I’ve written before about failure and the philosophy of fucking auditions up. Which is, as one of my clients mentioned, all very well for me to say from behind my desk. It’s quite a different matter to actually be the one in the room as the ground opens up beneath you and swallows you whole.
When I woke up this morning, my dog, Rusty, had left one of those delightful smelling piles of excrement on the floor of my office for me to find. I am 10,000 words into the next redraft of the book I’m writing and Rusty may as well have shat all over my MacBook because that’s exactly what it feels like I’ve written – 10,000 delightful blobs of excrement. Everyone’s a critic, eh?
I plough on regardless of the stench of failure emanating from the screen and the suspicion, nay belief, that I’m writing the world’s worst book. I plough on because, luckily for her, Rusty’s name doesn’t appear on my Matter Card.
What’s a Matter Card, I hear you ask? It’s the simplest thing in the world and I carry it with me all the time. It’s something I often use when I’m coaching and it’s worth more than all my credit cards combined.
A Matter Card is the small piece of card in my wallet on which I have written the names of every single person whose opinion matters. It’s a pretty small card because it’s a pretty small list. When I’m in doubt, when everything smells of dog poo, when I’m putting anything I’ve written or worked on out into the world and I’m worried about how it’s going to be received – every time, I pull out my Matter Card and read the names on there. When I get criticised, when someone on Twitter slags me off, when all I can picture is the face of that bitchy person who puts me down or snipes to their friends about me, I look at my Matter Card and if their name isn’t on there, I dismiss it and move on. If your name’s not on the list, you’re not coming in. I’m done renting space in my head to people whose opinions don’t actually matter to me.
On one side of my Matter Card there are five names. Five, that’s all. Five people whose opinions matter to me, five people whose opinions I respect. Five people who can make me reassess my work. On the other side of the card I’ve written 10,10,10. I’ll explain that in a bit.
Putting something out into the world is absolutely terrifying. I read recently that a new creative endeavour is like a new born baby and the creator will go to great lengths to protect that baby from harm. I’m not a massive fan of babies but I’ve learned the hard way that saying “please take this smelling, squealing thing away from me it’s making me feel queasy” is not the best thing to say to a new parent. The correct response is “what a beautiful new born baby this is” and then to pass it along to someone else. With babies I’d prefer to wait a while before being asked what I think of them. Ask me when they’re 18 and I can give you a pretty honest answer. I doubt I’m on many new parents’ Matter Cards which is as it should be.
I suspect I might be on a few Creative’s Matter Cards though, particularly clients. Here too, I’ve learned that the first five minutes after they come off stage is probably not the best time to voice my opinions. I generally wait at least until they’ve put all their props down.
Putting a piece of writing or a performance out into the world is like taking your new born baby and chucking it into a bear pit and letting everyone have a go at it while you watch, unable to help. No wonder that sometimes those extraordinary lengths we go to to protect our new born include never, ever putting it out into the world at all. No surprise that when the rabid hoards are stalking the stage door or social media feeds waiting to devour our work, chew it up and spit it out, we might prefer to lock our new baby away and keep it hidden from view.
Nothing, however, grows in darkness and as creatives we need a response; it’s part of our DNA and not just because part of us wants the attention, but because we need to learn from the response so that we can grow and develop and become better.
I’ve never met a creative who wasn’t aware of the faults in their own work and, handled sensitively, criticism is often welcomed. I try to remember my friend Stephen’s dictum – all advice is vulgar and none more so than unsolicited advice – so I try to only offer advice if I’m asked. If I’m being asked for my thoughts I guess I am, even if only temporarily, on someone’s Matter Card.
Ultimately however the only name that really matters is your own. Are you pleased with what you’ve done? Have you made the work you wanted to make? Did you produce the best thing you could given the circumstances you were working in? If it matters to you, then it matters, and that’s all that matters.
For those times when it seems everyone is against you, when it appears that your failure is monumental and your baby is universally reviled, even by those whose names appear on your Matter Card, when even you can’t bear to look at it because it’s so far from what you imagined, from what you wanted to create – for those times, flip the card: 10, 10, 10. Ask yourself – will this matter in 10 days, 10 weeks, 10 months? Will this failure, this agonising pain that is currently making you cringe and want to hide away from the world, will it still matter in 10 days? In 10 weeks? 10 months?
Don’t be scared of failure, it will teach you more than success will, and that’s all that matters.