The F-word & what to do about it!

I’m not talking about the four-letter F-word. I’m talking about the seven-letter one.

The short vulgarism has become so commonplace in American daily life that it doesn’t even raise an eyebrow in most social situations, on radio shows or in Hollywood movies. But the other F-word can still make the most sophisticated and streetwise person blush, squirm and sob behind locked doors.

Still don’t know what it is?

Let me spell it out: F-A-I-L-U-R-E!

Virtually no one in American society wants to be a failure or associated with failure. The country is about SUCCESS!

That is why creative people will always be a very small part of the mainstream American economy — although they will play an increasingly pivotal part.

Real creativity is about repeated failure. It is built upon endless experimentation, play, free association and the thinking of truly uncomfortable thoughts. Jim Adams, who was a distinguished professor of engineering at Stanford University and a key player at the Jet Propulsion Lab in NASA’s heyday, expressed this sentiment during a lecture more than 30 years ago: The truly creative person has an appetite for sustained ambiguity, contradiction, complexity, frustration and initial failure — basically, everything that would send a regular person racing to a psychiatrist for a big bottle of Zoloft.

Adams was both a proponent and a skeptic of small-scale creative ventures. As one of Silicon Valley’s most esteemed academics and consultants, he educated and influenced some of our nation’s most creative and successful entrepreneurs. But he knew the statistics of success, which have not budged much in three decades.

Only about 8 percent of working Americans are involved in a startup business in any given year. Fully 50 percent of these ventures will fail within five years, and 50 percent of the remaining ones will fail in 10. Almost none of these creative enterprises will be around with the original entrepreneurs at the helm 20 years later.

There are roughly 240,000 professional artists in the U.S., out of a total work force of approximately 150,000,000. Even without a calculator, you can grasp that the number of creative people who are strong enough to defy parental hopes and dreams for a safe, high-status profession is statistically insignificant.

It is no wonder that being a teacher or administrator in the truly creative domains of painting, sculpture, music, dance or literature generally pays a lot better than actually engaging in creative activity in the marketplace. This is in stark contrast to the salary of a typical professor or dean at a college of law, medicine or business to a mid to high level practitioner of the discipline. They are penalized for being in academia.

In mainstream businesses and government agencies, creativity can be a career killer. Any executive or manager who is repeatedly associated with new and failed ideas is usually fired or quietly whisked off to organizational Siberia. That is why high-powered, outside consultants can earn a fortune championing innovative designs and iconoclastic policies. They are professional fall guys and gals. The person in charge has covered his or her tailbone by temporarily retaining prestigious hired guns.

The reason that the stigma of failure is so pervasive and so debilitating is its social utility.

In technologically advanced societies the “creative deviant” individual is often shunned, shamed, or made into a figure of fun. How many parents of any class really want their children to be “starving” artists, “struggling” actors, musicians, singers, dancers, or “independent” filmmakers as opposed to doctors, lawyers, business executives, engineers, or scientists?

Literally, the first question an adult creative person is asked in most social situations is — “Can you really earn a living at that?”

In America, it is somewhat easier to be a creative nonconformist because of our frontier mentality and multicultural history. But it still exacts a high price. I never met a truly rugged individualist who had an easy life — although they sure put a positive spin on it.

A well-functioning and orderly society can tolerate and employ only so much creativity and atypical behavior. The consensus reality is that most of us have to play by the rules most of the time…and it is probably a good thing.

The big, innovative leaps and breakthroughs are achieved by a handful of geniuses. Think Thomas Edison, Steve Jobs, Marie Curie, Duke Ellington, Pablo Picasso, George Lucas, etc.

At this point, you might ask: What does a “regular” creative individual do to both survive and prosper? Well, there are no easy or entirely satisfactory answers; but there are always creative possibilities.

An ambitious and creative grad should probably try to land a job with a high-profile, innovative company such as Apple, Disney, Google, Hallmark, Electronic Arts, Chiat/Day, Ogilvy & Mather, National Geographic, Wieden+Kennedy, HarperCollins, Fox, MSNBC, etc. These established creative operations have the resources to groom talent and make creative failure just a routine business expense.

Those fortunate creative baby boomers in their 50s who are professionally successful must figure out how to gracefully pass the torch to their younger colleagues and move on to their next challenge.

Midcareer creative professionals between the ages of 30 to 45 will typically have the hardest row to hoe. This age bracket coincides with the formation of a family. Life at this stage is high on responsibilities to others and low on personal flexibility. All I can say, if you choose to have a child and open a business at roughly the same time, is that you will get gray hair and a furrowed brow like the author of this column.

For the childless midcareer creative professional, these are your salad days. Don’t waste your valuable energy bickering with a spouse or significant other; take exotic vacations, and please contribute the maximum dollar amount to your IRA and/or 401(k). I know that these little bons mots sound like something you would find inside a fortune cookie, but seriously consider them.

Finally, do yourself a favor and read the Harvard Business Review OnPoint/Executive Edition/Spring magazine, which is devoted to “The Creative Company.” I bought a copy at Borders.

If you want to enhance your chances for creative and financial success at any point in your career and not be the dreaded F-word, you must know and understand what the real decision-makers in American business might be thinking.

Here are five relevant books you can find on —

Conceptual Blockbusting: A Guide to Better Ideas by James L. Adams

Free Agent Nation: The Future of Working for Yourself by Daniel Pink

The Elephant and the Flea: Reflections of a Reluctant Capitalist by Charles Handy

The Tao of Abundance: Eight Ancient Principles for Living Abundantly in the 21st Century by Laurence Boldt

The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius translated by Martin Hammond

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