(Based on a talk at an International Day of Failure event)
“When I thought I couldn’t go on, I forced myself to keep going. I fell again and again but kept on. Success is based on persistence, not luck. “
– Estee Lauder
“Isana felt her throat tighten.
‘We failed.’ Serai lifted her chin and patted Isana’s arm firmly.
‘We have not yet succeeded. There is a difference.’”
― Jim Butcher, Academ’s Fury
I was asked to talk about my 3 biggest failures. I thought about this for a long time actually. I’m totally going to win the coolest failure award.
Very few people in the tech world know this because I keep it a secret but I’m actually a standup comic as well. I use a stage name not to mess with the SEO of my real name and if I told you my stage name, it’ll seem familiar, you’ll have probably heard of it but you just won’t know where. Like I used to be on tv pretty regularly and wrote for a bunch of stuff like tv shows and theatre.
They say in standup the audience judges you every 10 seconds. Every 10 seconds if you don’t perform then you’ve failed and standup audiences can be the most brutal. When you fail in front of them, they make you feel your failure.
Now I completely lucked into standup. My first gig ever was in this tiny theatre in front of about 300 people and I did 10 minutes. The only reason I did the gig was to get back at a girl who was in the audience. I’d asked her out that week but she said no, in a really mean way. I was crushed and wanted to get even by mocking her on stage. It was a dick thing to do.
The line I used was, “There’s this amazing girl in the audience. I’ve had a crush on her for so long, she’s heart-achingly gorgeous. I asked her out today but she said no, so I’m going to be the bigger man and kindly ask you to throw things at her.”
The audience loved it. I was this disgruntled, heartbroken standup. I used a stagename because I didn’t want anyone to know who I was. Someone in the audience did throw something at her, a drunk guy who loved the act threw his shoes at her. I felt awful afterwards. She still remembers it and reminds me. We’re weirdly good friends still.
The director of a prestigious comedy festival was in the audience and he loved it. It turned out it was a contest and I won. Then was flown to the finals where I did my second gig ever which was 10 minutes in front of 3,000 people which was televised and syndicated to nearly 3,000,000 people. Sweet.
I didn’t actually know what standup was at this stage. I’ve always told jokes with friends and occasionally published humour and jokes online. Some of which has gotten really famous but never thought it might be a career move.
But being new to standup I made the mistake a lot of new comics make where they emulate the style of their favourite comics. There is this one specific gig where it is noticeable how similar I am to a famous comic, one of my favourites actually — Mitch Hedberg. And in that gig I die miserably.
A death in standup is when nobody laughs. The first few minutes of that gig is just silent. You can’t even imagine how crucifyingly painful it is to fall flat in front of 3 million people. I die so badly I even talk about how badly I’m dying while I’m dying. There is nothing that compares to it. It is just the most awful feeling ever.
The number 1 fear of most people is public speaking, this is like that fear magnified by a gajillion. Whenever that gig goes to air I get a new round of hate mail. I get a lot of fan mail too but the hate mail sticks with you more for some reason. I thought my career was finished.
But everything seemed to go alright afterwards. For some reason a lot of people still thought it was hilarious and liked the vulnerability since they were so used to seeing insincere and crass comedians.
I started touring for a year, sold out some shows, was offered a couple of huge stadiums and started writing for some television shows and wrote a novella. If you’ve ever done a stadium, it is indescribable. The best part is the sound and mic check where you get to talk to an empty stadium. You feel on top of the world.
When the gig starts it’s incredible. After you say something you can hear the ripples of laughter. They sound like canons going off in front of you it’s so loud. After you say anything it takes about 8 seconds for all of the sound to collect at the back and then this huge gust of wind hits on you on stage. The collective laughter of thousands of people.
All through life, growing up I was quiet and had people walk all over me. Mostly because I didn’t know what to say. And it was like all those pent up years of being quiet snapped and suddenly here I was. Talking to thousands, millions of people. I loved it. Kids who’d bullied me in school suddenly claimed to be my friend. Girls I’d once liked that ignored me were now asking me to go out with them. They thought I was famous and for the briefest of moments I was.
At one point was even offered a tv show. The programmer of the tv station was a fan of my standup but we couldn’t afford to produce it or find a production company interested. It was going to be really weird — hopefully might get around to it one day when I can afford to, still have the scripts in my dropbox.
