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 Pro Wrestling

N.W.O maxresdefault

When I was a kid, I was into pro wrestling. But this blog posting isn’t really about that.

Instead, it’s about a temporary assignment I completed last week. When I got to this assignment I had no idea how much I would be making, so I was disappointed when talking to others on the job revealed that it was much lower than what I’m used to. Worse, trying to talk to other also reminded me that as much as I pride myself on my ability to make friends, you can’t win over everybody. Some people there just didn’t want to talk. Others were downright hostile. And still others were boorish know-it-alls that frankly, I didn’t want to talk to. There was a brief training that I did poorly on, confirming my reoccurring fear that I am just no good at “common sense” tasks and that my best days are my behind me. When I ended up spending more on lunch than I’d be making in an hour because I wrongfully assumed cheaper food would be available, I was upset. And when I was unable to perform the basic function of the job because none of the people we were serving seemed to want anything to do with me, I felt even worse. To me, I had absolutely hit rock bottom. I was done.

And there were six more days to go.

Though the job part of the job didn’t get any better the next day, I overheard a conversation between two people about pro wrestling. It was an interesting coincidence (I am going to call it that for now, but spoiler alert, I’m writing someday a blog posting about what I think so-called “coincidences” really are), because just days before, I watched John Oliver’s very moving video about what becomes of pro wrestlers and how badly they’re mistreated. As I said, I’d been a big fan of wrestling in my younger days, though as with all of the other “male power fantasy” genres I was into, I’d long since outgrew it. Still, I like poking my head in every now and then and seeing what’s going on in that world, so my ears perked up when this conversation began. It was started by a self-proclaimed wrestling geek who runs a website where he sells wrestling memorabilia. He’s self-employed, and just supplements his income with temporary assignments when business is slow. As a result, when he talked, I could barely get a word in as he went on and on about wrestling trivia and dismissed all of my viewpoints on the subject. To be honest, when I learned he was ex-military and I checked out his skinhead haircut, I really didn’t like the guy much, and assumed that would be the end of it.

But I was intrigued.

As I said, I’ve checked in on pro wrestling off and on over the years, and besides John Oliver’s video, I recently watched one of ESPN’s “30 For 30” documentaries about “Nature Boy” Ric Flair, a pro wrestler who typically branded himself the best there is, but actually had the longevity and titles to make a case for it. His daughter, as it turns out, recently became a champion in the WWE, and I was moved near to tears at his pride in knowing that he was able to pass something on to his child, despite the hard life that wrestlers lead. Being always on the road and subjected to tremendous punishment doesn’t leave much room for parenting, as Jake “The Snake” Roberts knows, having lost any relationship with his own daughter (as chronicled in the documentary Beyond the Mat (Barry W. Blaustein, 1999). In my experience however, wrestling can teach you a surprising amount about the media business in general, as I learned from former wrestling promoter Eric Bischoff’s 2006 autobiography Controversy Creates Cash.  It was in that book that I first learned about the creation of the “N.W.O., a wrestling crew that I never even considered had any relevance to me beyond being a ’90s rip-off of Ric Flair’s famous “Four Horsemen” group. As with most other things about those first few days at that temp assignment though, I learned very quickly that I was really wrong about that.

So the temp assignment continued, and though we hadn’t gotten off to a great start, I was determined to show this wrestling jerk that I wasn’t just a jobber. I really knew a thing or two about wrestling, having collected Pro Wrestling Illustrated magazine for two good solid years back in 1988-89 or so. I knew all about the indy promotions of the time, the AWAs, the Mid-Souths, and the various promotions that made up the NWA (READ: not the same as the NWO you see pictured above or “the world’s most dangerous group”). More than that, I had checked in long afterward too, when the ECW was in its heyday, and even after, when Rob Black created the XPW and I was introduced to Sabu and Rob Van Dam before he was actually anybody, and the Lightning Kid long before he bulked up and became X-Pac. I even remembered DDP back when he was just managing, and not yet wrestling! I’d seen Wrestling With Shadows (Paul Jay, 1998)! Again, as with role playing games or heavy metal or superhero comics, I never fully let any of my male power fantasies go – while I may not be up on things anymore, I’m never a complete n00b either. Worse, my ego doesn’t let me allow people to think of me that way. While I can laugh off people questioning my intelligence because of the sheer absurdity of it, and I can get used to the idea that not everybody is going to like me, if you think I don’t know anything about an area of pop culture I was once into, them’s fightin’ words. I got back into the squared circle with the King of the Ring, and I was sure I could get him to submit.

And then… I learned something.

