I Failed, So What!?!
Psychologist Dr. Dehra Harris, screenwriter Lorien McKenna, and publisher Maytal Gilboa have learned the hard way that success rarely comes without a few failures before it. So why are we so afraid to talk about it—and become better for it? With their podcast I Failed, So What!?!, these three women decided to find out.
Maytal: I'm Maytal Gilboa and I am a producer who also has a publishing company, Emet Comics. I make graphic novels. We try to put a diverse point of view out into the world. We work primarily with female creators, female writers, and artists.
I really wanted to give our followers a new type of experience. So, about six months ago, I decided to try producing a podcast, I Failed, So What!?! It was just around that time that I met Lorien, and then Lorien introduced me to Dehra, and it all started to come together very quickly.
Dehra: Through a whole lot of her hard work. [Laughs]
Lorien: I'm Lorien McKenna, and I'm a writer. I'm also a story consultant and a script editor. I worked at Pixar for about ten years in the story department. Then, in 2014 I left to work at Paramount Animation, which didn't last very long—the company, I mean. I had moved my whole family to LA to follow the dream of being an animation producer. I had a bought a house. I had a three-year-old daughter at that time and a husband who doesn't work because he's disabled. So when the job ended, I was like, "Oh shit, what am I going to do?"
An opportunity came up to write a TV show with two friends of mine, and so we did. Somehow we sold this to NBC and it was great, and then I was like, "Okay, I guess I'm in. I guess I'm being paid to be a writer." So, that's what I've been doing ever since.
This podcast speaks to me because what we're talking about is “failure.” Failure means so many different things to so many different people.
Maytal: People have a really hard time owning failure, because it's so painful. It can be hard to forgive yourself and to rebound, so we just dismiss failure as something else. But we do each other a disservice because we're not willing to talk about it. It's very easy to not look at your own mistakes.
In the past three years since I've started Emet, I've met hundreds of women who are creators, who are writers, who are filmmakers, and oftentimes they are repeating mistakes that they don't call “failures” because they don't point a finger at themselves and dig really deep. We cannot affect how other people behave, but we can affect how we behave. That's the real motivation behind "I Failed, So What!?!" It’s a talk about how to do better, be better, and be stronger when you are faced with failure.
Lorien: And it's also an opportunity for people who are seen as great successes to share something painful and vulnerable about themselves. Somebody who's just starting out in their career or is in the middle of a failure spin can hear that and think, "Oh, I'm not alone."
Maytal: And also, it's not that big of a deal.
Dehra: That’s the "So What?!!" part. I’m Dehra Harris. I’m a physician, teacher and writer. Ten years ago, I wrote a screenplay and learned more about myself in that process than I did from all of my training and therapy and everything else. I am a child psychologist by training. I teach at a medical school. I teach communication skills and teamwork.
The podcast becomes a way of identifying common brain traps, ways that we talk ourselves out of things, the messed-up ways that we fall into defaults. The podcast represents an opportunity to demystify all of that. Every year, I do something that makes me scared, that I am pretty sure I won’t be good at.
I think what we're trying to do with the podcast is mine this collective wisdom, all these different experiences, and then make that into something productive. So, we're going to go into the really deep part, what it actually felt like to be there while failing, not the polished, "I already learned everything" moment. Getting people to go to the dark place is really hard.
Maytal: It's such a control thing. They want to control the way they're being perceived, because if you don't control how you're being perceived, then you’re open for other people to judge you.
Dehra: Once we lose that sense of control, then we fill our experience in with excuses. Sometimes we fill it in with thinking we're not good at things, sometimes we fill it in with the patriarchy, whatever it is. But when there's a gap between who we are and what's happening in the world, we basically fill it in.
Maytal: We need to find an excuse. We need to find a story.
Dehra: We need to find a story. I think people internalize failure, like—"I'm not really a writer" or "I'm not really supposed to be a director." It's just that you have to fill the gap, and you're going to fill it externally or internally.
Let's say I bring this beautiful idea into the world and I'm really excited about it, and then I pitch it and nobody cares. I think my creation is beautiful, so I need to understand why nobody cares—that’s the gap. Because, in a lot of these meetings, it's not like they tell you why they pass on your idea, they just pass. So you fill the gap with some kind of story. "Oh, maybe this is a failure because I really am not a writer.” Or "I failed because a whole bunch of men were in that room, and if a woman had been in there, she would have liked my story." The only part you control is the part where you learn how to pitch better, or you figure out what the market is. But you're going to tell yourself a story to be able to understand it. It's vulnerable and hard.
