Ask Yourself About…Failure


I’m seeing reports of the Carolina Panthers quarterback not talking much, or very well, about his team’s Superbowl 50 defeat. I don’t follow football closely enough to notice a pattern in this player’s reactions to losing. He’s in his mid-20s. Maybe he doesn’t have that much experience losing. Maybe the team felt invincible after a strong season.

Anything a person doesn’t do often is likely to be something he (or she) won’t do well. Put another way, if you don’t do it much, don’t expect much when you have to do it.

I thought this was a good time to blog about failure.

Honestly, it’s funny that with athletes, and any high-profile people, the fans expect the famous person (FP) to talk with ease about any and all recent failings: losing a game, losing an award, a string of career fails (lost games, movie flops, cancelled shows), a tough divorce, financial woes, fashion choices, a cancer battle, losing a loved one, a child’s disability or struggles, weight, or aging. it’s all up for grabs. The FP is supposed to be cool, almost nonchalant, as if this is all happening to someone else.

In sports, within hours after failing, the FP supposed to talk easily about that failure. How many ordinary people could assemble perspective and be cool-headed THAT quickly? Reflecting humbly on what he/she could have done better? What the team could have done better? And put all that into “just the right words”? Could you or I do that?

Yes some do it well, especially more seasoned people who have “been there and done that” hundreds of times, but most people?

Most people don’t talk about failure. It’s not a hot topic or a desirable one. I doubt the word failure has ever gone viral, as in, “tonight, everybody share your last screwup on Twitter.” Our culture has PostSecret, an anonymous confessional booth via postcard that’s immensely popular. A lot of these secrets deal with failure issues: failing ourselves, failing others, or both. It seems like, unless you’re an FP, you can’t easily reveal your failures in a public way. You have to “have arrived” first, or achieved something big. Even then, it isn’t without controversy or judgement.

It’s a shame there is so much shame and stigma surrounding failure and talking about it. Failures are as natural as breathing, eating, and peeing. Failures are a part of life. They are part of being human.

Failure and how we handle it is really important life skill. Failure is worthy of focus. Avoiding failure or being afraid of it doesn’t make it go away.

It’s become common in job interviews to talk about failures.

Being blindsided in a job interview by unanticipated, potentially embarrassing questions can have a person sweating bullets. Especially if you, the candidate, never asked yourself these things.

So the next time you have an hour or two, at home, in comfy clothes to think about it, ask yourself:

  • What have been your biggest failures? [This isn’t something to figure out the night before the interview.]
  • Can you talk about your biggest failures, or are they still sore subjects?
    • Can you only talk about them with trusted friends?
    • Could you talk easily with a stranger, someone who’s making an impression of you, as you talk?
    • What if that stranger represents a job at the company of your dreams? [Ideally, we’d be comfortable talking about anything when this much is on the line. Brands and FPs are taking this level risk just about every time they share a message, but I digress.]
  • How long ago did the failure (or failures) happen?
  • What have you learned from that event/those events?
  • Do you still get teary eyed or feel your blood pressure rise when you think about these things?
  • Knowing yourself as long as you have, why is the reaction still so intense?
  • Was it the words used by someone else?
  • Was it being embarrassed? fear of looking dumb? being proud? Feeling duped/played? Getting blindsided?
  • How can you get past these raw feelings in a constructive way? Writing it out? Painting it? Playing an instrument? Writing a narrative about it? Talking to someone not involved, like a counselor?
  • What can you do to get to the point where you can talk about hard things without getting teary eyed, or getting enraged?
  • Do you take failure seriously, like a mark of Cain, as if you’re cursed to never succeed?
  • Do you think you’re capable or worthy of great things? or are repeated failures a self-fulfilling prophecy? Do you need a more positive, keep trying attitude?
  • Even if part of what you learned was some people are jerks and can’t be trusted, that puts all the control in others’ hands.
    • You can’t bash others in an interview, you bruise yourself and your image when you do that. [People may suspect you dealt with a jerk. People may know for a fact the other party is a jerk. But when you are asked about it, if you focus all the blame on them, if you call them names, it makes you look bad.]
    • What are you going to do differently next time?
    • What have you learned from this that changes your approach? How are you wiser?
    • Not being able to talk about our failures and looking cross can look immature. If you don’t have the words, admit you struggle with the words, and do the best you can.

