Have you ever watched your boss stand up in front of 6,000 people and apologize for how bad your work was? I have and it’s a humbling, life-changing experience. I’ll quickly back up for context’s sake.
Five years ago, while Creative Director at a mega church (Vineyard Cincinnati), I directed a Christmas production creatively titled, The Christmas Show. We decided to do something a little avant-garde and tell the different parts of the nativity story using various art forms. We didn’t have much of a budget, but we had eager volunteers and moxie left over from the previous year’s successful Christmas production. Long story short, I bit off more than I could chew. I knowingly took risks with art forms I had no experience in without considering the costs of those risks. And in the end, the results and the reviews weren’t great. Not only was the quality not up to par, but we found out people didn’t like it when you played fast and loose with the nativity story.
In the moment I was disappointed it didn’t turn out as well as I saw it in my head. I had a blast working on the production with my team, and there were parts I was proud of regardless of the response. Overall I had that classic artistic melancholy over unreached expectations, but I wasn’t embarrassed … yet.
A few months later is when the apology came. In front of the whole church. And I was blindsided.
Up until this point in my career, I had built a reputation of being the young upstart who always exceeded expectations. My identity was deeply rooted in being a successful creative MacGuyver who delivered. But this time I failed. Badly. Publicly.
I cannot express how profoundly embarrassed I was. The foundational thing from which I drew my meaning was pulverized for all to see. I felt exposed inside and out.
Over the next few years my core confidence and creative moxie got hit hard. I was forced into doing some major soul searching. I had to rebuild who I thought I was because I found out you can’t be something that can be destroyed.
A major breakthrough happened while reading The Artist’s Way with a group of trusted friends. I discovered a truth that’s still taking root, deep down in a place that’s hard to access without the help of friends and something Other.
Truth: Sustainable joy/meaning is found in the PROCESS, not the end PRODUCT.
The process of making stuff with my friends is where I find myself. I learn who and what my friends were created to be. I get to be a part of that discovery with them. I get to help them tap into that holy thing of creating something from nothing. I get to laugh, cry, struggle, fail and try again with them and that is where we all learn how to submit and strive at the same time.
Epic failure and public embarrassment were a gift to me because they forced me to look deeper for true identity. So when critics working for national newspapers gave my film, A Strange Brand of Happy, less than favorable reviews, I listened to their feedback. But it didn’t devastate me. Because my identity isn’t found in a 95 min. quirky rom-com. It’s not found in any one thing I create.
My identity/meaning/joy is rooted in something Other. And the process of making things with friends is where I experience that Mystery. Ego doesn’t want this to be true. Ego wants the credit. Ego needs the spotlight.
Luckily for me, my ego got exposed for what it truly is—a fraud. I don’t think you can ever truly get rid of your ego. But failure quiets its whisper. That’s why it’s the gift we need to keep on getting.
Photo (Flickr CC) by Chuck Olsen