Lorien: That narrative gives us comfort, because it tells us who we are, how we're expected to act, and the reaction we can expect from people. It also gets us off the hook.
Also, there's the story we tell ourselves, but then there’s the story other people tell about us. I've fallen into that often. Like someone will say, "Well, you're this…." Oh, am I? Other people's narratives about me fit into their narrative about themselves.
So everything that anyone says to you is a reflection of themselves?
Dehra: But there’s a difference between certainty and accuracy. This is the part that fires me up, because this is where people can manipulate you. All they have to do is be certain. They don't have to be accurate, they don't have to know you.
Lorien: In my experience, it's doubt that leads to failure. When I start to doubt what I'm doing or the path I'm on, then that's when I fuck up.
Dehra: I got to interview a tennis player. On every note, he is spectacularly successful, and financially rewarded for it. But it was so interesting, because he was talking about how he saw all these videos of himself at 13, and he’s like, "Why didn’t anybody tell me I was awful?" I thought that was so powerful, because his point was actually that he fell in love with progress. He stopped thinking he was this or that and he just fell in love with progress.
Lorien: Fail faster and fail early. Before I got to Pixar, I was a playwright. It was all about finishing the play and getting the play up. So, the process of discovery and creativity was lost for me. At Pixar, though, I fell in love with the process of making the movies, of creating the stories and getting them through to a point where I watched the movie at the wrap party. It wasn’t about the movie, at the end of the day. It was about the people that I got to work with. That is what I’m trying to focus on now.
Dehra: What I admire about you, Lorien, is that you are actively creating your life. And you are, too, Maytal. You are actively making your life happen versus sitting back and being a passive heroine.
Lorien: Living a passive life is reacting to things that happen to you. Do you think we are paralyzed because of a fear of failure?
Dehra: Yes. What’s the psychological benefit of passivity? I think it is avoiding responsibility.
Lorien: So that you can tell yourself the story of, "It wasn’t my fault.”
Dehra: I also think that, sometimes, you really don’t think you can do something. I think some of it is basic self-doubt.
Jim Carrey once said that in the late ‘80s he had nothing to his name, but he was like, "I want to be a successful actor. I have all the things I want, I just don’t have them right now." So, he wrote himself a check for $10 million and vowed to earn that in three years’s time. And three years later, he got $10 million for Dumb and Dumber.
Lorien: You have to be specific about what you’re looking for. You need to be talking about what you want, because when you say it aloud you become accountable for it. That is telling failure to fuck off, which is terrifying. Because I am saying, "I am writing this check to myself for $10 million and I’m letting everyone know." It can happen, but what if it doesn’t? And that's why we don't proclaim our intentions in that way.
Dehra: When you share your intentions with someone, it has this beautiful drag effect that lifts you up.
I feel like it's also not being afraid of changing. We all evolve. It’s about being okay with saying, "I wanted that then, but now I want this.”
Lorien: It’s the “So what?!” piece. It’s not just admitting failure and talking about it—it’s like, "So what?! Then, what happens? What is the work you are going to go back and do?”
What is the best piece of advice you would give?
Lorien: For me, it’s identifying what that big dream is. What that beacon is. Not letting someone else say, "Oh, you’re a director," or "Oh, you're a writer.” But more important than that, is to be curious all the time about how you work, about how other people work. Just to keep hold of that curiosity. That is something kids have so naturally, but it’s sort of blanched out of us over time.
Dehra: I just heard a therapist say that curiosity is the antidote to judgment. Curiosity may be a brain state that you can recognize as being free of story. You’re not judging, you are just exploring.
As for advice, I would say celebrate the active choice. That has been the most transformative thing in my life, that I'm picking something to try and not being reflexive. The life you end up with is way more fun and way more engaging.
Maytal: My advice is maybe more practical: Strive to be the best. Do not be complacent where you are. There are so many writers I meet who are like, "I wrote this one thing, this is the thing." I am like, "Oh no, you’ve got to write 20 more things, and then maybe it will be thing." A lot of people have unrealistic expectations; they don’t know how hard work really is. I don’t want to say people are lazy, but they’ll be like, "But I want to enjoy the weekend. I want to go to the beach." Then that is what you will do the rest of your life. You will go to the beach. Do beyond what you think the work is.
You should be working so hard that you’re a magnet for other people. Everyone should want to be around you because you are going places. Ninety percent of the people I meet are not living that life, and that’s a first step to not making it.
Listen to I Failed, So What!?!
Photography by Magdalena Wielopolski ©