Failure occupies a curious place in the post-TED talk landscape. Often it takes the form of a neatly packaged anecdote to serve as contrast to the glittering achievements that followed. Less acknowledged is failure in situ—the disappointments we live with as we muddle along in careers that may never soar high enough to make our failures look like valleys instead of long, unending plains.
People who create for a living are painfully aware of the ratio that shadows their work. For every piece that makes it to the public eye, or achieves some degree of commercial or critical success, a dark mountain of uncelebrated work lies on the figurative cutting room floor.
This success-to-failure ratio was driving filmmaker Jeremy Redleaf mad. Redleaf has had some admirable career highlights, such as the feature film 3rd Street Blackout and the web series Odd Job Nation. But for every piece of his that reaches a paying audience, he says, roughly nine struggling projects never see daylight.
“It’s been super painful, and made me doubt myself and my artistry and creativity,” Redleaf said.
That pain was the driving force for Redleaf’s latest project: the Museum of Almosts. The “museum” is a website dissecting projects that failed by their creators’ standards. The idea is to look at these projects with the curious but dispassionate eye of a museum curator, to appreciate them within the context of the time and place in which they were made. The first (and so far, only) entry is Couple Fights, a 2014 YouTube series Redleaf made that didn’t sell. He’s sifting through other submissions now and has received several from people offering their failed content, products, and even entire CVs.
Analyzing the work with some distance helped, Redleaf said. “If our creations are like our children, I was able to reconcile with my child. You birth these things and then they disappoint you,” he said. The story he’d told himself about Couple Fights was “that it was a failure, not to be shown to anybody. Reclaiming that story was the most valuable thing.”
The Museum of Almosts is one of several recent creative efforts to confront the embarrassment and disappointments of failure and realize that it’s possible to endure the pain, and still carry on. Fuckup Nights, a network of storytelling events in which people share their most colorful professional catastrophes with an audience, now has chapters in 304 cities in 80 countries.
Comedian Emily Winter wrote recently in the New York Times of giving herself the goal of garnering 100 professional rejections over the course of 2018. She ended up getting some of the gigs and projects she applied for, but mostly she got no after no. It hurt, but not intolerably so.
“I’d convinced myself that this experiment would shield me from the pain of individual rejections, and guess what? It didn’t,” Winter wrote. “It made me feel embarrassed, depressed, overwhelmed and self-indulgent. But I also felt that I was moving forward instead of standing still.”
And moving forward is what a creative or curious life is about. Last year, a rheumatology professor at the University of Bristol named John Kirwan decided to find out for himself what percentage of the ideas he’d generated in 23 years as an academic fit his personal definition of a “good idea”: an important concept that resulted in at least one publication that contributed significantly to the field of scientific inquiry.
After categorizing all the notes on his computer and tracking them against publications, Kirwan calculated that 97.3% of his work essentially came to nothing. But it was still infinitely valuable, as are the artifacts in our own personal museums of almosts.
“The issue here is to recognize that in science (and indeed, perhaps in life as a whole) we have lots of ideas that don’t work out. You cannot tell initially if the idea will work or not—you need to explore it and do some work on it in order to find out,” Kirwan told Quartz. “This is a necessary process…we are not wasting our time in exploring ideas that turn out not to work—we are helping to generate good ideas.”