Using Your Failures to Become Even Better at What You Do

Recently, a commenter on another article suggested we read this post. So we have. And we’re proud to reveal our take-away: “Be proud of your failure because it will help you succeed.” (Yeah, tell that to the mortgage company. Right.)

Saddest pic we ever saw; we think it’s the white socks

Paula Scher on Failure – by Jay Dixit (Psychology Today)

Paula Scher is one of the world’s most famous graphic designers, known for creating Citibank’s umbrella logo as well as for design work for The Public Theater, The New York Times Magazine, the American Museum of Natural History, The New York City Ballet, and Herman Miller. She believes failure is the secret to artistic success. “You have to fail in order to make the next discovery,” says Scher. “It’s through mistakes that you actually can grow.”

You have a whole philosophy about recovering from failure—how you can learn from failure and how it can actually help you. You’ve spoken about how failures and mistakes in your own work led to your current level of success and allowed you to be creative.

There are two different ways this thing works. I did a TED talk about the difference between serious work and solemn work. I define serious work as being where you make breakthroughs, and solemn work as doing the status quo and the level may be very good but it’s not breakthrough.

There’s another factor—and I’m talking about this as a designer, but I imagine it would work in any form of the arts and to science. When you’re working and you make mistakes, particularly when you’re young, you make discoveries because you do things that are inappropriate and wrongheaded, but within the wrongheadedness you find an unexpected way to go. These things are truly the breakthroughs.

When you’re fulfilling a function—when you’re being obedient, in other words, you’re doing as expected—you can’t learn anything. Because you already know the answer. It’s through mistakes that you actually can grow.

You have to get bad in order to get good. You have to try a lot of things and fail in order to make the next discovery.

That works in a short-term methodology when you’re just working on a specific project, but also long-term in terms of a whole career. I find I make big discoveries and I make huge leaps and then I repeat myself and I’ll be known for what I did—I’ll get the acclaim for the breakthrough—and that elevates everyone’s expectation of who I am and what I’m supposed to do, and I will repeat that because it has become successful.

And I will repeat it and repeat it until it provokes my utter failure because I’m going along doing exactly what I did. And it’s very hard to make the breakthrough because in order to make the breakthrough again, to go up again, you either have to fail or be unqualified for a job where you don’t know what you’re doing, where you make honest mistakes because that’s how you learn. And that success is its own guarantee of failure.

So you’re saying that one of the ways that you experience failure is: Let’s say you make a breakthrough and you’re rewarded for it—by people praising it—and you repeat that same formula that worked for you and it gets stale after a while, and eventually that lack of innovation becomes regarded as a failure?

That’s right. In my TED talk, there’s actually a little cycle about it. It’s first being serious—that’s how you make the breakthrough—then being solemn (that’s when the breakthrough is expected), then being trite or hackneyed, and then being forgotten and then getting resurrected again. You go through that entire cycle, and the failure leads to the next reinvention—as long as you understand what’s happening to you. Some people grasp on some to try to repeat the old success. They feel, “Well, oh, I’m just not doing the old thing I did well,” and in fact you have to let go of that for a while and free fall and find the next thing.

What do you do in order to understand what’s happening to you and try not to grasp on to the old success?

That’s the “aha” part of it. The really hard part is to let go of yourself. You have to have the self-awareness that it’s happening, and you can’t be defensive and protect yourself. Like I find, the minute I see young kids doing something I really, really hate, I know I have to pay attention to them. Because I realize I really, really hate it because I’m defending myself.

Can you give an example of that?

I’ve been through so many styles and trends that have been like that. That’s your first reaction when you see something new that you aren’t part of. It’s a generational shift. I’m 60, I’ve been through this a lot. You never can do what the kids do. What you do is look at yourself and find your own way to address the fact that the times have changed and that you have to pay attention. You can’t be a designer and say, “Oh, this is timeless.” Nothing is timeless! Times change. The minute you say, “This is some fashion phase, I’m going to ignore this, because my work is timeless,” pay attention—you’re fooling yourself! What young designers do is they rebel against what came before them—meaning they’re rebelling against you. That’s what allows them to discover the next thing.

