Friday, March 2, 2012

On The Importance of Failure

Dear Mackenzie,

Every so often someone will think it’s a good idea to give your mom or me unsolicited advice on how we should be raising you. Interestingly, it’s often someone who doesn’t have kids of their own, and even more often the advice comes on the heels of your being overly active (read obnoxious) in a public place.

On some level I can appreciate that. We’ve all been there.  Yet unless someone observes us engaging in behavior that would warrant calling family services, my visceral instinct is that how we raise you is personal to us (read it’s none of their business), good intentions notwithstanding. 

I’ve similarly learned to keep my opinions to myself when I observe other parents doing or saying things differently (read wrong) than I would. Not long ago I overheard a friend of mine tell his young son that he was “absolutely perfect” and that “everything he did was perfect”. He’s a great young kid for sure.  But if he’s indeed perfect, that trait alone would separate him from the rest of humanity. 

I should have kept my mouth shut and I knew it, but I couldn’t help myself.  I asked my friend (diffidently) if indeed he felt his son was perfect. My friend looked at me like I was crazy and replied that the boy was anything but perfect, but that he wanted to create in him an expectation of success.  I then asked if he didn’t worry that planting the notion of perfection would inhibit his son from trying things he feared he might not do perfectly. The look my friend gave me was my cue to change the subject, but I got to thinking about the best way to create an expectation of success in you.

The problem with telling someone that he or she is perfect to program them for success is that success has little if anything to do with perfection.  On the contrary, success usually follows imperfection and failure.  That doesn’t mean I want you to be comfortable with failure. I don't. I hope you’ll have the same visceral antipathy towards it that I have. At the same time I hope you won’t fear failure, and that you’ll understand and embrace its role in getting to success.  

I’m not suggesting that my friend should be drilling imperfection or failure into his son. What I am suggesting is that you give yourself permission to search for your Holy Grail by embracing your imperfections and by being willing to consistently risk failure.  That’s the true price of success.

You don’t know who Michael Jordan is but maybe by the time you read this letter you will.  He was probably the greatest basketball player to ever put on a uniform. Here’s what Michael Jordan said about success and failure: “I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. Twenty-six times I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that’s why I succeed”.

Some of my own spectacular failures led to (or flowed from) my greatest adventures, which in hindsight I realize have enriched my life. I spent a number of years in a self-imposed career purgatory.  I left the entertainment industry in the middle of my ascent to “experience life”. I traveled around the country as part of Bill Clinton’s first presidential campaign. I worked for the World Cup when the men’s games were in the United States.  I sat second chair on a murder case. I even worked for a San Francisco based environmental group, lobbying local municipalities.  What did I know about that?  Absolutely nothing.  I just couldn’t pass up the opportunity to speak in front of various city councils around the state. 

The most honest thing I can tell you, my sweet daughter, is that eventually my career plummeted.  I ultimately ran out of savings and amassed crazy amounts of consumer (read credit card) debt too. And I reached a crossroad in my life.  I feared if I didn’t get back on track then, I never would.

By the time I wanted to return to the entertainment industry, it no longer seemed to want me.  My friends in the business didn’t believe I really wanted to “settle down” into one career. Or they thought I was too old to start over.  Or whatever.  The point is no one would hire me.

In those days I often went running at Venice Beach.  One day as I ran, my spirits were dreadfully low. I had just gotten my umpteenth rejection from who knows where and I remember thinking to myself that I had ruined my life.

I remember thinking that I would never get another opportunity to make something of myself.  I had no idea how I would support myself, or a family. I chastised myself for chasing rainbows and for tilting at windmills. I ran and ran, until I finally cried myself out.  I must have been quite a sight as I railed to myself; though in the circus that is Venice beach it’s possible no one even gave me a second look.

By the grace of God (and a friend at the time named Marti Blumethal), a month or two and a hundred rejections later I got a job at a talent agency called Writers and Artists and started the long climb back. That limbo period of my career was flooded with false moves, failure, and insecurity.  Yet those days were some of my most interesting and memorable ones. Their lessons made me a better executive and a better man than I would otherwise have become.

In the end Mackenzie, failure is simply an event, not a state of being.  The best way for you to maximize the probability of success is to approach what you do with a commitment to excellence, with a strong work ethic, with integrity, and with passion for the task at hand.  The rest is just background noise.

And if you make that process your constant companion, once in a blue moon you may even get a taste of that soul-enriching, head swelling, fleeting event called--dare I say it--perfection.

All my everlasting love,



  1. Great example and thoughts. No one is perfect and everyone needs to know they will fail at times but its what a person does after they fail/make a mistake that really counts.

    1. Hey Dan, thanks for your comment. I could not agree more. It's not the falling down that counts, it's the getting back up! I just read part of your blog also. Excellent!!

  2. Norman, I'm so glad I found your site, and that I took the time to read your letters. I love the format, and I can see myself copying it. Giving you credit of course :)

    - Jared