred to me by a mutual friend, found me, lined me up for a show and has proven to be a source of valuable experience and information about my targeted market. My booth neighbor was curating her first show at the museum where she works, and invited me to exhibit in their first high-end craft show. A favor for a friend at the show with equipment problems netted me his lovely glasswork in return. My daughter, assisting me for the first time, bought a faux-leopard skin cowboy hat from another exhibitor—oh my!), met the charming teenage sons of another exhibitor, and was in seventh heaven.
We had a great time.
And how could I do better? I honestly can’t think of a single thing I could have done better.
What was under my control, and what was not?
Sad to say, the economy is not under my control.
In hindsight, would I have skipped the show? Well, I’m not sure. I think I would have done it, and perhaps triaged the booth improvements. But maybe not. Doing the show forced me to make those improvements, and though it would have been nice to recoup their expense with that show, I know I eventually will.
What did I learn? I learned that something awful can happen, and it was okay. I survived. No one got hurt, no one died.
I’ve weathered my first truly bad show, and lived to tell the tale. I didn’t accept it as a sign my dream was unattainable. I kept the good stuff, I examined the bad stuff, then tossed it. Dug in and got back to work. In August, I did another show, made some slight adjustments to my business model (took more custom orders, learned a new technique for closing high-end sales) and did my best retail show ever.
Buffer failure? No. You don’t get anywhere with that approach. Sometimes the manure life deals you is fertilizer for your garden to come.
*Update for today: I am so glad I found this article today! I’ve been feeling like a failure lately, in so many ways. Which just goes to show you, it will always, always be with us.
But we get to decide, whether we give in, give up, go away…
Or can we choose to simply keep trying.
Because I still love what I do, even though I make even less money at it than I did all those years ago.
Because I can still do it.
Because I want to keep making art. Because I have to do the work of my heart.
It’s who I am. And who I want to be in the world.