TL; DR: Get comfortable talking about your own failures. Ask yourself hard questions so you’re not blindsided in a job interview or other intense, but important conversation. See the bullets above for prompts.

Have you ever wondered why Black Friday is “Black”?

Every year, the day after Thanksgiving is “Black Friday” in the US. Have you ever wondered why Black Friday is black? Black is a color of many meanings, after all. So just which one applies here?

Black Friday is so named because it’s the day that many stores can finally “catch up” financially. In accounting, operating “in the red”* means operating at a loss, and operating “in the black” means operating in balance, or solvent. When a store is “in the black”, its debts are repayable. Hopefully, there’s even a profit being made.

TRIVIA SIDEBAR: When the Avengers’ Black Widow (played by Scarlett Johansson) says she “has a lot of red in her ledger” she’s also using an accounting metaphor. She saying that she used to be evil and did lots of bad things. As an Avenger, she’s trying to change that. She’s got a lot of catching up to do to make up for all the evil she’s done in her past. She’s trying to balance her karma and it could take the rest of her life to do it.

Back to Black Friday… It seems like the sales keep starting earlier and earlier in the day, some even start Thanksgiving night. Some diehard shoppers camp out overnight at electronics or suburban department stores to be first in line at the store’s opening to get the best deals. A worker at Walmart was even trampled to death on Black Friday in 2008. In recent years, cartoons and young family movies have started to debut at the cinema on Thanksgiving Day, too.

Black Friday is a 20th century development in the US. It has its origins with the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in 1924. The parade winds its way around blocks of New York City from 9am-12noon on Thanksgiving morning. The point of the parade was to be a dazzling spectacle, entertaining people first, then leading them straight to Macy’s to start their Christmas shopping. The parade ends with someone dressed as Santa in his sleigh.

Over the years, the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade has gotten bigger and bigger, and promotion for more than Macy’s has become part of the show.

  • Broadway features a handful of musical numbers to promote its newest shows before the parade, usually kid-friendly songs.
  • NBC promotes its shows via actors stopping to say “hi!” to the parade’s anchors; other networks do the same thing.
  • The parade anchors are hosts of a network’s daily morning news or other personalities
  • The balloons and floats in the parade feature popular children’s cartoon or gaming characters.
  • Sometimes the floats feature singers, most of them cater to the 15 (and under) age group, but some appeal to the parents and grandparents in the crowd as well. For instance, I recall (the late) Andy Williams being a part of the parade for several years when I was younger, now James Taylor and 1970s-1980s artists fit that bill. Typically all the artists performing at the Macy’s parade have an album out, or coming out very soon. Watching the parade on television was a Thanksgiving tradition in our house.
  • On a less commercial note, high school bands and cheerleading troupes from all over the US are also a part of the parade. It’s a once in a lifetime trip that is surely exciting for all involved.

With the arrival of online shopping, Cyber Monday arrived around 2005. It’s the Monday following Thanksgiving, and stores like Amazon offer amazing deals. Shoppers stay at home and shop from their screen. The crowds and the traffic are virtual. No trampling stampedes or wrestling over Cabbage Patch dolls here.

Whatever you do Black Friday, stay safe. Remember focused (silent, facedown phone) time with the most important people in your life is the best gift of all. It can’t be bought, it’s given, and it’s not forgotten.

Past, Present, and Future Collide

I can’t help noticing how much past, present, and future of one life clash pretty frequently these days. Thanks to media and the everlasting record called the internet, people receive disparaging judgement about their mistakes*, whether those happened last month, last decade, or decades ago.

Two recent examples (I am not taking sides on either, by the way):

  • Our current lieutenant governor, Glenn McConnell, is being considered for the Presidency of the College of Charleston. Some folks within the College and in the community don’t feel McConnell’s Civil war projects and his repeated identification with Confederate forefathers will reflect well on the school if McConnell is chosen. It might also harm the ability to attract more non-white students. For those that don’t know, the College is attended by mostly whites, and in my lifetime, mostly women. Brian Hicks of the Post and Courier countered this opposition with a piece mentioning that McConnell’s online images do not mirror McConnell’s legislative efforts. These efforts which don’t reflect a racist, Jim Crow attitude that a Confederate uniform or other images of McConnell might imply. What matters most-image, or actions and skill sets?
  • Duck Dynasty. It may be just another case of true colors and inconvenient truths coming to light after a successful, profitable rise to fame. After the GQ interview’s release, an online video surfaced featuring Phil (the DD Patriarch) advising fellow duck hunter men to seek out 15 year old wives. Maybe Phil thinks the reality show and merchandising fame orgy is over. Or maybe the family just wants it to be over, riling groups they didn’t gel with anyway is a the quickest way to exit the public consciousness. Phil’s experience really does not seem that different from Paula Deen’s experience earlier this summer, or the statements made in an interview with Chik-Fil-A COO Dan Cathy.

