The Importance of Being a Failure

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Epiphanies can happen anywhere. Like the Nourse Theatre on a Tuesday night, for example. Last week, as I sat nestled in orchestra center, Patton Oswalt helped me achieve one. My friend Sola had invited me to see the comedian give a live interview as part of the City Arts and Lecture series, and assuming any activity involving Oswalt would induce hearty laughter, I agreed. And we did laugh, heartily, as Oswalt described life on the road with his four year old daughter, feigning excitement at movie sneak-preview premieres, and crafting the perfect tweet.

Like many (ok, probably all) performers, Oswalt’s journey to stardom was peppered with huge, embarrassing failures. Though he describes them all with humorous and judicious hindsight, he made it clear that without these failures he would never have pushed himself to succeed.

He told a story that particularly piqued my interest. In the early '90s, Oswalt made his way to San Francisco after years of tirelessly working the East Coast and Midwest as a comic. SF was abuzz with killer comics: Margaret Cho, Greg Proops, Dana Gould, Marc Maron (who will be interviewed by City Arts on October 16th -- get tickets) and others were already nailing it in the open mic scene. And then Patton showed up. As he described it, his jokes were funny enough, but they weren't smart, they didn’t take root and grow, they were kind of lazy, and they certainly weren’t going to cut the mustard with SF audiences. He performed his first Bay Area open mic on Clement St and bombed big time. It was the kind of failure that moves one to action. Patton crossed the street, got some dim sum, and went back to the drawing board, completely revamping his comedic style. (Oswalt may have been a bit too hard on himself though; here is Greg Behrendts’ version of events).

With that, the audience roared with applause, excited that our fair city had awakened the comedic genius. But Oswalt said we wouldn't have been clapping watching him crying in his dim sum, throwing out his new material, and bracing himself to start over again. It was a low point for him, and it was scary.

Then he said something so truthful, poignant, and simple, that I was jarred into consciousness; in order to succeed, you must first fail. Just as he was right about the ridiculousness of the KFC Famous bowl, he’s right about this. He explained a simple fact, that even when you fail so big you think the world is ending, you’re going to wake up the next morning and realize that the Earth is still spinning and that you have survived. This is the best thing that can happen because now that you see that failing didn’t kill you, you’re free to give it another try. See, Oswalt knows that the scariest part about trying anything is the fear of failure. One you’ve failed, you’ve faced your fear and you have nowhere to go but up.


I took this nugget of knowledge home with me and mulled it over. It made a lot of sense, so I reflected on all of my failures and what I've gained from them. It suddenly occurred to me that everyone who has ever accomplished something big failed big time at least once along the way, probably more than once. So here are some comforting facts about failure:

- Failure means you tried. And if you tried, if you gave it an honest shot, then really you’ve already succeeded. Making an attempt is half the battle.

- Failure clears the mental cobwebs. It forces you to get serious about what you’re doing. If whatever it is you’re chasing isn’t worth failing for, you probably won’t go after it again. This is why Martha Stewart is no longer a stockbroker. You think you have it all figured out, then a tremendous failure smacks you into reality. That’s ok, it’s actually quite helpful. Thanks for the guidance, failure.

- Failure builds patience. I've often said that “patience is a virtue that I lack.” This statement is untrue. I am extremely patient; I just hate having to be. The older I get and the more fulfilling the accomplishment I seek to achieve, the easier it becomes to be patient. Knowing what you want and working toward that goal is a powerful thing. Patience is key.

- Failure toughens you up. Sure, it’s difficult to feel good when you’re reeling from a disappointment, but each failure stings a little less than the one before. Failing helps you develop a strong mind and emotional stability. Failing never totally stops sucking, but we grow stronger and better each time.

- Failure makes you more resourceful. By now you’ve figured out that the way you’re approaching this thing isn’t working. It’s time to get crafty, to “think outside the box,” just as your high school commencement speaker urged you to do. Know that each unique attempt at your goal gets you one step closer. Make each new try better than the last.

So, really, failure isn’t that bad after all. Put it this way: when I was a kid, I heard a rumor that Michael Jordan was cut from his high school basketball team. This comforted me when I was cut from the dance company and didn’t get an Ivy-League level SAT score (you know, real problems). Sometimes just knowing that you’re not alone is all it takes to help navigate you through the desert of failure. Take one of these tidbits and save it for when you need it most:

- It took Edison 1,000 tries to create a light bulb that actually worked. One thousand!

- Albert Einstein didn’t start speaking until he was four and was considered mentally handicapped as a child.

- Vera Wang failed to make the US Women’s Olympic figure-skating team in 1968. She refocused and by 1970 was a senior fashion editor at Vogue. She began designing wedding gowns at age 40.

- 27 publishers rejected Dr. Seuss’ first book, And To Think I Saw It On Mulberry Street.

- Over 1,000 restaurants originally rejected Colonel Sanders’ fried chicken. Eventually they stopped being finger-lickin' dumb.

- A newspaper fired Walt Disney saying that he had zero imagination and “no original ideas.”

-And it is true, Michael Jordan was totally cut from his high school basketball team.

The bottom line is this, find what you love and do it, 'cause there ain't no success without love (this guy knows what I’m talking about). And face your fears head on, because if Baz Luhrmann’s 1992 classic Strictly Ballroom taught us anything, it’s that “a life lived in fear is a life half lived.”

So follow Patton’s lead, get out there and fail! And know success is just around the corner.


If you’d like to hear Patton’s complete interview with Paul Lancour of City Arts & Lectures, it will be available starting September 15th.