If there’s one childhood lesson I believe should be scrapped, it’s the idea that doing your best will always lead to success. It’s a nice sentiment, but the truth is, sometimes your best is not enough. Not for you, not for other people, and not for the goals that you want to achieve. Sometimes the best you can do is enough, but more of the time, it isn’t. Most of the time, you’ll fail. You’ll find yourself being even more frustrated than if you had done it poorly and had an excuse for why things didn’t work out.
I grew up as an all-star cheerleader, where failure is notoriously easy to come by. My team practiced one routine twice a week with no off-season, while summers were reserved for developing skills. There were five or six competitions a year, where we would compete our routine a maximum of two times before results would be announced. For those who don’t know, a cheerleading routine lasts two minutes and thirty seconds. In a sport ranked by a variety of categories, including difficulty, creativity, and execution, for each section of that two-minute routine, there was ample opportunity for something to go wrong. Nuking your own chance at a high placement was more likely than hitting a perfect routine. Sometimes, even hitting a perfect routine wouldn’t be enough.
My coach made sure we knew this and that, by competition standards, we would sometimes fail. Our very best routine, our cleanest and most difficult skills weren’t always going to be enough to nail a first-place trophy. Maybe someone else had a more difficult routine, or the judges liked another team better, or maybe some miniscule detail in another routine was better than ours. Every one of my teammates and I knew that to even contend for placement, but it didn’t always go that way. So, we did our best and went into every competition knowing that our best might not be enough while still hoping that it would be.
Every time we failed as a team, it sucked. I won’t pretend that it didn’t, but it was a regular experience in the sport. It helped me get comfortable with failing. It never made me love the sport any less, and if anything, it made us work to improve our own potential to help our chances of succeeding. My coach used to tell us every practice that failing and sucking is a normal part of life. Dare to fail, and get comfortable with it. It’ll happen more than succeeding will.
It was always easy for me to remember that when I was at cheer. As a writer, however, it was more challenging. I’m a perfectionist, and I pride myself on being a strong writer, so sometimes it was easier for me to look the other direction when I knew a contest or article deadline was coming up. It would allow me to avoid criticism and uphold my own self-imposed ego.
The truth is, though, no one cares when you fail. It’s not an “if or when” question. Especially as an artist, it’s a definitive “if.” Failing is inevitable in this industry because it’s inevitable in art. There will be a publication, an agent, or a contest that your work isn’t right for, and it will feel like a personal attack, but no one else will give a shit. Maybe your friends will feel sympathetic, and you’ll get one of those over-the-top winces, but your personal failures mean less to them than it does to you. This is the truth of putting yourself out there — it almost always feels like a bigger deal than it actually is.
While that might come across as negative, it shouldn’t. Failure is a part of art, but it’s also not the primary part of how we judge artists. We don’t write off a successful musician because they put out one song that objectively sucked compared to the rest of their work, or argue that a movie that stops halfway through production should mean that everyone who worked on it should be fired. Art is based on subjectivity and criticism, and it’s built on an obscene amount of failure. It’s just the truth of being an artist. Sometimes you’re going to suck, and no one cares whether you do or don’t. They’re not looking at your worst work when they could be looking at your best.
So, dare to fail. Practice it and do it often. Do things poorly in order to become better at them. Let yourself feel it when you get told that work you’re proud of isn’t good enough, and then shake it off and start again.
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