Contrast these real people with a fictional character, Natasha Romanoff, aka the Black Widow, a member of the Avengers. Romanoff is the only female and only foreign Avenger. Russian by birth, she has a keen skills set that she used to help the enemy for years. Romanoff hints at her past when she says I have a lot of red in my ledger. In the films, she says this several times. For those that don’t know, red in my ledger is an accounting analogy. Red ink indicates loss (debt), black ink indicates profit (SIDENOTE: this same accounting language is what puts the black in Black Friday).

Romanoff is saying she has a lot of debt to pay for what she did before. Now she is focused on using her skills set for good. Apparently Nick Fury didn’t feel her nationality, her past, or both, were disqualifiers. Romanoff was asked to join the Avengers.

I think it’s worth pointing out that real-life people struggle with getting similar second chances to Romanoff’s, whether they are criminal, or not, whether they are famous or not. I suspect we have reached the point where no one is immune from having either a criminal record or other ‘damning’ recorded evidence about him/her online.

Attempting to get a new job, run for public office, buy a car, buy a house, start a business, etc. is that much harder when a person’s whole life is held against them. It’s only a matter of time before evidence surfaces that the person made mistakes, allied themselves with the wrong crowd, supported the losing team, misjudged a situation and failed. We’re all human, so why are mistakes so damning and shocking? Why are famous people expected to be one-dimensional and uncomplicated? No person is like that.

Our current media culture is obsessed with mugshots and police blotter reports. Crime reporting is completely oversaturating news coverage.  Unless a suspect is on the loose, it really has no point other than to instill and maintain a high level of public paranoia. Add to that the sensationalist drivel that makes up the rest of the news–the rise and fall of entrepreneurs turned TV show personalities (Paula Deen, Phil Richardson), politicians’ flubs and romantic affairs, and celebrity screw ups. The news has morphed into a warped version of America’s Funniest Home Videos, only no one wins a massive cash prize for the kick in the nuts they receive. They just lose face, opportunities, and millions of dollars.

There’s a lot of glorification of failure on our airwaves. What’s funny in the moment is not funny at all long term; it’s pathetic that this is entertainment. I don’t feel “failure media” is inspiring anyone, helping to create a better nation, or a better world. If we want a peaceful world, full of good people, doing great things, giving bad behavior star treatment and hyper-coverage is the wrong way to go about achieving that end. If we expect individuals to function creatively in society, they deserve credit for learning from their mistakes and they deserve the opportunities to prove that. Making everyone in society a criminal of one form or another is dysfunctional. It’s a gunshot in both feet. It’s our puritanical sadistic side rearing its haughty, disdainful head.

As the viewing public, our collective attention impacts what airs and what continues to air. When what airs way too much is nudging our culture in a bad direction, we need to admit that and change course. We need to change the game for the better. Take a step back, and find other means of spending our time, for better outcomes.

If everyone who has ever failed has little reason to try again because the failures count for too much for too long, what kind of future are we creating for ourselves? We are creating not a very good one.

*=For the purpose of this blog post, a mistake is any act or statement held against the person doing the speaking or acting. These mistakes are evidence used to deny future opportunities to that person. Whether they are actual  screwups is relative, it depends on who you ask. In modern times, these mistakes are called ‘indiscretions”. They are usually an individual’s beliefs or hobbies that once publicized, reflect badly on that individual.

Storytelling Can Win New Fans

Garth Brooks has come out of retirement. I caught his WYNN Las Vegas TV special last Friday night.

Growing up, I knew who Garth Brooks was. I was a teenager in the 1990s, after all. Kids were singing “I’ve Got Friends in Low Places” on the bus. But I don’t own any albums, and I can’t claim to be a hardcore, longtime fan. I don’t make a habit of blogging or tweeting my viewing habits. The style of this show stuck with me, though, so I wanted to blog about it. It was different from the typical televised concert.