They need that to propel them forward. So when they rebel and they rebel against you, that hurts your feelings. You feel threatened by it. When you feel threatened by it, you tend to denounce it. “Oh, these young kids today, they’re doing this terrible crap yada yada.” How many times have we heard that? What you’re doing is you’re not paying attention. You’re defending yourself. If you can embrace it and you can look at it and find the value in it and why it is here, then you can grow yourself, and you’re much stronger that way.

There’s another kind of failure. Once you realize the thing you got rewarded for has become stale and that you need to try something new—when you’re trying to innovate, I suppose you make mistakes then too?

Then you really don’t know what you’re doing, so you make some really terrible things. And you have to have the luxury and the time to do that, and it’s hard when you’re a working professional to be able to fail like that. But there’s nothing better for you than to make some big ugly terrible thing that’s just a disaster.

The thing about your mistakes is, when everybody praises something, you don’t learn anything. But when you do something terrible, you know what not to do. And that’s fantastic. You also learn what you could do if you manipulated it a different way. You have to try these things. You have to see where the failure takes you. That’s very scary and risky and also hard to do while you’re trying to do something professional. So you have to set aside some personal R&D to make the failure.

Is that what you did, or were you lucky to be in a field where you could fail in your actual work?

When I was young I had this job working in the record business. I was an art director for CBS records and I used to make about 150 records covers a year. About 80 percent of them were terrible. And that was how I learned to be a designer. I was very lucky. Because most kids don’t have the option to really fail like that.

That’s where I learned the value of the failure. Now, as a working professional and a partner of Pentagram with a reputation to uphold, I’m probably less likely to make outrageously ugly things. But the downside of that is that the work becomes expected, so I have to make changes on my own. So I began painting as a way to balance and be able to make other discoveries, and I made these very complicated map paintings and they started selling. The success hurt the expression. So I have to go back to R&D and develop some other ways of pushing that.

Do you think it takes a particular type of personality to be able to do that, to be able to take down your defenses and be OK with failure? What do you think it is about your personality that allows you to do that?

This is hard, because it gets very personal. Maybe I had less to protect. Some of it came from being a woman, in that the expectation was that I wasn’t going to do much anyway, so what the hell?

I find that men are much less likely to talk about this stuff. Unless they’re so über-successful that they put themselves out as gurus. It’s the idea that failure is not embarrassing to me. What’s embarrassing to me is the idea of failing and not knowing. Do you know that Randy Newman song, “I’m Dead and I Don’t Know It”?

Peggy Bechko on Enhancing Your Writing

From Peggy’s blog:

Three Observations On How to Add Punch In Your Writing – by Peggy Bechko

Okay, first, as writers, we (at least most of us) know we need to flavor our writing with sensations that go beyond sight and sound. We add things like the aroma of chicken grilling, the smell of tangy perfume, the feel of a too-heavy gold chain dragging against the back of a neck, the feel of a chilled breeze ticking up one’s back beneath a jacket or the really sour taste of overdone lemonade to add life to our writing. You know, stuff everyone experiences, maybe notices.

But, when writers are reaching for more, and it’s true, editors just love more than the five senses we’re used to providing, consider body language. Remember, all the extras we add as subtle touches in storytelling don’t just add to the setting, but fleshes out your characters as well.

Body language is a great resource for writers and you never hear anyone commenting on it. It just is if the writer injects it smoothly.

How about a character sneaking a smoke where it’s forbidden. Cupping his hand over the cigarette, whether he telegraphs he knows he’s breaking the rules and is embarrassed, avoiding eye contact, or if he’s arrogant and defiant, staring down those who notice him smoking, it telegraphs how the character feels, tells the reader something about his inner workings. Take some of your research time and read up a bit on body language. Then apply.Your writing will take an expansive breath.

Another thing to consider when adding depth to your story is people. You know, the characters you’re writing about. We people are a strange lot. Our behavior is rational only some of the time. When you think about it, how often have you taken stupid risks or done something you’re at a total loss to explain?

You’ve probably heard “truth is stranger than fiction”. Well, it is. You, I, all of us do strangely unpredictable things at one time or another with no rational explanation. That’s a bit at odds with convincing your reader to go along with the suspension of disbelief thing. So the other side of that coin is believability. It’s a high-wire act. You don’t want to be cranking out boring fiction, focused on absolute rational behavior at all times.You don’t want to lose your reader.

