A while back, I had a Facebook conversation with a couple of friends about the Oscars; specifically which musical performance we thought was best. One of my friends said, “Please don’t tell me you thought it was U2”.
That sent the conversation off in a different direction, with him maintaining that they hadn’t done anything good since “The Joshua Tree” and me begging to differ. He then posted a youtube video of “Lemon” from their “Pop” album – not their greatest song, and certainly not their best album. I responded that I’d support risk-taking artists over the ones that churn out the same music album after album. His response was, “Well, having the bravery to fail magnificently over and over is commendable”.
I started thinking then about the nature of failure and how we define it. In U2’s case, what is failure? With 145 million albums sold and 3 of the top-grossing tours of all time, one would tend to believe that they have garnered more success than failure. Even when a new CD doesn’t sell as well as it’s predecessors (“No Line on the Horizon“, for example), the tours still sell out and break records. Most people would be perfectly happy with that sort of “failure”. So, are these critical failures? Artistic failures? Failures of expectation?
Deciding upon your definition of failure is important. If you have a clear definition of failure (and of its lovely opposite, success), you’ll be better able to recognize them when they present themselves. For me, the greatest failure (as trite as it sounds) is in not trying. Sometimes, that’s extremely difficult. It’s tempting to stick with the tried and true, especially when there are deadlines looming. Because of that, I actively challenge myself to try new (or at least new to me) ideas as much as possible.
In the case of “Pop” which sold 1.5 million copies (dismal sales for a major band), one could argue that fans expected a different album than what they got. That’s because U2 decided to not sound like U2. They wanted to experiment and it failed in a big way. What followed “Pop” was “All That You Can’t Leave Behind“, one of their finest efforts critically and commercially. The failure of “Pop” forced the band to examine what they were about and what they wanted to do, and what their fans expectations were. This illustrates to me how important failure can be IF YOU LEARN from it.
The difficulty comes in discerning what lessons failure is trying to teach us. Failure is often accompanied by embarrassment, frustration, and disappointment; none of which are helpful when you’re trying to decrypt the situation for lessons. At that point, I shut off the negative voices in my head (I swear, it’s a veritable opera in there sometimes) and focus on evaluating my failed idea or plan (and my execution of it) to look for clues. To embark on that questioning path with all of the other baggage accompanying you is a sure way to lead to an unclear answer.
The other thing I take way from this is that the only way to succeed big is to aim big; the risk is, of course, that you’ll fail big. Many people are just not willing to fail big. In some ways, who can blame them? Our political system, business climate (and often, sadly, our art environment) demands and rewards only success. No one is “allowed” to fail gracefully. This mindset forces many people to scale back their risk; it rewards timidity and sticking with what is known; instead of fostering creativity and innovation. In a 2008 commencement speech at Harvard, J.K. Rowling said, “It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all – in which case, you fail by default.” I couldn’t agree more.