The typical concert format is a well-styled singer singing, dancing, video accompaniment, elaborate lighting effects, maybe pyrotechnics. You the audience member are singing (or mouthing) along to songs you know and love. If you are not a fan, you pass. You won’t pay $30+ to see someone you don’t know. You don’t spend $30+ to spend a couple hours in a room with someone you don’t know and a stadium full of their adoring fans either. If you are watching at home, you would keep channel surfing past this stranger and their fan base. Why? No one pays with their money, or their time, to feel excluded.

In contrast, this is how Brooks’ show was formatted:

Imagine a white American man is onstage, dressed in very average clothes: Timberland steel toe work boots, a black hoodie sweatshirt, black baseball cap, and blue jeans. The baseball cap has a logo on it. There is no band. He is playing an acoustic/electric guitar and wearing a microphone headset over his ball cap.

For every song he plays, he is telling stories. Most of the songs he plays are covers that relate to the story he just told. The stories run the gamut of his 51 years: his parents’ musical tastes; growing up in the 1960s and 1970s; being the youngest of six; riding in older cars that never sold (no matter how much time and effort was made fixing them up); poking fun at himself; poking fun at lyrical trends of the 1960s and 1970s; learning a lot about performing while paying his dues in a small club in Stillwater, Okla.; and finally, the daunting task of covering a song for a movie soundtrack when you can’t understand the original artist’s version.

If you know nothing about Brooks and didn’t care prior to this show, he’s provided eight reasons to care now. Maybe one or more of these themes resonated with you.

At this point, he is introduced by his wife, Trisha Yearwood. She brings out that famous black cowboy hat. He dons it. He ends the show with a couple of his own hits.It’s Garth Brooks.

You were willing to give his music a chance at this point, weren’t you? You could hear how his influences came through? Following this show, even if you still don’t like his music, you can still relate to him as a person.

Once people feel some rapport with a performer or a speaker, they are more apt to listen to what they have to say.

Quite often, there’s a pressure for the performer or speaker to focus on nailing each performance one day at a time. He or she may just want to get through it and not screw up. He/she may want to blow people away. He or she may want to create post-show buzz. He or she may want all of the above.

There’s certainly nothing wrong with “rocking it”, so to speak. I think the internet age has really bombarded ordinary people with an endless supply of footage of people rocking it. We already had television. And social media involves a lot “rocking it” announcements by both famous and everyday people, every day of the week.

Rocking it proves the performer is highly skilled.  If all you ever see of someone is the “rocking it” footage, what does that do for you long term? Do you get inspired? Do you get bored? Do you feel intimidated or inadequate after awhile?

Contrast those feelings with someone who shared their stories and related to you as another human being before rocking it. How do you feel about that person?

These are the things I am thinking about three days after seeing Brooks’ show.

Life is So “Unscripted” Anymore

Every time I go to sign my name with an ink pen, I am conscious that it will look terrible. I am out of practice; it is so rare I have to sign things in ink anymore. It’s even more rare that I have to write multiple words out in longhand.

If I have thank you notes to write, or postcards, I will write a draft out on on a sketchbook page, possibly multiple times. I want to get my words just right, and make sure they will fit the card’s dimensions in my handwriting. Then I copy the words onto the card with Zen-like concentration. The slightest distraction means leaving words out or “misscripting” the cursive–starting to draw one letter when I need another letter that probably looks nothing like the one I’ve just written. Or, giving my “n” or “m” too many humps. Forgetting that connected “r” or “i” after a “b’. Remembering what capital “Q” and “Z” are supposed look like. Needing a lower case “q” and accidentally drawing a” y” or “g” or “d”. !#$%&. That’s why they call it cursive. Thankfully, thank you cards come 8-12 to a pack.

So I was fascinated by a recent story about handwritten text messages. Designer Cristina Varenko received a calligraphy pen that had once belonged to a relative. She confides she felt chosen by this pen and it inspired her to create her own handwritten script typeface. She vowed that, for a week, she would only respond to text messages by handwriting her responses. She would write them on paper, take a photo of that paper, and upload that photo to her messaging window. The results of the experiment went viral.

Though we all receive the same instruction about how letters are formed, our script is very unique, more unique than handwritten print. As one of Varenko’s contacts responded, “It’s like you are here!” Her script had a visual “voice”–it reflected her personality, and the style and manner of how she expresses herself in person with her actual audible voice. That’s pretty remarkable.