So here’s the thing. The weird behavior patterns of us human beings (great fodder for writers and fun to read about) are actually just that – patterns. Others of our species can relate to or understand much of our strange and irrational behavior – heck, they’ve done it too!

I mean there’s love, sex, obsession, weird habits. Love and sex are always basis for irrational behavior. Weird habits like never showing up on time or being obsessively punctual can easily serve as fodder or unsettling decisions, irrational anger or a host of other reactions. The obsessed can become single-minded which can lead to absolutely horrible judgment. Control freaks can have fatal consequences. You get it, more grist for the writer’s mill.

Ooh, we love us our grist. Read all of it now!

Having Trouble Finishing Your Spec? Maybe It’s Your Diet

Old School Truism: Nothing keeps a real writer from writing.

New School Fact: Millennials will always find a way.

(To keep from writing? Or to make sure we write. Waitaminnit! Hey–!)

How the Food You Eat Makes You More (or Less) Productive – by Leo Widrich

Every seven years, the body will change completely. This means that each and every one of your cells will have been renewed and exchanged for another one that your body has produced. I am always amazed by this. Science suggests that this gives us a unique chance to change and erase any mistakes we’ve made in the past. How? Through a focus on the food we eat. Fortunately we don’t have to wait seven years. Day-to-day changes in our diet can have a massive impact on our productivity. Something like this:

“Adequate nutrition can raise your productivity levels by 20 percent on average.” –WHO

How food interacts with your brain

One of the most fascinating things about eating is how various ingredients enter the brain through your blood stream. The elements that make it through to power your brain will help you to either focus or lose focus.

Most of what we eat will be broken down to one thing: Glucose. Glucose is our fuel, keeping our brains awake and alert. So at all times, we have a certain glucose level in our blood (kind of like gasoline in a car).

The most important part here is that we are in full control of how we release glucose to our blood and our brains. Certain foods release glucose quickly, while others do so more slowly, yet sustainably. Researcher Leigh Gibson found this to be optimal:

“The brain works best with about 25 grams of glucose circulating in the blood stream—about the amount found in a banana.”

The way you can get those 25 grams of glucose into your blood stream is pretty easy. You can eat a donut. You can eat a small bowl of oats. There is virtually no difference in the very short term for your brain activity.

Over the stretch of a normal 8-hour day however, the differences are spectacular. After eating the donut, we will release glucose into our blood very quickly. We will have about 20 minutes of alertness. Then our glucose level will drop rapidly, leaving us unfocused and easy to distract. It’s like putting the foot down on the gas pedal until you’ve used all your fuel.

The oats, on the other hand, release their sugar as glucose much slower. This means we will have a steady glucose level, better focus, and higher attention levels. Another important factor are your Leptin levels. Leptin will signal to your brain how full you are. If you are now guessing that a donut won’t signal your brain to be full for a long time, while oats will, well, you are right.

Read it all

There’s something important here, but you’ll have to tell us what it is. Our eyes glazed over at “One of the most fascinating things about eating is how various ingredients enter the brain through your blood stream.” Probably because we’re the kind of loser that gets all caught up in the ickiness of the, you know, how it leaves.

C’mon, Lifehacker, how about some articles on, oh, hacking?

Avoiding Stress the Way the Ancients Did

In the words of Cato the Younger: “Uh-oh…”

Cheatsheet from Liam McLennan via William B. Irvine

Stoicism for Modern Stresses: 5 Lessons From Cato – by Rob Goodman & Jimmy Soni

Julius Caesar wanted to end him. George Washington wanted to be him. And for two thousand years, he was a singular subject of plays, poetry, and paintings, with admirers as diverse as Benjamin Franklin, the poet Dante, and the Stoic emperor Marcus Aurelius.

Yet, for all that, you’ve probably never heard of him…

We’ve spent the last few years excavating the life, times, and legacy of Marcus Porcius Cato the Younger, better known to the world simply as Cato. He was the senator who led the opposition to Julius Caesar in the last years of the Roman Republic, then killed himself rather than live under a dictator. He brought Stoicism into the mainstream. The Founding Fathers resurrected him as a symbol of resistance to tyranny. George Washington even put on a play about him in the bitter winter at Valley Forge.

