A week ago, I received a package I’d been waiting for. The feature-length movie I had co-written, co-directed, and co-produced last summer had been edited. A rough cut was finally ready for my review. You might imagine I’d rush home to watch it, anxious as I was to see how it turned out. But I couldn’t bring myself to do so. Instead, I let it sit on my desk for six days and seven nights as I busied myself with other chores — some much less important than this culminating product of so much work.
Finally, yesterday, I could ignore it no longer. I brought home the fragile plastic container of my latest dream and popped it in the VCR. For 90 minutes, a hand-selected audience and I sat and watched what I hoped was a harrowing but excruciatingly funny drama — “Pulp Fiction” meets “Boyz in the Hood.” I’m happy to say there were times — fleeting seconds or minutes — when I was caught up in the drama, temporarily swept away by a fiction of my own creation. And there were several times that I laughed out loud or recoiled reflexively at some line or bit of action. But those moments were infrequent and short-lived.
Most of the 90 minutes that passed were spent in a state of semidetached dread and boredom. I was disappointed yet almost puzzled by what I had done. “On a scale of one to 10,” I asked my 9-year-old nephew, “how would you rate it?” (I had the sense to preview the rough cut with three good critics — my 13-year-old son, his cousin of the same age, and his cousin’s younger brother.)
He looked at me with his happy, chipmunk eyes and smiled. “Zero,” he said blithely. “Let me put it to you this way,” my 13-year-old son added, patting my shoulder consolingly. “For the rest of your life, you’ll never be able to criticize another movie.” “That’s not true,” his 14-year-old cousin responded. “He can say, ‘I thought that movie was bad,’ if he wants to. But he’s got to add, ‘But my movie was even worse!'” Which takes us back to the key question posed in today’s message: What do you do when you’ve plucked up your courage, thrown out your chest, taken the great plunge, and landed on your belly?
Here’s one option:
1. Congratulate yourself for not having given up your day job.
2. Resist the urge to candy-coat the medicine. (“I failed. It wasn’t good. I won’t pretend it was.”)
3. Recognize that knowledge comes out of ignorance, success out of failure.
4. Remember that you do many things well.
5. Spend a few days ruminating and then decide: “Should I stop here or keep on going?” That is the question.
When you have dramatically flunked your first big examination, do you drop the course and take up another subject — one for which you may be better suited? When even a child can see the lameness of your gait, do you keep on racing — even after falling so far behind? On the one hand… There is an indisputable intelligence in quitting early, because in most cases inauspicious starts do foretell unkind endings.
When I advise my clients on new-product launches, I tell them that if the great new idea doesn’t begin with a roar, they should put a kill to it or it will eat them out of house and home, starve all the other puppies in the process, and then die anyway. On the other hand… All men toddle before they walk — even Olympic runners. You can’t become a virtuoso unless you achieve mastery.
You can’t achieve mastery until you have bypassed competence. You can’t bypass competence unless you are willing for a time to be merely competent, and you can’t reach the modest stage of competency unless and until you are willing to work through the awkward and often embarrassing stage of incompetence. I am an amazingly incompetent filmmaker. Had I never tried to make a film, I would have never known it.
And that — one could say — should be reason enough for me to desist from further moviemaking ventures. But when I consider how I feel, I recognize that I don’t regret trying. I am sorry to have gotten so many other people involved in this mess, but I’m glad I completed the project — even considering how horribly it turned out. Despite its unsuccessful outcome, the process itself was illuminating, and I feel a little bigger for having done it. Bigger and maybe a bit stronger too. And wiser.
It’s not really so terrible to fail, once you accept the failure not as an indictment of your worthlessness but as an exhibit of the temporary state of your incompetence. Admitting to failure while retaining your sense of worth can give you a sense of lightness, a feeling of buoyancy. Hey, I’m a crappy filmmaker — but guess what? I won’t be forever. The next movie I make is going to be better than the last one. And the movie after that may even be OK.
The only thing that stands between this failure and the great movie I’ll someday make is an indeterminate number of failures I must pass through to get there. The sooner I get started, the faster I’ll finish. This afternoon, PL (my co-producer/director/writer) and I decided on our next plot. It feels good. A comic romance with some good action.[Ed. Note: Mark Morgan Ford was the creator of Early To Rise. In 2011, Mark retired from ETR and now writes the Palm Beach Letter. His advice, in our opinion, continues to get better and better with every essay, particularly in the controversial ones we have shared today. We encourage you to read everything you can that has been written by Mark.]