You Might Fail, So At Least Fail Up

I have a friend who is a very successful live entertainment producer. He’s a creative genius, not as an artist, but as a business person and an impresario. He sees more ways of getting people excited to be in the same building with a bunch of other people to see a show and pay big money for the privilege than most people — hell, almost anybody — sees.

A short while back, he had a new production, and unlike most of his previous work, it wasn’t a hit. It didn’t trip that secret formula with audiences that made them want to come back again and again to his other work. Not a flop, but compared to the other work he’s brought to life, it fell flat. Compared to its goals, it was a failure.

But I’ll tell you this: It may have failed, but it failed up.

Failing up is when something doesn’t work, but it didn’t work in pursuit of something worthwhile. Failing up is when something doesn’t achieve its goals and yet it was working to an idea with massive potential.

Failing up is when something has a high opinion of its audience and their capabilities and just can’t make the nuts and bolts of the artistry or the business work. Failing up isn’t exactly a good thing, but at least it’s in pursuit of something with real value. Often failing up opens a little crack in what used to look like a wall, and just enough light comes through that either the creator of that upward failure or someone else figures out how to tear down that wall and get the treasure behind it.

Failing down, on the other hand, is cynical. Failing down has a low opinion of itself, its audience and its form. Failing down believes that “people love crap” and “pandering” is an easy way to make a buck. Failing down is all about looking backward and trying to get away with mediocrity. People who fail down are usually surprised.

But they shouldn’t be. Most commercial artistic pursuits are downward failures. A downward trajectory, it turns out, doesn’t increase the odds of success. Conversely, an upward trajectory doesn’t necessarily increase the odds of success. It’s complex, and sometimes people really do like “crap.” And sometimes crap isn’t really crap after all, except through the eyes of a downward-thinking old cynic.

But if there’s a choice to be made, and knowing that it’s impossible to predict whether something like a show or a startup is going to succeed, look up! You’ll either succeed and be a world-beater or you’ll fail up and move yourself and everyone else closer to something special.

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