I addressed this topic in an earlier blog post, before I knew about Failcon, or that failure is literally the new success, at least if you “fail upward,” which means letting your failure propel you into a great new venture. In 1976 and the early months of 1977, in our unheated movie palace, which was slowly driving us into mammoth debt, “failing upward” would have seemed like a cruel joke. Even now, forty years later, I’m not sure how I feel about the upward part, but I DID learn a lot in that theater year, that has helped me run or help to run various businesses which have succeeded in paying us a salary. Here’s a glimpse of failure before there were conferences about it, with a few comments on the new cult of falling flat on your face. If you’ve been a follower of this blog for a while, you may recognize the next few paragraphs (from Young Start-Up Entrepreneurs, 8/28/14):
There were no tech start-ups in 1976 — there was hardly any tech to speak of. The most sophisticated thing I had ever heard of was Pong, a slightly monotonous video game, the grandaddy of all such games. It was in black-and-white and consisted of a “ball” bouncing back and forth between two “paddles” — we played it endlessly in the lobby of the the movie palace we were going broke running.
What else were we going to do? A deep recession in the aftermath of the Vietnam War had rendered jobs beyond minimum wage ($2.75 an hour) a rarity. In 1975, New York City itself — yes, the city! — had barely avoided bankruptcy, rescued at the last minute by its teachers’ union, which cashed in a pension fund.
At twenty-seven, I knew two people who had respectable jobs: one was a piano tuner, and the other delivered mail. I took the USPS civil service exam myself, hoping to walk the streets cheerfully with a bag slung over my shoulder. I scored 70 — F was 69. I’d graduated from Hunter College, Summa Cum Laude, but my memory for random lists of names was hardly impressive. I clung for a while to the part-time job that had gotten me through Hunter, teaching children’s after-school art classes, but soon enough it dried up. My husband, at twenty-nine, was already living on the dregs of what had been a brilliant early career in show-biz. Friends, also “creatively unemployed,” were sharing our big old rented house on a hill overlooking New York Harbor in Staten Island.
Down the street a magnificent movie palace had just gone dark for the first time in its long career. What to do but rent it?
If only, before renting the theater, I’d known a few things about movie distributors (Warner, UA and their brethren) who took whatever percentage they wanted of our box office sales and could change the terms of a contract retroactively (“The Exorcist, Triple X” ). If only I’d had a clue what “overhead” is; you can’t expect to make money if your operating expenses are too high — marquee bulbs and carbons for the projectors and carting services and rent, to name a few lead weights. And just because you know something about a business (my husband had a showbiz resume) doesn’t mean that prior experience translates into profit.
Failcon and Medium feature various people who failed for various reasons: a lawyer who went to prison for his failures, a chef who washed out as a marketing consultant to other chefs and restaurant owners. So far nobody has come forward and confessed going bankrupt after trying to run a movie palace, but I’m waiting!
The aforementioned lawyer says he cried the day he entered prison. I cried the afternoon we were forced out of the theater. I didn’t eat popcorn for a long time: it was for me the taste of failure, a bitter taste, not bitter anymore.