What I Learned About Failure

“there is no failure in failing, only in not trying again.”

I have a series of aphorisms I call my “AsCaliforniaIsms.” One I use a lot is, “there is no failure in failing, only in not trying again.” Last night I watched episode 3 of Hulu’s “Wu-Tang: An American Saga,” which I thought illustrated that beautifully.

Let me start by giving some background on what “Wu-Tang: An American Saga” is. For the uninitiated, the Wu-Tang Clan were one of the most popular Hip Hop groups of the ’90s, a collective of DJs and MC (rapper)’s from Staten Island, New York. They are totally my kind of thing – a pastiche of every random pop culture influence you can think of, from animated cartoons to superheroes to Chinese gongfu (kung fu) martial arts films, all swirled together into the rawest Hip Hop anyone had ever heard at the time (and I mean “raw” in a good way). They brought the harsh, hard New York sound back to prominence at a time when Hip Hop was dominated by West Coast rap, a feat that I personally didn’t think was possible at that stage in the game. To me it felt like East Coast Hip Hop was moving more in the direction of conscious “hippie” rap, exemplified by groups like A Tribe Called Quest.  I thought any chance of traditional Hip Hop coming out of New York in a meaningful way was pretty much done. As I learned on day one of my Media Management program at Syracuse University however, Rule #1 of entertainment is, “nobody knows anything.” (I would later realize that this is true of life in general too, hence my first AsCaliforniaIsm:  “there is an exception to every rule”).

“Wu-Tang: An American Saga” then, is the story of how this bizarre hodgepodge of Staten Island rappers became the force that was the Wu-Tang Clan, and episode #3 particularly resonated with me because it exemplified my AsCaliforniaIsm about failure. Because in this episode, we get to watch as the founder of Wu-Tang Clan crashes and burns at a music contest in front of an auditorium full of his people (African American Hip Hop fans in New York), right when his idea of even having rap career is just getting started . Everything is set up for him to fail too: because of a mistake, he’s forced to follow the act that the contest is rigged to promote. His cassette tape (!) of beats he created is ruined, so he basically has no music. He attempts to get the crowd to help him do it A Capella style by using hand claps, but as soon as they hear his weird lyrics, they quickly lose interest. He slinks off the stage with his tail between his legs, as the few people there who knew and liked him join in on clowning his lack of ability.

And then, he takes an idea from the group that won, and figures out how to get better. And because we already know how successful Wu-Tang Clan are, we know he eventually succeeds and then some.

I have long bemoaned the fact that people like me aren’t often encouraged to play, or even watch, sports. It’s assumed that people with superior intellects shouldn’t have to, so much so that we can usually get physical education waivers for one reason or another, “saving” us from the stigma of failure or the rigors of competition. The thing I realized once I started following sports on my own however was that playing to win, failing, and then having to do it all over again gives you a skill set that can later make you very successful. Specifically, I believe that sports teach you resilience, persistence, and learning from mistakes. Every professional sports team keeps hours of video footage of every opponent they will face in their given league. Why? So that they can figure out how to beat them. By studying our competition, I believe we all have the ability to learn from each other, and incorporate what they do well into what we do well. We can not only learn to counteract what they do in direct competition, but we can figure out how to add the skill sets of others into what we do and resolve our own weaknesses. In a perfect world, we would all do what any fan of the Wu-Tang Clan knows their founder ultimately did – learn from the loss, get better, and succeed. For athletes, this comes as second nature. For the rest of us, it’s a skill we often have to learn.

Here’s the thing, though – if we’re talented, once we get that skill, we empower ourselves to do anything. We can not only accomplish some specific task, but study and learn from what others do in general. If we learn to communicate with them also, we can get direct instruction on improving on what we do. How do you know if you’re talented? Compete. If you win, you’ve proven that you’ve got at least something. If you don’t win, analyze how those who do win did it, and see if you’re capable of doing that. If not, see if there’s some adjustment you can make to avoid the pitfall that led to your loss. Compete again. See if you do better. If you win, great! If not, see if you at least did better that time. Figure out from who did win or other other competitors why you didn’t win. Compete again. In sports, teams actually refer to this process as”making adjustments,” ensuring that they’re always trying to improve. They keep competing until they win, and if they lose, they adjust and compete again. When this happens there’s growth, and the competitor keeps moving forward, getting better and better as they go until they do win. I think it’s the clearest, most direct path to victory, even if not necessarily the fastest.

Want to know what doesn’t win? Complaining about how the game is rigged. Giving up. Overthinking a loss based on self-doubt rather than reflection on performance. Not looking at how other people who won achieved their victory. As much as I despise the simplistic descriptions of success exemplified by the Tony Robins set, the general principle is universal – compete, learn from both success or victory; repeat. The minute you get too hung up on the outcome and not its reason is the minute I think it becomes impossible to win.

Perhaps the best application of “nobody knows anything” is this: in the media, we only see people succeed (because then it’s worth watching) or fail (because then it serves as a warning or chance to learn). Most of life however, is somewhere in between. As with good and evil, without failure you don’t even have any idea what success will look or feel like. All success does is make you want more, while giving others ideas on how to beat you. Failing and bouncing back – now that’s an achievement! Wu-Tang!