As the wrestling champion broke me down with fact after fact about the ins and outs of the business, he mentioned something that struck a chord and had me on the ropes. He said that Eric Bischoff had gotten the WCW to be competitive by letting its wrestlers do what they wanted to do. That threw me, because an editorial tantrum written by a comic book writer (not remembering who at the moment) said that it was Vince McMahon letting Steve Austin (who I refer to as “The Artist Formerly Known as ‘Stunning’,” because again, I know wrestling history like that) create his own character that led to “The Attitude Era,” as the late ’90s and early 2000s are often referred to in wrestling circles. I was wrong though – Eric Bischoff had started all that, which led to the creation of the N.W.O, a group of has-been wrestlers who got new life after taking control of their own personas. More than that, they made the WCW competitive, actually beating Vince McMahon’s WWE until he bought it out rather than try to compete with it any longer. As Eric Bischoff said in his book, had the merger with Time Warner not ruined Ted Turner‘s media empire, it might still be beating and even supplanting the WWE today. And it was all done with wrestlers perceived as washed up, or put another way, who had hit rock bottom. Who were done.

Sound like someone you know?

As I said at the outset, this blog posting is not about pro wrestling. As with all things that happen in my life, it’s about me. I made an attempt to change careers after a major change in my health nearly a decade ago, and I failed at it. I wasn’t able to make the transition. I did it in the first place though because people had been telling me for years that I was overqualified for what I was doing, and too talented to let that go to waste. I failed, and thought that I was washed up. I forgot my own life rule of, “there is no failure in failing, only in not trying again,” moved back in with my family, and was reduced to trying to get back into the career I left behind. During that period however, a friend of mine from Middle School referred me for a writing job, and I absolutely loved it – to this day, I see it as the best job I’ve ever had. It was fun, it paid really well, gave me freedom (as I was working from home), and best of all, I was good at it. I only lost it because my employer realized that they could get an intern to do it for free, and since I was making $25 an hour and setting my own besides, there was obviously no way I could compete with that. They liked me though, and agreed to serve as a reference as I searched for future writing jobs. Though I haven’t found one yet exactly (I’ve done some transcription, which at least draws from my typing skills), I know I could. Better still, I met a group called Independent Writers of Chicago at a Meetup, who teach writers how to find writing jobs if you join their organization. You just have to be able to pay their very reasonable writing dues. Not impossible if you live with family, temp often, and have your health care covered by the Affordable Care Act. I’ve always said that my only real talents were writing, public speaking, and making friends. Now imagine if I was able to do all of the above on my own terms, like the wrestling nerd does? I think it might start a New World Order for me, no?

Suffice it to say, the wrestling site holder and I ultimately ended the week on the path to becoming friends. Hey, wrestlers turn from hero to heel on a regular basis, so why can’t we? He runs and markets his own business, and if that’s the direction I’m ultimately heading in, he’ll be a good guy to know. If I could get to the point of making my own income and calling my own shots, I wouldn’t have to worry about whether I could do a job to a boss’s specifications. I wouldn’t have to do demeaning temp work, and I might even be able to recreate a personal life like the relationship we saw in The Wrestler (Darren Aranofsky, 2008). I always liked that movie, because it’s about two has-beens getting a second chance at love. If a washed up writer like me can get a second chance, why not? The wrestling heel who turned out to be my hero showed me that as long as you do you, a championship is always possible. You just have to reserve self-judgement, trust yourself and trust your ability to get you that chance. Fight on!

What I Learned About Blogging

What I learned most about blogging is that I may not have been entirely qualified to do it.

Perhaps I’m being too simplistic. While it is true that I’ve enjoyed doing this blog so far, my ultimate goal when I started was to find a way to make this blog “pay” for me to write it, either in money or in audience appreciation. On that basis, I’ve succeeded: I recently got hired to write a blog for a company. Exciting, right? I finally get a chance to prove that my writing skills are good enough for somebody to pay for them. Or to be clear, I get to prove I can still do that, and on a regular basis, because I’ve been paid for my writing several times in the past, hence my desire for a blog that helped me do that again. This blog didn’t get me the gig though. Networking did, and now that I am getting paid to write a blog, I’ve discovered that I may have been going about this all wrong from the beginning.

Here’s what I’ve learned about the world of paid blogging, or blogging with a purpose:

1 – You have to know what your purpose is.  I find that if you’re blogging for a company, you have to know what product or service you’re selling for them. If you’re blogging for yourself, you have to have a “personal brand,” meaning some identity for yourself and your blog, so that your target audience is clearly identifiable. With a company it’s easy – if you sell widgets, your target audience is people who are looking to buy widgets, or people who have a problem that widgets can solve. With a personal blog like mine though, it’s more difficult to find that target unless your blog has a clearly defined purpose.

Suppose this blog was all about California tourism. My target would be obvious: people looking to visit California. Or if my purpose was how to relocate to California, my target would be people looking to move there. If it was the tourists, I would talk about all the cool stuff in California – Hollywood; the beaches, the attractions like Disneyland or Universal Studios. Writing it would be easy, as it would be if it was people looking to move there: I’d talk about moving companies, affordable places to live, California laws to be aware of, etc. My blog thus far however hasn’t really been about California at all, it’s about me. And this is why I think a personal brand is so important.

