They say that you can’t learn from anyone’s mistakes but your own. I disagree.
I’ve been present for the end of a lot of things. I don’t look like much, so nobody seems to care that I’m in the room when they’re talking about important shit. I was around at the end of the Ramones; the end of CBGB; the end of the music business; the ends of a dozen magazines and print media in general. I’ve watched people make mistakes that impacted countless lives in fundamental ways, including mine, while there was nothing I could do. It’s hard not to learn something from that.
An obvious lesson to take is that everything ends. I once did a design-related interview with a magazine called FPO. At the close of our conversation, the reporter asked me for a quick rundown of publications I’d worked for, so I rattled off a list. More than half of the titles were defunct. Some had gone down in spectacular, even legendary ways, and the reporter said: “That’s like a who’s who of magazine disasters over the past 15 years! I can’t believe one person worked at all of those!”
Well… it’s not like there was anything particularly mystical happening here. If any one of those publications had not failed, I’d still have been working there and would never have moved on to the others. But that’s not how it goes. Everything ends.
One thing I’ve never had much of is ambition. That may not ring true to those of you who’ve been with me since the ’90s, but think about some of the folks I ran with, and my relationship to them, and try to appreciate how I may have reflected certain things about them – like the moon reflecting sunlight. All I’ve ever wanted to do was make my stuff. I don’t really care about anything else. Having a goal, or a passion, is not the same as having ambition.
Goal: I want to make a good record. Ambition: I want to make a million-selling record.
I think a goal is something you can realistically accomplish with your own resources and work, while ambition makes success contingent upon the action of others… the need for them to buy something, or love something, or give us something. We have very little control over that. So little that it isn’t really worth a bother. I can make what I consider a good album by writing songs that have meaning to me, taking the time to craft them into something I’d want to hear, and working for the resources to realize them in the form of a recorded object. What happens with that record once it’s available to other people is, for better or worse, out of my hands.
The lesson I’ve learned working with ambitious people is: don’t get too involved with ambitious people. Just do your thing. The wages of ambition are disappointment and agita for all involved.
I’ve liked the expression “failing upwards” since I first heard it back in 2000, when it was used to describe a shitty coworker who had inexplicably gotten bumped up to middle management. But there’s more to it than the negative. After all these years of watching great endeavors end and fade away, it’s hard not to think of success and failure as arbitrary. We fail upwards, we succeed downwards. The work continues. My wish for all of us in 2012: let’s do our best work.