Failure on the Way to Something Better
In the course of interviewing successful professionals in the entertainment industry, several have said that at some point early in their careers, they were told, “If you can do something else, do it.” Meaning, your chances of breaking through and making a living at being a producer, director, writer, actor, comedian, singer, costume designer, editor, screenwriter, studio division president, etc., are so slim and the road there so difficult that you should go another direction if you possibly can. How’s that for encouragement?
Of course, many of the people I’ve interviewed didn’t listen to that advice. Some actually did listen, and subsequently changed course away from one of those slim-to-none “dream” careers toward something with better odds. And some tried and tried to become an actor or director or singer, etc., and failed.
That’s right. They never achieved success in their dream job, the one they wished for as kids while blowing out the candles on every birthday cake and worked so diligently at for years.
I was thinking about that while I was listening to Andy Levine, the co-founder of Sixthman, being interviewed on the NPR show, From Scratch. I had first become aware of Sixthman when I did this post on three things we can learn from Kid Rock and Snoop Dog. One of the lessons was to diversify and the example I’d given was the cruise Kid Rock was on at the time, called the “Chillin’ the Most” cruise. Kid and supporting acts with a similar demographic were aboard performing for and hanging out with 100s of their most avid fans.
It wasn’t until after I put the post up and the comments started rolling in that I realized it wasn’t Kid Rock’s cruise. There was a company behind it which brings name acts onto ships to perform for, and interact with, their fans. Yes, he was actually traveling aboard ship for several days with fans willing to spend big bucks to have that semi-intimate and fully-once-in-a-lifetime fan experience. Brilliant, I thought at the time. A company called Sixthman.
While I was listening to the Andy Levine interview, two things struck me: One was how fulfilled he was by doing these events. He considers these journeys sacred experiences for the guests and clearly relishes providing that experience for both fans and artists, as well as creating a company culture made up of people with a similar evangelical attitude toward what they provide. The other was that this career was his “consolation” after not having made it as a performer.
From a young age, Andy loved music. He practiced guitar for hours, until his fingers bled. But, as he told the interviewer, the band he was in was so unimpressed by his playing that they didn’t plug him into the sound system when they played. He didn’t realize this for over a year. He now understands that they kept him in the band because he booked all of their shows and made all of the logistical arrangements. So though it must’ve been deeply painful to give up his dreams of being a performer, especially in such a potentially-humiliating way (depending upon how he found out and what frame of mind he was in at the time), the love of music merged with his skills as a manager were a natural fit for a career he now has quasi-religious devotion to. And which is providing so much joy to so many people.
Another example of failure being a gift is what has happened with Marc Maron and the WTF Podcast, of which I am a rabid fan. (And you showbiz aspirants/newbies should be too- start here or here. You’ll be hooked, too.) His is not a story of failure, per se, as he is still a standup comic. But over the years, as the comics he came up with got opportunities and went onto other things (TV sitcoms, talk shows, movie careers, SNL stardom), he did not have a “big break.” He continued to perform at a certain level, but was not taken out of standup by something else.
It was that lack of being drawn away to a busier, more prosperous showbiz career that led to his creation of the WTF podcast, where he interviews stand-ups, former stand-ups, and other comedy professionals about their career paths, the good and the bad, their art and techniques, etc. It’s a genius show and I always learn something. And as for Marc, as a result of the popularity of the show, he is actually getting other showbiz opportunities. But he also speaks of the show as something more important and satisfying than a stepping stone on the way to something more. It feeds him in a way no other showbiz opportunity could, no matter how much money was attached.
For myself, I wrote screenplays for many years. And a novel, too. I got attention from them, sometimes close-but-no-cigar attention, but no money. And my day job involved hiring. Lots and lots of hiring. I did not break through in writing fiction and I have no interest in it anymore, but the day job and the storytelling merged in a way that for both personal and professional reasons is perfect for me. I work one-on-one with clients doing career consulting and writing targeted resume and bios, and through this website, I help people who want to make it in showbiz figure out the best path to their desired outcome (as well as helping them figure out if it really is the right desired outcome for them).
So if you are practicing until your fingers bleed and still the band is not plugging you in, or if you are doing 250 stand-up dates a year and still not getting any traction with the showbiz muckety-mucks, or if you are writing novels or screenplays that still don’t result in a paycheck, don’t despair. Not only is it not the end of the world; it may just be that there is something else, something better and maybe even unimaginable at this point, out there for you.
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