How Fear Of Failure Motivates Me And Sucks All The Life From My Craft
“Can someone please tell me what lenses we have for the Lekos?!”
A trickle of sweat is making its way down my lower back. I want to scratch at it, but everyone in the room is looking at me. They seem confused. Why won’t I answer such a simple question from the Hollywood-credited Director of Photography?
I’m panicking because I don’t know a Leko from a hole in the wall.
Two weeks prior, I had been the superstar gaffer of the no-budget, unpaid Canadian short that never saw the light of day. I was able to create almost acceptable lighting setups from one-hundred-year-old lighting gear. Then the producer fell into a crazy opportunity and her professional gaffer bailed on her.
So now I was on a paid gig with a big name DP, a full crew, two lighting trucks, and a giant studio space currently undergoing a full set build. And I was losing my shit fast. The two days of hell would end with one of my crew in tears, two 10k bulbs blown through incompetence, the DP ignoring me and my name on an industry blacklist. I was out of my depth and sinking fast.
“If I looked like that, I would never leave the house.”
My client gasped, grabbed her face and uttered her horror aloud for everyone in the room.
I’d been taking portraits for a couple of years and had worked with a growing list of almost-household-names: artists, painters, dancers and actors. Each knew their likeness and some had even expressed concern about a certain feature or angle. But all had been comfortable with their portrait.
This was definitely a departure from my experiences to date. I think she may have started crying.
I had basically destroyed this woman’s self-esteem with my “skill” and “craftsmanship.” In front of my peers, no less.
I attempted to offer some Photoshop cleanup or a reshoot, but it was clearly over. There was no passing Go and no receiving $200. We were done. For all I know, this woman lived the rest of her days locked in her home with all the windows shuttered.
Avoiding failure is a significant motivator in my life. It gets me up early to do yet another check of my gear. It makes sure I’ve got a backup for my backups and it helps me assess new opportunities to ensure I don’t take on something that is outside of my capabilities.
But it also pulls me away from anything risky. It stunts my growth by declining opportunities to grow as an artist.
Without fail, every piece of meaningful work I’ve created involved pushing the envelope and seriously risking failure.
So I’m torn. I want to improve my craft, but not at the risk of reliving those painful moments of abject failure.
I thought I had found the perfect solution.
I would minimize the risks I took in business and relegate risky endeavors to personal projects. I could build my business safely, meet client expectations and risk failure on my own time. It made sense and was the logical solution.
But life isn’t logical.
Removing risk from my work killed the joy and freedom that first drew me to photography. My art and craft stagnated. My work grew tired and boring and I hated it.
I stopped picking up the camera in my free time. My personal projects ground to a halt. Even my work projects began to slow.
Clearly this approach wasn’t working.
I needed a way to embrace failure and take some of the sting out of them, after the fact.
What if I could reframe and take pride in my most horrific failures — to see these moments as waypoints on a pretty epic journey?
I’ve had a ridiculous number of careers to date. I’ve been a military man, a professional juggler, a strategist, a salesman, a coach, an agency owner, a photographer, an artist, a dog trainer, a 3D animator, a film gaffer (albeit briefly), and much more.
I’ve even managed to achieve some level of success in many of these.
And there’s no way I could have done ANY of these without risking public failure and humiliation.
This constant rethinking of who I am and what I do for a living requires that I push my skills and abilities to their limits and then some.
As I reflected on this, I began to see that those moments of failure helped to inform who I have become. In some cases, it made me realize I was not on the right path. In others, I doubled down and worked that much harder.
In fact, how can I be so afraid of failure when I am even now considering changing careers yet again in my late 40s?
As always, it’s the stories we tell ourselves that prove the most challenging and damaging. Without even realizing it, I was using these failures to frame a story of endless failing, instead of seeing them as moments of growth on a pretty awesome journey.
I was focused on the man who fails so much instead of seeing the man who is capable and willing to reinvent himself, perhaps endlessly.
I’ll never get to the point where I want to fail. Failing sucks. But hopefully I can learn to be a little kinder to myself and to see the journey and not just the difficult moments along the way.