I am no stranger to failure and I probably will write more on the topic in the future. In fact, most of us I’m pretty sure have made our rounds of the Failure Ferris Wheel once or twice. We ride the upswing of success and then something happens and our little cart falls ferociously towards the ground and all that’s left at the end is a janitor yelling “Clean up on isle six!” while your twitching carcass lays there wondering what the fuck happened and the heel of life grinds your left overs into the pavement like a burned out cigarette.
I’ve recently found myself dealing with a type of failure I haven’t known in a few years: failure of health. For me, it’s the scariest kind of failure. Several weeks ago, I had a bizarre malfunction happen in my brain that required a spinal tap which left me bedridden and virtually unable to move, let alone look at pictures or emails.
When I was run over several years back, I lost the ability to move my body, but my imagination was free to run wild. This time was different. This was the first time I’d ever had the wings of my creative mind clipped. My reality became a bed and the four white walls that surrounded me. For someone who enjoys the complicated minefield of life, of tapping into that field of potentials, this was a new kind of prison. I’d felt pain before. But never the kind that left me totally unable to function. I couldn’t even use my imagination. Attempting to access that part of my brain (or any attempt at quick thinking) would immediately bring on violent migraines. I had lost a certain amount of my close-up vision as well, something that is crucial to my career as an artist.
The morning the SmugMug film launched was the day after I was admitted to emergency. I had just over 2 weeks until Creative Live Photo Week, then a trip to Europe immediately after that. No time for those kinds of things.
Each morning, I tried to awaken with optimism. THIS would be the morning I would wake up and feel no pain in my brain. THIS morning would be different. THIS would be the day I could escape the prison I was in and get back to the pixel obsession that has overrun my life. But every morning I was disappointed. Each time I thought things were getting better, they would only get worse. Painkillers reduced some of the pain. But they only worked for a couple days, then did nothing. Little by little, bit by bit, watching the deadline to fly get closer, I started to break. My morning optimism, usually there every day without fail, was replaced by a feeling of crushing failure. I began to wilt inside, as if the flower of my spirit had been left in the sun too long without water.
As the day for my trip to Seattle drew closer, my sister and I started negotiating ways to make the trip should I not be able to fly. We could drive. I could lie in the back of the car and hope that the improvements the medical community assured me were supposed to happen within the first 24-48 hours… 10 days ago.
It might seem reckless to some people that I was willing to sacrifice so much just to make one event. I was constantly being told by friends and family to “Rest. It’ll come again. You’ll have another chance. Take care of your health because without it, you have nothing”. They were absolutely right. It was only one event. It does happen with repetition. And will likely happen again. And I know full well that without health, we are nothing.
But what most people seem to not quite understand is the strength of commitment to the spirit. Those sacred things that we hold so fucking dear that the wings of hell and an ocean of despair cannot budge us from, even when it feels as if everything is lost and there is nothing left to do but curl up and let the dust settle over us.
When all hope finally bleeds from the veins, dripping into forgotten cracks, somehow the heart finds a way to produce just one more drop. And that little drop of hope is derived from a different formula. It finds a new way. It looks at things just a little differently.
Getting on a plane and pushing through that kind of pain just to make an event, well, it isn’t about the event. The event is simply a manifestation of a desire. And in the case of Seattle, there was some little part of me that held onto that idea with an iron grip. Understand that I’m quite comfortable with failure. But I fucking can’t stand the idea of utter defeat.
I couldn’t have made the trip without the help of others. My mother moved me into her home and I was in constant communication with friends in the medical community, all of whom were working on options to help get me through. I let a lot of work fall through my fingers and my inbox turned into a savage monster that I’m still trying to tame.
All day long, I would lie flat on my back in bed. I worked hard to quiet my increasingly panic stricken mind, to focus on what it would be like to have a healthy body, to be speaking at that Seattle event, to catch that plane to Europe. I did this every…single…day. From the time I opened my eyes in the morning until I closed them again that night. Despite my pillow being constantly wet from the tears that ran so freely.
Create a habit. Create a belief. Create your reality.
I made it to Seattle, even though my eyesight had not completely repaired before I took the stage and spoke on Creative Live. But I still made it. I cried every single day that I was there. I’m writing this post while sitting in a chair at a friend’s home in Holland, taking in the sound of rain dancing on the roof.
Coming through the other side of two brain injuries in three weeks (I’ll skip the other story for now), I feel like I’ve gone 12 rounds with a team of angry kangaroo kickboxers. My spirit is worn and tired, and my body still feels like a bit of a stranger. I feel like I’m lying at the bottom of that Ferris Wheel with Life having just lifted its heel to wipe me off its shoe, while asking “why are you down here again?”.
It’s given me a lot of time to think on Failure and what it means to me.
To me, failure is temporary. It’s a chance to realign and try something different.
When we take photographs, we don’t take a shot and say “Holy fuck, that’s awful. Better take another shot with everything exactly the same and hope something looks different next time.” You didn’t pick up your camera, take your first set of mediocre images and say “I’ll never be any good at this”, then walk away and quit. If you’ve learned to speak a language, walk, run, operate whatever tech you use in your daily life, you’re already ahead of the curve. With enough willpower and practice, you can probably get good at certain things, maybe even great at something.
Let’s be honest, the first few years of your life you spent screwing up the words “mom” and “dad” in a crib, while getting food stuffed in your face. You practiced every single day and eventually your grasp on the language of your parents became second nature.
In my mind, it’s far nobler to try and fail at a lot of things, than to do nothing and flounder about in mediocrity and lethargy. There is nothing more terrifying to me than to wake up in the morning and feel completely in my comfort zone. Comfort zones are for breaks and breathers. They’re for momentary lapses in guidance and to help rebuild energy so you can continue building.
I would rather drag my beaten carcass to the finish line and drop dead an inch from that line than to sit in the stands and watch someone else try and live my life for me.
If I do nothing else with my tiny blip of an existence, I hope that the words I speak and the life I live helps inspire others. I am speaking to you, the totally awesome fucking person that you are. Wherever you are in the world, wake up and challenge your life with all that you have. We have never lived in a better time to take control of our lives and be the best version of ourselves that we possibly can be. Anyone who romanticizes the past has obviously not read a fucking history book. Right now, we have the internet. We have global communication. We have more access to funds, ideas, energy, and like-minded individuals than ever before in our recorded history. It’s not without challenges and far from perfection, but that’s ok.
When there is an iron will, there is a iron way. But know this – you’re going to fail. And probably fail a lot. And that’s totally fine. However, with enough adaptation, focus, clarity of goals and consistent hard work, you will likely start to experience success. It might not look exactly like what you were expecting, but you won’t be in the same place you were before.
And if you find you’ve come full circle back to failure, well, perhaps you didn’t do enough differently, enough times. Failure is important. Picking your broken self up for one more ride is necessary. Be thankful for your fragile, yet resilient self. This isn’t a race to win a medal at the end. There is no grand prize waiting for us. There is simply the ride and our own personal legends that follow quietly in our footsteps. The beauty in the every day and the frailty in the moments that just flicked out of reach.
Through failure, build the courage to live your life so powerfully that when Death finally comes to your door, he knocks gently and asks for permission to enter the room.