Xenogenesis: A Lesson in Failing Well

The young filmmakers, riding on the coattails of the Star Wars’ success, convinced their investors they could match that achievement. Xenogenesis, a 12-minute B-movie sci fi short, never quite made it to a feature length. Its director, cast & crew had little to no experience. They were driven by the creativity that comes from ambition and enthusiasm. They dedicated the assiduous around-the-clock passion that only comes with aspiration; working on building futuristic models, sci fi scenes and special effects into the wee hours, only to fall asleep on their set. In spite of all of this effort the project failed miserably, the financial backers bailed, and the picture was scraped.

You would have never known that the inexperienced director at the helm would go on to make some of the greatest modern contributions to the sci fi canon. As I write this piece, James Cameron’s Avatar just picked up nine Oscar nominations (including, best pic & best director). The film has already claimed overall global box office records as it rapidly moves toward surpassing the U.S. domestic record holder Titanic. If Cameron claims it, successfully besting himself, he can conceivably put another ten-year gap between himself and his Hollywood competition. Moreover, Avatar is a technological masterwork, which if just a fraction of the buzz surrounding the affect of its innovation proves true, it will redefine movie going as we know it.

Beyond the lessons imparted by the film, Avatar is a lesson in failing well. If Cameron had thrown in the towel after Xenogenesis was trashed he would have never gone on to write & direct Terminator 1 & 2, Aliens or to redefine film as we know it! Cameron was able to use the footage to land his first industry job, turning what could have a career ending failure into the start of a legacy.

Here it is,  Cameron’s Xenogenesis, you’ll notice early prototypes for some of the Terminator technology:

Overcomplification Series (5 of 5): Play, Experiment & F**k up well

Goals are not a cure all for everything that ails you. They are not mana from heaven. They will not remove blemishes or clean red wine stains from white upholstery (unless your goals are to remove blemishes or clean red wine stains from white upholstery). As hard a sell as I have given goal setting, there are two points that should be made.

First, effort is required. The best-laid plans just lay there without work. It seems self-evident, but I still feel it need be said.

Second, you are going to screw up. Yep. Even if your goal is to be perfect, you aren’t going to make it. The original title of this series was how to NOT write & produce your play in five easy steps. In the past four years, instead of writing my play, I helped establish a theatre group, orchestrated fundraisers, found co-producers, directed a show and so on, with very little writing. I have also overextended myself on freelance writing projects, took on assignments that didn’t actually advance me professionally, and ended up unemployed twice.

In short, in spite of goal setting I have messed up a lot, but more importantly, I have learned from those failings. This entry is about learning through Play, Experimenting & F**king up well to manage and learn from mistakes (even big ones, like accidentally starting another Chicago theatre group).

Play: While I was working on this entry, I attended an event Embracing the Physical | Digital Divide at IDEO: A Design & Innovation Consulting Firm. Speakers & audience alike were very geeked by the possibilities inherent in design (admittedly, I was there because I’d been geeked by the possibilities inherent in design after having read Dan Pink’s A Whole New Mind). I was impressed by the presentations, demonstrating a creative convergence between art, engineering, marketing, and invention— (seriously, what is not to be excited about?)—but, what really impressed me is how much fun these folks seemed to have. Even scrambling under the pressure of a virtually impossible two-week deadline pulling virtually impossible hours to make it happen, they seemed to be having a blast.

They embody the spirit of play. Psychiatrist Edward Hallowell writes in his book CrazyBusy about how technology invokes that in many of us:

Watch people on their cell phones or Blackberrys as they walk down Fifth Avenue or wait in airport lounges; there’s still a little bit of a kid at play in there. Talk on the phone as you walk down the street? Awesome, dude! Way cool. I can’t believe I can really do this! Look at those people walking by me looking at me as I talk on my phone….

Watch the stock trader multitasking, shifting from his phone to his email to the streaming stock quotes on his Bloomberg to typing on his PC to talking to someone who pops his head in the door. This orchestration of activities in nothing if not thrilling, at least for most people who do it (& call it work)… Watch the journalist putting together an article, finding in milliseconds on a Google search what used to take hours or days to research, cutting and pasting in seconds what used to take many minutes and painstaking attention to accomplish.

When I was out-of-work awhile back, I got sick of interviewers asking: “So, you’re a writer, what else do you do?” If it had happened once, I’d have written it off, but that it happened repeatedly— something was going on here.

They were talking, of course, about new media. I didn’t catch on right a way that the fangled interweb stuff that I was doing for fun was what they were asking about in interviews. When it finally clicked (after a rather painful interview experience), I subscribed to Wired and got busy… playing. I learned all the toys, tools, gadgets, and wa-hoo-ees that I could get my apps on. Now that my job actually involves Facebook-ing this is even truer than it was during my bout of unemployment, but maintaining a spirit of play is critical to keeping a level head about it. In fact, I am writing this entry right now because one of my close friend’s, John and I have been playfully “competing” (mostly against ourselves) for who is the most consistent blogger.

Don’t take my word for it though, here is IDEO founder Tim Brown talking about the link between creativity & play at the last TED conference:

Experiment: Goal setting itself, for me, was an experiment. The subsequent yearlong replication & even this ambitious five-year plan, both are experiments. I conduct random experiments with my life all the time, which end up helping improve it or getting abandoned quickly. I started applying David Allen’s Getting Things Done, as an experiment two-years ago (I am still applying many of the techniques), but if I hadn’t been able to apply them, they’d quickly be forgotten. I am applying Richard Wiseman’s Luck Factor (download a .pdf copy here) to my life right now as an experiment. This blog is an experiment.

The beauty of experimentation is that you can be uncommitted to a lifestyle change. It takes the pressure off of personal transformation. You introduce small tools, techniques or skills into your life, like the trial order on a TV shopping program, but return it with a lot less hassle if it doesn’t pan. That is how I was able to ply so many therapeutic techniques to my daily living as a counselor (see PART 1 for details). Experiment allowed me to try a technique for a little bit, choosing which to commit too, adopt and teach with no loss when the rest were abandoned.

F**k up well: Seth Godin’s rapid-read The Dip is slim enough to devour in half a sitting. The theme encourages readers to make it through the drudge, take risks and learn from mistakes. That, Godin contends is a recipe for success.

My takeaway from starting a theatre group, instead of writing a play, was simply that there are no shortcuts. In some convoluted way, trying to launch a Chicago-theatre group seemed like a quicker, easier route to getting my play on stage than writing, submitting, participating in fests and actually working the scene. It should seem self-evident, but it took 6-months of traipsing in the wrong direction to catch on. It makes sense, it seems easier to land a producer and do-it yourself than to pay your dues. The drudge, the work, the slogging through, the getting-there—that is Godin’s Dip!— and it pays off far more in the long run than a quick fix would.

The term overcomplification, to which this series owes its title, comes from author Stephen Graham Jones, http://www.stephengrahamjones.net. Also, Wired just ran a fantastic story with “Jack Donaghy” on the cover that is all about failing well. It is a great read and well worth checking out. The themes surveyed in this series will be visited again in this blog.