If I’m a defined person that everybody knows, like a celebrity, the fact that I’m many things – a nerd, a Muslim, a straight man, a writer, a single guy, a picky eater – is fine, because people will read it regardless because they know me and want to know more. If not, I believe I need to pick one of those labels because it makes the blog writing, and thus audience building, easier. I think I would just need to find what interests others who fit whatever label I decide the blog fits, and write about those interests. In my case however, I’m a relatively unknown individual that fits a bunch of different labels like I listed, giving us a blog that’s all over the place. I think writing a blog that’s scattershot like that without any defined personal brand to attract people to it has little to no purpose. It’s just me thinking about stuff, and unless I have that great personal brand, and there are thus a ton of people out there already interested in me and my thoughts, it’s difficult to write a blog about me. My purpose is dubious at best. That’s why I’ve learned that the blog’s purpose needs to be the blogger’s first consideration if s/he wants to monetize it or find an audience.

2 – You have to determine what your target audience is interested in. As I believe I already mentioned, once you know who your target audience is, you have to figure out what they want to read about. What you’re reading now is a product of the training I did for my new blogging job, and what I realized from it is that if you don’t know – not assume, not speculate, know – what your target audience wants to read about, it’s very difficult to build that audience. If you’re selling a product or service, I think not knowing what your audience wants is a big problem: If you’re not writing to your audience’s interests, how and why would they ever encounter you or your product or service? If they’re unaware of what your blog has to do with them, there’s no real reason to find it.

A good professional blogger, I learned, writes to what their target audience is interested in, and a shortcut I learned in determining that is to figure out what others who are into that same thing – oftentimes your competition – are blogging about. As my new employer taught me, if I read the most popular blogs about my product, I will discover what my audience is interested in, and if I can add to that discourse in a new and / or interesting way, I can get more readers for my blog. This is particularly true if those same leading bloggers share things that I wrote. According to my new bosses, getting redistributed by others is what makes something popular – this is what “going viral” is. So if I wanted to build audience for this blog, once I’d determined my purpose or personal brand I’d have to find out what the leading bloggers that cater to that audience write about, and write about the same things, only as good or better. I’d know I’d succeeded if those same leading bloggers started sharing my stuff too.

3 – You have to post regularly. This one I stuck to fairly faithfully in the past with this blog, but have not done so lately. Why? See #1.

As I said, I believe this blog is not very popular because all it’s about is me, and almost nobody knows me beyond those who have met me personally. I have no personal brand,  I’m just a real person, with all of the contradictions and complexities that entails. I can’t point to a target audience because I’m into a lot of different things, hence my blog is too. As a result, it can’t do much for me beyond allowing me to vent and clarify my own thinking for myself.

And I’ve discovered that doing all of these steps is really hard work.

If you haven’t figured it out already, I am writing this as a final blog posting for the foreseeable future, at least in this blog. I have an even more personal, but less well-maintained one that I just use as the mood strikes me. I’ve discovered that ironically, my ending this blog shows that I had already succeeded in fulfilling what I saw as its original purpose long before I began it. My goal in writing this blog really was to validate me, and I did that when my friend who referred me for the new blogging gig became my friend in the first place. He knew the part of my brand that would sell to his company: “A great writer and a reliable guy.” He knew that from personal experience. He knew the target – his company, that just lost their blogger – was looking for somebody to take over their blog. He introduced me; they liked what they saw in my writing (not from this blog no less, from elsewhere), and hired me. Since they know what their competitors blog about (which is what their audience is interested in), they know what to tell me to write, and that’s all I need. My writing won out, as I hoped it would.

So why can’t I do their blog and this one too?

4 – Blogging is hard work. Part of the reason I feel it’s important to have a purpose is because I think doing anything well is hard work. I feel that if you’re good at it, it can be even harder, because (as is the case with me) your perfectionism will kick in and force you to get every part of your blog posting exactly right, which takes effort. Writing well is not quick or easy, so without some tangible “payment” – be it monetary or in the form of some level of self-satisfaction, the whole thing can take a lot out of you. Again, I wanted to prove that I could write well enough to be compensated for my writing on a regular basis. I did that, which is satisfaction enough for me. If I feel the urge to write just to scratch an itch in the future, I can do it as needed, without worrying about adhere to #3. If I want to write for some other purpose, keeping this blog will only take time away from it. It’s run its course.

When I began this blog, I thought it would be a good way to reflect on what I learned in my 17 years in Southern California. What I learned in California more than anything else was to value what I like about myself, and to value myself generally. I had many teachers in California that got me here, and I’m not my perfect me just yet, but I’m good enough to know that I don’t need to keep doing this blog to prove myself. I am a living demonstration of what I learned in California, and if that’s good enough, it will get me back there again, regardless of whether I write about it.

If I do write about it however, you know it’ll be good. Don’t believe me? Just go back and read this blog.