Today we want to talk about failure. As we talk about our successes, inextricably linked to that is our failures. What does it mean to fail? How do you deal with failure? And how do you move on from it? We hope that you can come away from this episode feeling empowered to keep trying, failing, learning, and growing. Let’s learn to successfully fail.
There are a few different types of failure:
Low-level; these are the daily upsets and letdowns.
Mid-level; they sting for like a week or a month.
High-level; getting fired, getting divorced, these are life changing and really can be cause for a lot of introspection.
Let’s start with a good quote, that’s how all good podcasts start, right?
“People who succeed are people who failed but they keep going anyway.”
Mohammad Ali. He lost his first fight and then, after the fight, was claiming that he would be the heavyweight champion of the world.
Michael Jordan, didn’t make his 10th grade basketball team. This failure is the impetus of his success. This is what lit his inner fire.
Babe Ruth, he had the home run record and the strike out record at the same time. He went for it every time, it was all or nothing. Babe Ruth was so confident that he would point over the fence to say he was about to hit a homerun before going to bat.
When Lee started art school he came to it really without any experience drawing or painting. The first 3 or 4 terms were kind of rough. Every day Lee would sulk into class and he would have done his best on his paintings and then would look at what everyone else had done and he knew that he wasn’t at their level yet. It was a daily failure, for the first couple of terms. It was tough and he really struggled with it; it was quite disheartening. He came up with a way to get through it:
He was going to do 100 paintings and the wouldn’t start being judgmental of his work until he hit 100 paintings. He would keep tick marks on a sheet until he got to 100 and by the time he got there he was way better and more confident. By 100 paintings Lee was starting to find his stride and get pretty good, at that point at least it wasn’t daily failure.
One problem we have is that we look at failures as failures. We have also been conditioned to not look at trying and failing as a learning and forward moving experience. Everything in school is all about moving up, what grades did you get? Were you right or wrong? We’ve been conditioned to not use trial and error for learning. In school we don’t get a good grade for trying and failing. All the results we see with report cards are all about moving up. That conditions us in a bad way for being artists. That model is good for math, it’s either right or wrong, but with a painting there is not just a right or wrong way, sometimes you have to wipe the paint off and redo the painting but that failure was apart of the successful journey.
Will once had a student and they wouldn’t try anything with paint and were so afraid to make a bad mark, they were paralyzed. Will thinks that this was because they weren’t ever rewarded for trying and failing.
Be 100 Percent Responsible
Participation awards, now in youth sports there are always participation rewards, but kids know it is a game and there are actually winners. They know who won and who lost.
There is another way to categorize failures:
Caused by you, and your choices
Caused by others, and their choices
Caused by external forces.
You can’t always control the outcome of the failure however, your reaction to failure is up to you.
Typically Jake’s goal, regardless of what caused the failure, he tries to take as much responsibility as possible for what happened, or for fixing the situation moving forward. Hopefully that’s the lesson from any sort of failure, you’ve learned something, if it didn’t work you can check it off your list, okay this didn’t work, and then you can keep moving forward.
No matter what happened you can check it off your box, whether or not you caused the failure. You don’t have to be a victim, you can choose learn, and then move forward.
Test Your Hypotheses
Art and life really is a lifelong learning process both on the micro and macro level. You’re always testing your hypotheses. You can always be learning. “I tested those theories and they didn’t work and so I am going to change the process, or change…”
That’s how Lee learned watercolors. Initially in almost every painting he would fail. Watercolors are really difficult to master. Lee would constantly fail in every painting and would get frustrated because he had to buy these big sheets of expensive paper. He decided that he would start painting with the mindset that each painting was a test. And then that shift in thinking really helped him, instead of “I wrecked that painting and wasted that piece of paper”, it was, “okay, next time I need to put more water down.” he moved from frustration to a growth mindset.
Rocket scientists almost celebrate when a rocket explodes. If the launch is successful sometimes they don’t know if they just got lucky. However, when it fails they get all of this data to learn from to solve the problem and then when the next launch is successful, they know that they were able to solve the problem.