To be fair, Varenko isn’t the only one to bring an analog style into a digital platform. Leah Dietrich‘s blog and twitter feature photos of thank you notes Dietrich writes to show gratitude for life’s great and not so great things.

Chef Alton Brown has responded to direct messages on twitter from fans, via Post-It Note and Sharpie marker, for over a year now. Brown’s voice on paper seems to be more pictures than words, but that’s really not surprising if you know his background: he was a filmmaker before he was a chef. While he can tell you, he would rather show you.

So I’m curious:

Could you handwrite & photo your text responses for a week?

Would you learn calligraphy, cursive or other hand-lettering art forms if your school curriculum didn’t require it? And by the way, many US public schools don’t cover cursive anymore.

Would you attempt analog communication styles (letters, postcards) if it was your choice, not circumstances?

Would you ever think of designing your own handwritten typeface? What would it look like? Would you design more than one?


FOLLOWUP: The day after I originally posted this, October 16, 2013 to be exact, #PSAT was trending on twitter. [It was one of those rare moments I could relate to people half my age! Haha.] Anyway, part of the test involved writing in cursive this year. Based on the comments on twitter, a lot of kids were positively stumped about how to do that. Interesting coincidence.

Journalism and Infotainment, pt. 2 of 2

So I had all those items bulleted out, with commentary, and then I paused. No one really wants to read all that. As a popular meme says, “Ain’t nobody got time for that.” So, to keep things short….

To me, The Internet and the Daily Show (and its spinoff the Colbert Report included) are two positive developments in an otherwise sad, overly tabloid, negative media landscape in the last 30 years.

What troubles me about right-wing media of today is not the expression of different views, it’s the style. It’s the reducing the opposition to a label. The being loud, rude and dismissive to guests (or callers). It’s talking over or interrupting people being interviewed. Everyone has an opinion, and they should be belligerent about presenting it. It’s giving some stories barely 20 seconds and giving trivial, baser stories way too much attention with overplayed, repetitive footage.  To paraphrase a Seinfeld joke, I’m not offended as a liberal by these trends, I’m offended as a journalist.

Jeff Bezos, the Amazon billionaire, just took over at Washington Post. As of this writing, I have no idea how he votes. I am hoping Bezos’ worldview and style is very different than what Murdoch’s influence has created and influenced, and furthermore, that it shows more respect of multiple viewpoints. Because that seems to be sorely lacking right now.

Other Identities, the Fame Game

It was exposed over the weekend that JK Rowling published a detective novel, The Cuckoo’s Calling, under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith. Cuckoo was published in April of this year; the revelation may help sales, but books are judged by their debut week in the US market.

According to the Guardian, Rowling expressed regret that she had been found out. “I had hoped to keep this secret a little longer because being Robert Galbraith has been such a liberating experience,” she said. “It has been wonderful to publish without hype or expectation, and pure pleasure to get feedback under a different name.” Over at the Telegraph, Anna Maxted agreed with the pen name strategy. With Galbraith’s debut, at least the work was judged on its own merit in lieu of comparisons to its siblings.

Fans may or may not remember that Rowling’s first foray into adult-audience fiction, The Casual Vacancy, came out last Fall (2012). Critics responded favorably, but couldn’t resist pointing out it had no magic in it, or make other allusions to Harry Potter. Harry Potter is long over, and Vacancy was in no way a YA novel. I think readers would be naïve to expect either of those things.

I’m remembering Garth Brooks’ alter ego from the late 1990s, Chris Gaines. Originally, Gaines was just going to be a movie character, but Brooks wrote songs, wrote a back story,  invented this whole parallel identity for Gaines. When he appeared in person, Gaines was Brooks in different costume–thick mop of black hair, his bangs over his eyes, black eyeliner, and a soul patch. Gaines got his own Behind the Music special on VH1. While some folks liked Gaines’ songs, this darker-featured Brooks character was the butt of jokes. Brooks reflected on the experience here. Apparently it’s easier to write a book under a new identity than try to be a musician with a two identities.

So my question is, does this branding business go way too far for creative professions? Doesn’t forecasting outcomes, plotlines or styles of any future creative work (based on previous fame) get in the way of the new work’s frontiers and possibilities? Shouldn’t every novel enjoy some novelty regardless of who wrote it? Shouldn’t it be refreshing if a musician wants to deliver a new sound?