What I Learned About Judging a Book By Its Cover

If you’d told me a week ago that I’d dedicate a whole blog posting to the actress Krista Allen, I’d’ve told you that you were crazy…

I’ll confess: I first learned of Krista Allen from a softcore adult film role she did early in her career.

Just as she isn’t perfect neither am I, and that’s kind of why I like her.  In the past week or so, her podcast has become a favorite of mine, one in which she reviews – or more appropriately, discusses and analyzes – a different self-help book every week, as reading self-help books is kind of her hobby.  As it turns out, Krista Allen and I have three very big things in common: 1) we both dabbled in adult entertainment, 2) we both moved around a lot as children, and 3) we both have struggled with low self-esteem.  This is why Krista Allen reads so many self-help books, and in listening to her discuss them on her podcast, she’s reminded me of a key lesson I learned in my first relationship that I’d like to write about today: that I believe people are enriched by dealing with people who are different from them.

My first serious girlfriend and I were more different than we were alike.  She honestly had more in common with Krista Allen than she did with me.  She came from poverty; my father was an engineer and my mother was a doctor.  She was a pretty and popular girl in high school; I was the king of the geeks.  Most importantly, while we both shared a love of film, my ex wasn’t a nerd about it.  She didn’t know or care what a director was before she met me, and would get annoyed by the trivial “fun facts,” as she called them, that I would often share with her.  While I am so willing to share every detail about myself that I had to force myself to be anonymous in this blog, my ex didn’t even like having our curtains open because others could then peer in and see how we lived.  Yet despite our differences, I probably learned more about life, both directly from and just by being with her than I ever did in my decades of school and growing up in seven different places before I finally moved out and was on my own.  While I don’t miss her personally, I miss the astounding number of things I learned from being with her, and that’s kind of what I get from Krista Allen’s podcast too.

Allen has shared that she’s from Texas, the red state I call “California’s evil twin.”  It’s big, it’s rich, it has a huge undocumented population but it’s not friendly to them like California is, which I attribute to people like Krista Allen and her family: poor Caucasians, the Trump supporter stereotype.  Like me, Krista Allen was essentially raised by a single parent, but in that “country” way that I have typically find repellent.  She’s not super educated, and growing up these attractive redneck-type women never gave me the time of day.  Yet when I listen to her podcast I realize she’s sweet!  And funny!  And easygoing!  Open-minded!  And honest, like I said.  Like my ex, she strikes me as generally a pleasant person to be around, and although that relationship went south for me, I believe that had more to do with our youth and inexperience than any personal defect on my ex’s part.  Unlike my ex, Allen is inquisitive and interested in learning, but again, I’d never know any of that from looking at her or if I judged her by the roles she’s played.  Krista Allen strikes me as a person who’s made the best of what life has given her, both in terms of her appearance and her background, keeping her from being a cynic.  She stumbled into entertainment after a disastrous ending to her first marriage, and “Forrest Gumped” her way into a career as a working actress, one that got her on “Friends” and “Frasier,” and in movies like Liar Liar (Tom Shadyac, 1997) and Anger Management (Peter Segal, 2003).  Were they great, major roles?  Not usually.  Were they bimbo roles?  At first, yes.   But does she still work to this day, and without having to go back to doing nudity?  Absolutely yes, and as most actresses in Hollywood will tell you, “bimbo” or otherwise, that is not easy to do.  Regardless of her work not being my cup of tea, I have found that meeting and knowing people like her allows me to be more open-minded myself, and look at the world from new and unfamiliar perspectives.  That has made me better at making friends, coming up with new ideas, and surviving in a world so different from mine.

I also like Krista Allen because I feel that she’s a survivor and not a quitter.  Again, her career is indirectly the result of a failed marriage, and I’ve never heard her hold her success up as proof that she’s exceptional or better than anybody else.  Like me she’s very candid about her failures, and that authenticity is something I value in everybody.  In fact, I personally believe that an inability to be authentic is the reason so many human relationships fail and conflicts develop.  Moreover, despite her failed relationships, Krista Allen continues to get into them – she doesn’t become cynical and give up on the idea of love and companionship despite thus far failing to really achieve either.  As I’ve said in the past, like me she rolls with it and keeps going, and though this hasn’t brought her ultimate success in relationships as yet, I believe it’s why she’s continues to succeed professionally, thus buying herself time and money to ultimately achieve her goals.  I admire all of these qualities, and I believe that they are a big part of what draws people to her.  Many of her podcasts are co-hosted by her friends, and many women have taught me that women are generally a lot meaner to other women than they are to men, a sad reality that Allen herself has shared.  I think the fact that she has so many friends of both genders is why she succeeds, and speaks highly of her character.

Bottom line, if you’d told me a week ago that I’d dedicate a whole blog posting to my fandom of Krista Allen, I’d’ve told you that you were crazy.  I’m a film geek with a minor in cinema studies!  I consider myself an intellectual, and I’ve only had one girlfriend (who I didn’t usually get along with) that looked anywhere near as pretty as her!  What could I possibly get from engaging with a person like that?

They say you should never judge a book by its cover, and Krista Allen’s podcast proved that to me.  And besides, it saves me a lot of money on books…