Why does he matter today? Because at a time of crisis and calamity in Rome, Cato’s mission was to live life on his own terms, even (and sometimes especially) when those terms put him at odds with everyone around him.

Cato reminds us that there’s a thin line between visionaries and fools — a lesson especially important to entrepreneurs, authors, creative-types, or really anyone doing work that goes against the grain.

He remains both a shining example and a cautionary tale. Here are five lessons he can teach us about reputation, authority, fear, discipline, and legacies:

1) Master the power of gestures.

We talk about our times as the age of information overload, but public figures in all ages have had to compete to be heard. Ancient Rome was saturated with political talk: popular lawyers like Cicero consistently drew huge crowds, and the Roman people could regularly hear all-day parades of political speeches in the Forum. How could someone break through all that noise?

Cato understood that actions are far easier to “hear” than words. So he perfected a style of politics-by-gesture. He went barefoot. He wore his toga commando (then, as now, not the fashionable thing to do). He walked alone without the usual entourage of aides. He slept in the trenches with his troops rather than relax in a tent; he marched alongside them rather than ride a horse. He surrounded himself with philosophers, not political advisors. Just a second’s glance at him told an onlooker everything he needed to know about Cato. Those gestures, more than any vote cast or speech given, made his reputation.

Even his death at the end of Rome’s civil war was a statement against his enemies. One night, he retired to his room after dinner, and loudly called for a book — Plato’s dialogue Phaedo — and his sword. The Phaedo tells the story of the death of Socrates, a philosopher too principled to live, forced to drink poison by the political authorities. Cato wanted everyone to see the parallels. Then he gritted his teeth and disemboweled himself.

To this day, his gesture against tyranny speaks as loud as any book or speech on the subject.

Read it all

Fascinating stuff, above and at the link, all of which just may boil down to this equally compelling image we found:

Or, you know, not. (Who’re we to say Marcus Aurelius is wrong? Hey, we’re aspiring TV executives. We can tell anybody they’re wrong.)

munchman: The Writer of GROUNDHOG DAY Tells How He Does It

Danny Rubin, whose credits include GROUNDHOG DAY and HEAR NO EVIL, has a book out called How to Write Groundhog Day. Inasmuch as I love the film, I’m hoping the book is great. Here’s a helpful sample:

How to Write Groundhog Day: 10 Rules for Screenwriters – by Danny Rubin

Last summer another list of writing rules popped up, this one in a Sunday edition of The New York Times.

The comfort of rules can be very important to a writer’s motivation because telling them the truth (there are no rules and nobody knows anything) is for most people not useful and a little intimidating.

Here’s my list. It’s designed for screenwriters writing screenplays, but all kinds of dramatic fiction and nonfiction can be invigorated by the same rules. Or not. Equally.

1. Writers write. And rewrite.

Everybody’s got a great idea for a screenplay. “All I need is someone to write it down for me,” says my neighbor, my barber, my UPS guy. Nope. Coming up with great ideas is part of the job, and I certainly spend a portion of my “writing” time on the sofa and in the shower; but most ideas tend to look fully formed and perfect until you actually try to write them down.

If you are a writer, you are actually writing things down. And then we rewrite. Getting to the end of a 120-page feature film is huge, and I often print it out and spend the rest of the day just picking it up and feeling its heft. I did that! Yes I did! But getting to the end is not the same as finishing. Most writing takes place after the initial basecoat is laid down.

2. Show it, don’t tell it.

Anybody can create a character who opens his mouth and tells us everything that’s on his mind, and some people can even make those words funny or poetic or heartbreaking. But movies are first and foremost a visual medium, and the strongest screenplays take advantage of that. What can a character do to show us how they feel or what they are thinking about? What scenes can you create and in what order can you arrange them in order to show us a routine or an intention or a memory? Dialogue is most amazing and powerful in a movie when it is not forced to carry the burden of exposition. Concentrate on showing and the telling will take care of itself.

Read it all

See, this is how you get to be a Big Deal Writing Guy. You believe things like “there are no rules and nobody knows anything,” but then you give everybody rules anyway. Presto! You maintain your belief in yourself as an honest person yet also give the public what it wants.

To  my mind, that’s the most important lesson of all here. Cha-ching!