Jake feels the same way and if something takes off he is a little uneasy wondering if he just got lucky or if it was really good.
Will was an early adopter of E books on Amazon and they his did really well and so he assumed that if he made interactive E books for the iPad they would see similar success and basically they totally failed, because people don’t buy iPad apps.
The subtitle of the book is: turning stepping stones into success.
If you want to be a boxer you have to take hits.
Your failures can motivate you and give you energy to persevere.
Will would get upset when, in college, he’d show work to his wife and she wouldn’t like it, and he’d get frustrated that he couldn’t even impress his wife let alone others. So he would analyze his work and then used that frustration to keep working and get better.
David Hohn, his wife was a graphic designer for Nike so he had a high bar to hit when he went home and showed her his work.
Lee’s wife, Lisa, always has critique on his characters.
Jake’s wife, Alison, always is straight up honest with Jake. Jake has to recognize that his target audience often isn’t his wife. But when it is something she likes she loves it and asks him why he doesn’t do more work like that.
Jake’s mom would always give him a good ego boost, but not really any helpful critique.
Sometimes your closest family will be your biggest fans or your biggest critics.
Lee’s mom on the other hand would give him brutally honest critique. He never really drew, but it was raining outside and he decided to draw a picture of his great dane, he showed it to his mom and she said, “He looks deranged!”
Will would always get critiqued that his drawings of children always looked too old.
He was frustrated because he didn’t know how to fix it.
He was putting the eyes in the adult places, and then he would add extra lines that are visible but unnecessary that would age his characters.
Hard lines for the collarbone or the sternocleidomastoid (neck) muscle really make characters look older.
One day he did a drawing that looked like a kid and his wife told him, “Now that looks like a kid!” But he lacked the skill to analyze it and figure out how he did it, so he used that drawing for reference and it took him a while to figure it out.
People can really do a number on artists feelings pretty easily.
For more depth be sure to listen to: Critiques
What do you do when you don’t like it but other people do?
Skyheart cover story, Jake redid his Skyheart cover and asked for feedback from Will that he liked it better, and then most people online and Jake’s kids told him to go back to the original. Jake told Will, what everyone was saying and Will, said, “Yeah, I didn’t want to tell you…”
Now Jake makes sure that Will gives him his honest opinion.
It’s hard to have people around that can really give you an honest critique. We know how much of a letdown it is to get help and then have to change a bunch of things. But that critique is so important!
Usually for Will, his best work is the work that he got lots of feedback on.
Sometimes we just want to go into our secret lair and come out with a masterpiece, but often times it fails because we didn’t get help from other people.
Receiving other people’s critique and feedback really accelerates our growth and the the quality of our work.
She has a one year creative residency at Adobe working on a book for them right now. Lee is her mentor, and they have an open dialogue and critique which has made her book really good.
One of the reasons the Star Wars prequels turned out the way they did is because George Lucas was surrounded by “yes men.”
You don’t want to surround yourself with “yes men.”
Ironically, you need to surround your people who are willing to tell you “no”.
Put yourself in a position to receive critique and then listen to those critiques.
That’s a way to circumvent failures and then you can use those failures as stepping stones. It. Better to have a little failure than to wait and have a bigger failure.
Beginning of Will’s career: we have this project and are looking for illustrators, are you available? He would only get 1/10 of those.
Will was really close to getting to illustrate the Marvelous toy book, which was a sequal to puff the magic dragon (which is still selling really well) Steve Cox got to illustrate the book.
This is so true, there are all of these jobs that get talked about, there are so many books that you hear about or that get talked about. Especially for the first 5 years but even later.
Lee would get all of these proposals and even some animation studios that were maybe interested in using his work to make a short, and then radio silence. It is quite disheartening.
How to Catch a Bogle: Lee did a sample illustration and a couple of sketches for the cover and he thought it was a no brainer that he would get to illustrate it, but then he didn’t get it. So these hopeful opportunities that don’t pan out are plentiful.
Mid Level Failure
Lee did a children’s book, did a whole dummy, it goes to acquisition and then you assume that
It’s a long letdown, it can cover 6 months of your life. It’s not like one painting
It’s out of your control, maybe marketing got these sales reports and they feel like another book would be better. Or maybe something really similar comes out.
