We have all failed.

No matter how successful a person or company might be overall, there is not a single example -- historical or current -- of one that has not experienced failure of some variety at some point in their existence.



Yet, we still stress about it.

 Some studies would even suggest social anxieties are actually rising within the general population. This is a story about why those anxieties are rising, and what creative professionals have that could help us all to cope: a healthy relationship with the concept of “failure.”

The goal is to empower people to rise above the newly emerging  negative byproducts of our technological successes and help them to cope better with negative feedback.

The following ideas are a result of a series of documentary style interviews with creative professionals about the role of failure in their process. They were recorded over the course of one year and distilled into actionable advice for the new wave of people who now have to function as “brands."


For those of you already thinking “TLDR” let me break it down for you:
This story is told in a few parts, feel free to jump around:



Our Collective Social Identity Crisis.

 WTF are we talking about?


We live in a world that is trending toward self-employment.

Independent contractors now make up 31% of the private workforce. This rise in independent workers brings with it an increased need for people to give serious consideration to their “personal brand.” 

Why does this matter? It means people have to act more like brands now. Especially if they want to be competitive professionally – and especially, when  communicating online. 

This need was born out of the invention of social media.  As our technology has advanced, interpersonal online interactions have become more sophisticated, increasing reputation management demands related to social media use. In many social and professional circles, it’s a standard expectation that an individual maintain at least one account on a platform where the goal is to curate one's life or career.

Personally, it is a choice for people to put themselves on social media as a presence.

Professionally it’s really not a choice anymore because that’s where you are contacted,
that’s what you have to do, that is your portfolio.
— Karen Eubank • Psychotherapist

In light of all of this, it can be argued that Social Media is altering our personal and professional relationships with the concept of “failure”, the same way it has altered our relationship with “media” – because it is changing the way we think about "the self". Devices, and the applications they support, are no longer just computer programs: in a way, they are now an extension of our consciousness and therefore directly connected to our "identities".

Social media has become a space in which we form and build relationships, shape self-identity, express ourselves, and learn about the world around us; it is intrinsically linked to mental health.
— Shirley Cramer CBE, Chief Executive, RSPH



Social platforms don't really differentiate between "people" and "products".

They just connect the likes.   


Though it was not the original intention, by this iteration it can be argued that social media de-humanizes people by design.

It deconstructs a person's online identity into a system of triggers – informed by however liberal the user is with the like button – and aligns it with keywords associated with advertisements. It creates a user experience that can be likened to a cattle chute that ends at 

To better understand the impact that social media really has, it helps to know the basics of how it works. Here is a brief explanation from an expert, complete with cat memes and Star Wars references: 

All it wants to do is give me information that I want to interact cute cat, cute cat, cute cat, Star Wars.
— chris o'neill Enterprise Software Expert and Game Designer

How it works in a nutshell:


This kind of audience segmentation does a couple of things for brands...

Many organizations have chosen to turn to methodologies designed to leverage direct access to consumer feedback. The resulting organizational movement is commonly referred to as "fail fast culture", because the goal is often to put something "imperfect" into the world and then use the resulting feedback to improve it.

The thought process behind these methods support the idea that, by asking the customer for feedback, a company can meet their needs faster and therefore increase the probability of success for a given product over time.  While the validity of these methodologies is still being debated across multiple industries, the movement has taken on a life of it’s own -- and saw a notable rise in popularity during the rise of Social Media.

Fail fast culture depends on one fundamental thing: tapping into customer insights to evolve products and services to meet demands as quickly as possible. It's this very idea that gives social media it's power, because it is designed specifically to farm those customer insights (from users - like you!). 

It also does some things to people...


Even former leaders from the industry see problems with social media:


Acknowledge that these things, where you are spending hours a day, are re-wiring your psychology and physiology in a way that now you have to use to figure out how to go and be productive in the commercial world.
— Chamath Palihapitiya • Early Facebook Developer

There is evidence of some nasty side effects to this social media phenomenon. 

One survey found that 62% of people reported feelings of inadequacy in their own life that were directly correlated to their social media use. Another by the Royal Society for Public Health found direct correlations to increased anxiety and depression. 

In light of all of this, it can be argued that Social Media is changing the way we express our identities. In effect, it is altering our perception of "self" the same way it has altered our relationship with “media”.  

When you comment on another user's content, you are not just commenting on their online "stuff" anymore – you are also commenting on an expression of their identity. 


This is where creative professionals can help:   

Artists and athletes, have dealt with this for centuries. 

They "ARE" their product , the same way people have to "BE" brands now.
This forces them to have to get as creative when processing  feedback, as they do in their work. 


If you don't like being reduced to a product, try acting more like a brand. 

Artists and athletes have to function as brands in addition to functioning as every day humans. Sure, being a functional brand does not always equate to being a functional human, but the important takeaway is that there is a distinction made between "self" and "brand."

If you watched that last video you were probably struck by the following sentiment. 

(If you didn't no judgements, I skip stuff like that all the's like I've been trained to be impatient by social platforms, or something.)

I think that the fail-fast approach works in consumer internet businesses, but I don’t think it works for anything that matters
— Chamath Palihapitiya • Early Facebook Developer

This is an important sentiment, because it is true if you believe that people matter. 

...if you don't believe that, maybe take a moment to remember that YOU are people too...

When a person is forced to process feedback about themselves the same way a brand would, they become more easily manipulated. Manipulation is what the feedback cycle was designed for – to mold products and brands in the image of positive customer perceptions. If people do not take the time to differentiate between "brand" and "self", the result is...what we see happening now.

How do creative professionals cope?

There are two things to know when processing negative feedback: your audience, and yourself.

What artists and athletes can teach entrepreneurs about failing fast.


It is easy to get lost in the space between yourself and your work.

It's what drives artists to do things like dismember themselves. 

To cope, artists often develop a strategy for processing negative feedback. This allows them to separate their ego from their work, and do what is necessary to improve their craft, while preserving the foundations of their personal identity. The specifics of the strategy tend to vary by artists, shaped by personal experience. Here is an exercise to help simulate the kind of thought process that typically results:

The following remarks are real pieces of negative feedback professional artists have encountered in their career.

Click and drag the center line to see how these professionals turned this potentially devistating feedback into something they could use to improve. 



Curate your experiences, instead of your "self".

A lot of the pressures that come from this constant exposure to feedback have to do with self-image. Balancing perceptions of "self" with perceptions of "brand" is a constant struggle, even for creative professionals. 

One coping mechanism is to look to the past experiences of others to help guide decisions – especially when there is something to be learned from another professional's struggle. Below is a gallery of anecdotes from creative professionals about their favorite professional failures and how they define failure within the context of what they do. Listen to the many ways that things have gone wrong for other people, and learn from what they did to make it right. 

Maybe listening to each other more can help combat the rising anxiety:


These are just some of the stories that inspired the one you just read. 
Stay tuned to my blog: there are more to come. 

Visit the blog to listen as artists, athletes, and entrepreneurs tell their stories (with a few technology and psychology experts sprinkled in there too). Learn from their past encounters with "failure" as well as from their perspective on moving forward. 


"And now that you don't have to be perfect, you can be good."

-John Steinbeck

Thanks for Listening. 




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