About here my parents stepped in and decided it was time I went to University. They were doing what they thought was best. We realised quickly the industry is predatorial and unforgiving. Nobody makes any money. The typical fee structure is: your agent takes 15%, your publicist takes 15%, your marketing budget is 15%, your travel / accommodation budget is 15% and about 30% goes in producing the show or art work that you’re selling. So you, the artist make about 10% of all the revenue that you generate as a brand and there isn’t much left over.
You have to really want to succeed and most of the successes are short lived and a bit like trying to stretch 15 minutes of fame into a career. But the people in this world are some of the most eccentric and interesting people you’ll ever meet. Professional artists.
The next year the contest came around again. A new group won. That was it. Hypes over. I doubt I could attract as big an audience again in my life. It was the entertainment equivalent of a local maximum.
The second failure is two fold. I’m just going to call it: girls. If you can give a paragraph in a talk a title, it would be titled girls. 2 specifically stand out as absolute failures.
All through high school I had a crush on this girl, Keena. She was without a doubt the most beautiful girl I’d ever seen. I think I liked her for basically all of high school. She used to catch the 104 bus home with me and the brief moments I’d see her or we’d run into each other would sometimes be the highlight of my day.
In a strange kind of way, I was actually terrified of her. Terrified of the idea of her. Scared to speak to her. Scared to get to know her. I put her up on a pedestal I thought I’d never reach and by the time high school ended I never even had the guts to ask her out properly. I think she barely even knew I existed and probably just saw me as someone strange.
The second is this girl. I thought she was the most amazing girl ever. We used to talk for hours. In a way she was the first girl I ever “loved” if you can know what that is when you are so young. I think it was what people refer to as a “bad relationship.” We fought a lot and treated each other badly and were periodically, constantly upset and unhappy.
There were a lot of happy times too and it would have turned out very different if we’d been in the same place more often. We were in different cities most of the time and the distance is what caused a lot of the fights. It really killed not being around her and not being able to see her. I remember being really happy whenever she’d come and then really sad every time she’d fly back. For 2 years we used to speak every few days and write long letters to each other, like 10,000 words long.
It was a scenario where you are so emotionally attached to someone that they can’t help but hurt you. A friend put it nicely, “There’s no use holding a rose by its thorns.” We don’t talk anymore. I still have her number. Every so often when I’m sad, I feel like calling her, but don’t.
It’s amazing how much of your life is spent in and thinking about relationships. You can’t shake the feeling that maybe you wasted years of your life. You wonder what else you would have done or who else you could have known. It is probably the most mentally exhausting thing there is. It’s like a constant background process taxing memory.
The third and biggest failure may not seem like the biggest but is education. More specifically my parents view of education. I was raised in a conservative Indian household and education was a huge deal. Partly because my grandfather was raised in a slum and never had one, so to do badly in education was to spite the generations before you.
If you could have seen the look of relief on my dads face when I got into university you’d know just how disappointed and worried they were during school.
Through most of school I felt pretty confused about what I wanted to do after high school. I’d associated what I saw all the adults around me doing as “work” and knew I never wanted to do that. Because they all seemed peacefully unhappy like they were stuck in a kind of quiet sadness.
I didn’t even want to go to university. It wasn’t until I got to uni did I realise that university is one of the best places ever and am fortunate to grow up in Australia where we provide subsidised tertiary education for everyone. That is one of the most beautiful ideals ever.
I didn’t realise it then but I do now. Education for the sake of education isn’t what it’s about. It’s an elongation process. What you are actually learning is everything around it not the thing itself. Like the wax on, wax off, Mr Miyagi teaches in the Karate Kid. The point wasn’t to wax the car but everything else.
In cultural Japan people will practice menial crafts day in and day out. It is part of the culture because it is understood the meaning is not found in the process itself but in the time it takes to complete the process. Educations is the same way and I didn’t realise it until too late.
It’s your parents way of trying to help you succeed. They are just doing what they think is best for you. A good thought experiment is what else could a parent do to help a 15 year old kid succeed other than sending them to school? There isn’t much.
I think a mistake adults make is they ask children what they want to do when they grow up. Ambitious kids always have an answer when adults ask them that question. They usually present it in a way that seems rehearsed. I think a better question is to ask what the kids like doing, that’s when their eyes really light up.