Gonzales: The Luxury of Failure

“Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.”
Those words (attributed to Winston Churchill) resonate with a tone of vast experience, and leads to other questions relating to the nature of success and the lessons of failure. By all accounts, the Hungarian composer György Ligeti was extremely successful, yet constantly downplayed any accolades bestowed upon him. Something drove him to continually venture into new musical territory that came with a high probability of failure, yet with his vast experience, he was generally able to contribute something novel to the world of music. In the theme of success and failure, Gonzales recently tweeted a link to an article by James Martin in Canada’s “Globe and Mail” newspaper:

On first glance, the article seems like a mildly interesting read; Joni Mitchell’s failed marriage, the genesis of Cirque du Soliel, failed gluten-free banana bread (no surprise there), and so on. The message is clear: failure is a good and necessary teacher. Reading on, a sports star indicates that failure is too important to be known as ‘failure’; that has reverberations of the Yogi Berra quote, “We made too many wrong mistakes.”

Just as the article seems to fail in relevance (beyond a general interest story), the final snippet describes a young Canadian who failed at the music business only to reinvent himself and receive “fame and acclaim” (as an aside, why do reporters describing Gonzales tend to write like they are quoting his lyrics?) in Europe as “Chilly Gonzales”. Now this is interesting and worth a closer examination of Gonzales’ outlook on failure.

The subtitle of the section is “Bulk up your failure muscle”. That sounds like a good title for a yet-to-be-written entrepreneurial book. The first couple sentences allude to the notion of using failure as a teacher, and those who avoid failure by chance are eventually doomed to fall hard. They didn’t have opportunities to build up their resistance or ability to dynamically navigate and respond to failure. In a sense, it seems that sooner or later you have to accept failure; it’s better to gain experience by initially failing at a small scale, versus a spectacular failure – which can kill a career.

Infants are naturally programmed to learn this way. They try new things that aren’t (usually) too dangerous, and constantly fail. Whether it’s trying to look at something, turn over, bite on something, walk, explore (and so on), they generally seem motivated by failure. Then the cold world of reality enters. At a certain developmental age, they are told over and over again that failure is not an option. Some for excellent reasons (relating to personal safety, for instance), but in many other areas, children should be encouraged to fail more often than we allow them to. It seems that as most people grow older, they are rewarded for letting their failure muscle atrophy until it can no longer be called upon for strength in the time of need. Successful individuals will have a seemingly endless stream of stories around their failures, and yet will readily admit that without their failures, they wouldn’t be where they are today.

Back to the article, Gonzales goes on to highlight the music industry’s unique position of being able to receive almost instant feedback via social media. This is a great advantage, because it enables dynamic changes in approaches or even musical styles prior to committing to new work. There are a couple of catches though.

Since Gonzales can’t control the audience’s perception of his music, he has to concentrate on what he can control: strategy and communication. Each listener will have a personal and unique view of a song – good or bad. On the other hand, the techniques used to advertise and communicate the songs can be dynamically altered, and this is where entertainers who are in control of their own image have to pay close attention as they don’t have a multimillion dollar marketing department behind them. They can change their approach at will, but choosing the right path that will lead to more fans and sales is a product of experience – including some failures. Gonzales likes to point out that “Soft Power” was a failure of communication on his part. He didn’t read the audience’s expectations, which led to a misunderstanding of the album (it’s an excellent album, by the way). Since he owns the right to “Soft Power”, Gonzales can choose to market the album any way he sees fit – including using it as an example of where he learned a valuable lesson.

The other catch is that you have to have had the dynamic failure response experience in order to expertly respond to the feedback to further strengthen your ‘market’ position. Many non-entertainment companies are starting to figure this out. Social media feedback is one of the best ways to dynamically receive unsolicited feedback from fans (and haters) of your product. The downside is that if a company fails on social media, then the failure is usually spectacular – so much so, that most major corporations have a laughable social media strategy. As Gonzales indicates, they have to find a way to build up their failure muscle slowly before fully embracing the benefits of social media. Even spectacular corporate failures can be turned into opportunities, but it takes a skilled and experienced team to be able to navigate though those situations.

In the last few sentences, Gonzales seems to allude to a goal that he initially stated (at least in printed form) back in the late-90s: convincing the music industry to do it ‘his way’. I posed that question to Gonzales during a twitter-based interview session some time ago:

His 140-character answer provides excellent advice for musicians; achieving your musical goals is a moving target, and while mistakes are good, it doesn’t help to make the same mistakes over and over. It’s actually somewhat ridiculous to expect different results from the exact same actions. Gonzales is trailblazing and creating a path that others can learn from in a very public and accessible manner. He’s generally very open in his goals and approach within the music industry, and seems eager to help others (musicians and non-musicians alike) reach their personal goals. To use an old software concept, Gonzales is as an ‘open-source’ entertainer; he dispenses plenty of free, helpful advice and education in all aspects of music and the music industry, which are generally applicable to other industries.

The very last sentence refers to musicians who self-publish, or publish on their own labels. Since they continue to own their music, they also ‘own’ their mistakes as opposed to blaming failures on other factors, such as “incompetent record company douchebags.” Actually legally owning your ‘mistakes’ is a significant change in mindset from ‘owning up’ to mistakes when working for someone else. The former is your property and will hang over your head as a reminder of what not to do, whilst the latter is a lesson, but with much less ownership besides possibly suffering the temporary effects of a career limiting manoeuvre within a corporation.

One of the commenters in the initial article also had some interesting insight into the Canadian ‘risk’ psyche, and described Canadians as “people who are just comfortable enough to be smug.” A fairly astute assessment, as it does take a bit of an immigrant ‘hustler’ mentality (as Gonzales like to say about his father), in order to truly be able to take risks. The motivation to take risks and run a corporation comes with a price, and material rewards do not seem to provide sufficient long-term motivation. People who take risks have a burning internal desire for achieving a goal (sometimes at great cost) embedded in their constitution. The overall question of the article may be slightly restated: “How do we learn from people like Gonzales, and how do we instill a sense of unwavering drive and the ability to “build up failure muscle” within ourselves and our children?”

In the meantime, kick back, put on a Chilly Gonzales record and bask in the smug comforts of capitalism. Oh, and don’t forget to contact your inner ‘hustler’ and build up your failure muscle every once in a while – you never know when it might come in handy.

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