Failing to Fail

(Ignoring the Writing on the Wall)

It’s not a big revelation that in order to succeed you have to fail.  Knowing that doesn’t make it any less painful, though, when you’re in the throes of it.  It’s easier to feel like you suck than to chalk failure up to a learning experience.

One of the biggest mistakes I’ve made is turning around when I realize I’m passing through failure’s gates.  I’ve often steered clear of a failure on the horizon to the safety and ambiguity of non-success: a realm where you can neither say you succeeded nor failed.

The worst is when I do step all the way into a failing situation but then give up before learning its lesson.

On 31 March 2013, I played with a guitar quartet performing Bach fugues.  Some of you probably saw it.  It was the 2nd or 3rd most embarrassing performance I’ve ever given.  After we mangled Bach’s music for 15 minutes, I loaded my equipment and left as quickly as I possibly could and spoke to as few people as I possibly had to.  (I couldn’t help but think about my own comments on half-assed efforts.)

As I drove home annoyed and regretful, Leila Henley told me that it was a character building show.  I laughed and as I thought about it, I realized that in my haste to avoid those embarrassing conversations, I had missed the REAL character building opportunity:  the chance to respond positively to a bad situation.

So I not only failed to perform the material – I failed to take advantage of the opportunity to exhibit good character.  Bah!  That made me even more angry!!!

SIDE NOTE: I now know why so many advanced players simply hate playing Bach fugues. 

Bach: Dickhead Master of the stupid Fugue.

This reminds me that when I have allowed myself to meander through the dark forest beyond failure’s entry gates, I’ve usually found success!

When Bill Petersen and I got the idea for The Invincible Czars to do the Nutcracker Suite music back in the summer of 2004, it seemed like a great idea.  Midway into the creating and booking process, I started losing steam and faith in it.  Most of my peers (and at least one band mate) thought it was cheesy.  Many organizations couldn’t wrap their head around it.  We didn’t know who Trans-Siberian Orchestra was or that we were simply re-blazing their trail until we were done. Then we sounded like shit on the live radio and tv performances in Austin.  Austin papers ignored the event.  The first shows in San Antonio and Ft. Worth suuuuuuuuuuuucked.

But then…. the Austin show sold out!  I was shocked.  John Aielli had been playing excerpts from our KUT FM performance on his show every day – even as bad as we played.  Graham Reynolds told me that night that we’d put ourselves on the map – for better or worse.  The thing became a holiday tradition and essentially bank rolls all the band’s other efforts for the rest of the year.

So what happened?  Why has it been 4 years since Invincible Czars released any significant body of original material not for silent film?  Why do I have a back log of 30+ songs and even more instrumental material just sitting there?  Why have I played it so safely and been less bold with the group – avoiding failures and thereby successes?

It’s because, lately, I’ve been paying too much attention to the proverbial Writing on the Wall.

The writing on the wall tells me that I’m not only going to turn 40 at the day job I’ve had since I was in college – I’m probably going to turn 50 there unless THEY outgrow ME (not the other way around as I had envisioned when I was 23).  It tells me that I’m never going to make much money because I really don’t enjoy much of anything that generates it (musically or otherwise) and I’m not particularly good at anything that does either (musically or otherwise) since I didn’t complete a college degree and am not naturally gifted at anything.  It tells me that I have always been and always will be a wanna-be – semi-pro at best – because I refuse to make the decisions and take the necessary action to succeed.  It points out (in this very blog entry) that I’ve avoided failing productively in public in recent years and so I’ve rarely reached the success that lies at the far end of failure.  It tells me that it’s past time for a change of course, to cut my losses and accept my place in the universe as another unimportant speck of space dust.

Before I knew all of the above, I used to enter my past failures with optimism and saw them through when they didn’t pan out.  Now… I balk at the gates of failure because I know what I’m getting into.

I do better when I ignore the writing on the wall but… it’s hard to ignore.

Here’s a truth that I also have ignored lately –  the writing on the wall ONLY takes the past into account and its predictions are nothing more than conjecture.   The gremlin in my brain that writes it doesn’t know any better than I do what tomorrow holds.

Let me invoke the spirit of my favorite band NoMeansNo for the billionth time on this blog.  The band told me that their first tour was a great example of ignoring the writing on the wall.  They toured Canada and the US for many weeks playing only Sunday-Wednesday nights —- NO WEEKEND GIGS — and eating PBJ for most meals.  After nightly playing to mostly indifferent or unappreciative audiences, their final show of the tour was in the SF Bay Area.  Jello Biafra (Dead Kennedys) showed up, loved them and began releasing their albums thereafter.  Years later they did an album with Jello – the response to which they attribute the opportunity to quit their day jobs.

Remember when NoMeansNo looked like this? Neither do I.

What if they’d heeded the writing on the wall early on that first tour and cancelled the rest of the tour and gone home?  Well, they’d have felt like I did after that Bach performance!

Most successful people travel to the far side of failure to find success*.  If NoMeansNo had heeded the writing on wall, they would not have passed through the gates of failure to the far side of its boundaries where success resides.

Too often, I’ve sabotaged my own efforts by jumping ship when I see failure on the horizon.  If I had only embraced failures by finishing doomed projects and learned from them instead of living in fear of them…  well, I probably would be playing more music and writing fewer blogs.

In an earlier post, I quoted a friend who says Austin rewards failure.  He’s right – but that’s not a bad thing.  Austin recognizes the value of failure and isn’t afraid to fail.  Failure is inevitable.  Do it and learn from it.  Don’t fear it.

The next time I encounter failure, I won’t turn around.  I’ll run through its gates in hopes that momentum will propel me to that far side.   I’m sure I’ll have this character building opportunity very, very soon.


*this brings me back to “why them?”  It’s really easy to be jealous of those who get to skip this step.  When I feel jealous of them, I turn the question upon myself – what did they learn that I haven’t or that I refuse to accept?  I also ask – would I want to do what they do?  Usually I wouldn’t.