If they had just rejected it right out of the gate, it would be easier
He was working at Blue Sky and there is this unspoken hierarchy that character designers are at the top, and he was on a lower level. He got thrown a bone by the director, they needed some background characters.
Jake dropped the ball, he fumbled it. He did his best but basically they just yawned at his result.
He realized that maybe his character designs aren’t the best for this animation studios or for animation in general, but he realized that he wanted to move into a place where his designs could be appreciated.
Find the audience that appreciates it.
When people think of Jake Parker they don’t think of him as a character designer but see him now as a comic book artist and children’s book illustrator.
Maybe now he is more experienced and would have done a better job on it.
Jake has put his effort, emotion and interest into projects that he gets satisfaction out of and if the audience gets satisfaction from it all the better.
High Level Failures
Will’s High Level Failure:
Will was getting a lot of work but not as much as before, he and his wife were doing really well before while she taught school and he did illustration, but then she was diagnosed with an autoimmune disease and couldn’t keep working. He was still getting good assignments and money you could live on but because they had been living outside their means, and they didn’t have her extra income so they got into financial trouble.
Will saw these people around him making good money and he felt sorry for himself and felt like a failure, and that he was letting his family down.
So… he almost quit to become a prison guard.
All of the guys around Will were correctional officers, they were making 6 figures, and their wives worked and the central valley of CA is affordable. Will saw that these guys didn’t go to college and they have these really comfortable financial situations. Illustrators are more like dentists have to study and perfect their craft and he felt he should be making more.
He felt really sorry for himself, he wasn’t honest enough with himself to say, “We got ourselves into this situation.”
He went and took the PCA32 class and got unofficially hired but then he was talking to the CO’s in his neighborhood and heard all of these horror stories, they were telling him not to do it.
He felt like a failure he had a 15 year long career in illustration, it was a cop out. No one that did that job was having a meaningful career.
It felt like giving up.
How did you get yourself out?
He talked to his wife, his bishop from church, his neighbor who was a nurse at the prison, everyone was telling him not to do it.
His bishop told him that he saw what Will was capable of doing, had seen his children books, and that the gifts that he had should not be squandered this way, and that he had developed these gifts that would be taking away from people and he wouldn’t know what good he had done. Jake has really seen the positive influence on others through Will’s Youtube channel, art, and on him personally.
Will and his wife were in a sticky financial situation and it really took learning to live within their means to help get them out of that. Just because someone else has something you shouldn’t get it just because they have one. Live below your means so you can save every month, you will experience lean times.
Carrie Henry, “I hope you are putting money away because this isn’t going to last.”
There are so many benefits to living within your means. Including happiness by not being tied to needing to have everything.
Jake had a great job at an animation studio, but wanted to develop an independent career. He had an opportunity to teach at BYU in Utah, where he could have benefits and health insurance along with a couple days a week to work on his publishing work. But that job at BYU disappeared because after a couple of years they told him they wanted him to have a degree. He didn’t have So he found a full time job and gave himself a year to get 6 months of work lined up. The year came and went and he didn’t have 6 months of work lined up, he was really stressed and he was really down on himself, he doubled down on himself and he started to post on social media and posted daily and tried to post daily. He then landed a really good job from Google that would last them a couple of months, and he knew if he did a Kickstarter, and he got another childrens book. He added it all up and realized he had his 6 months of work he was looking for. That was 5 years ago, and he’s been doing it ever since, but it hasn’t been smooth but it’s been a steady trajectory upwards.
It would have been easy to quit and just stay at that new job for 10 years, but he had a vision or a goal and he stuck with that.
You never know what the future holds in store. There are always curves and things you didn’t see coming. No matter how good you are you will still experience failures. This is true for life and especially for a career in art. Once you hit a certain point it doesn’t mean that those things will go away. Typically all failures have a silver lining. Use every failure to look at what went wrong, what you can do differently, and how you can learn from it and be better.
Alex Sugg: alexsugg.com
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