Maria Bamford’s audiobook, You Are (A Comedy) Special, might be the best non-business business book of the year. One of the recurrent themes is failure: why we’re scared of it, why it sucks to go through it, and why we have to learn to deal with it if we want to succeed. So where’d she learn the superpower? At least a portion of it comes from her father. He was and is a role model for successful failing and surviving.
Maria tells a story about how her dad got her booked to do a standup gig for his motorcycle club in Minnesota. He also offered to perform as the opening act. The night started off with him bombing. Not a single laugh (and these were his friends!). Maria took the stage and bombed too. Nobody likes to fail in front of people. When it’s in front of paying friends and family, it can be even more brutal. Especially if it’s at your career if choice.
When she tells the story in the book, however, she gives some extra insight into the mindset her dad raised her with. This is key:
You may ask, had my father ever done standup before? No. My dad is always willing to try stuff. He is in fact a mentor in failure and ongoing participation. He’s not good. At a bunch of stuff. Juggling, guitar, flute, acting, and yet, he persists.
He regularly bakes rock hard oatmeal cookies for neighbors with a variety of last-minute adds like the dregs of a marmalade jar and beef jerky. “I should put some (inaudible) in… hehe! Hey, you want some?”*
It’s really, really hard to do something we are openly and publicly willing to fail at. Read that again – not wanting to fail at, but willing to fail at. It’s really hard because we have to be willing to take the risk to get to the thing we actually want, and failure always sucks. But, for most professional endeavors, failure’s not going to kill us. It still might feel like the scariest thing imaginable in the moment, but we can ask, “Is doing (insert thing) the way I die?”
When we do a job well, we won’t always fail – it might even become rare, but we always might fail. That’s the reality of anything worth doing. Maybe they’re not the best oatmeal cookies anyone ever tasted, but they still got made. And, if we’re on a mission from god to make really great ones, we will do it again, and again, and again until we crack the secret beef jerky and marmalade ingredient code.
We don’t learn to be successful so much as we learn how to survive failure. Failure’s scary. It can be debilitating, intimidating, and ever-looming. But, success only ever follows the willingness to fail. Maria Bamford learned it from her dad and then a million of her own experiences. We all have to learn it our own ways too.
Try the book. It’s short, funny, and really smart.
*one last point on her dad, the quote continues with this (just so you don’t think he was a perpetual screwball at everything):
“He’s also a retired doctor so the prestige of doing that well for forty years and generally being a good husband, dad and grandad, probably takes the edge off any negative reviews.”