The art of failure


There are no two words in the English language more harmful than “good job”.
— Terrance Fletcher in Whiplash (2015)

This time last year, I walked out the cinema in a complete stupor. Granted, I was somewhat woozy from the cough medicine I’d been virtually inhaling all day (didn’t realise it contained ethanol—always read the label, people), but I had also just experienced one of the most astounding cinematic moments of my life: the Oscar-winning Whiplash.

Here’s the basic plot: Andrew Neiman, an ambitious drumming student at an elite jazz conservatory in New York is mentored by a conductor, Terrance Fletcher, who will stop at nothing to push his students towards musical perfection. The film was so relentless, so gut-wrenchingly provocative, that I felt its impact echoing long after I left the cinema.

There was something about Whiplash that cut to my core, something that both Neiman and his totalitarian conductor are obsessed with. That is, the pursuit of greatness.

As an actor and fellow artist, I see a lot of myself in Neiman. Many people don’t realise that acting is a discipline. Like music, it requires years of dedication and practice to see improvement. Neiman’s drive struck a chord with me because I too am highly ambitious and competitive; I too long for greatness.

However, fortunately for me and my ego, I’ve not experienced the success I longed for. Although I excelled throughout my education and training, the real world has not been so kind. I’ve become familiar with the concept of failure: I’ve been unemployed more times than I care to remember; I’ve had to ask my parents to bail me out on multiple occasions; and I’ve collated a depressingly bizarre range of jobs over the years, including call centre drone, tutor to the Russian version of Richie Rich, barista for ignorant coffee imbibers, and Official Bog Roll Stacker, all of which involved tasks that could probably have been performed by an intelligent lobster. That was just the ‘day job’. I didn’t envision when I signed up for this theatre malarkey that the most I could hope for was an unpaid role, performed in a converted public toilet to an audience of one.

When you have to come to terms with failure, when you don’t get the recognition you think you deserve, it forces you to shift perspective. As Neiman longs to earn the respect of his laboriously hypercritical instructor, I too yearn for the esteem of my fellow artists. As I’ve grappled with my career disappointments, I’ve seen this longing for what it really was: a meaningless pursuit of my own glory. 

Maybe the pursuit of glory is what gets you up in the morning, and you’re wondering why I consider such a common mentality so futile. I think Whiplash demonstrates this well. Whilst Neiman’s dedication to his art is inspiring, we clearly see the destructive consequences of his incessant need for success. He puts himself in physical danger, his relationships break down, and he becomes as competitive and snarly as Fletcher. In one scene, he boasts, ‘I'd rather die drunk, broke at 34 and have people at a dinner table talk about me than live to be rich and sober at 90 and nobody remembered who I was.’

Neiman’s behaviour may be extreme, but I’m sure many of us can relate. All of us want to matter somehow, so we fill our lives with work, desperate for someone to notice us and acknowledge our achievements. Our culture worships ‘gifted’ individuals who die young: Amy Winehouse, Heath Ledger, and Jimi Hendrix, to name a few. We mourn the great tragedy of their deaths because they produced something astonishing, something truly memorable. After all, none of us want to look back on our lives as mediocre.

But, the problem is, we weren’t meant to be great. Who has ever found satisfaction by chasing after their own glory? There’s this brilliant account in The Bible called Ecclesiastes. It’s like an ancient happiness experiment, The Great Gatsby ahead of its time. In this book, the author, King Solomon, describes how he sought to find contentment through success, toiling more than anyone before him. In the end, this is what he discovers: ‘I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had spent in doing it, and again, all was vanity and a chasing after the wind’ [1]. In failing to attain my own vision of success, I’ve had to face this within myself. All along, I’d been looking for the wrong thing.

The tragedy of Whiplash is that Neiman will never be fulfilled with whatever heights of virtuosity he could attain, because he will always want more. If recent years have taught me anything, it’s that pursuing my own greatness will never bring contentment. The human heart was never made to be satisfied in its own glory; we were made to worship, not to be worshipped. It is no despotic instructor we strive to impress, but a good father, who loves us unconditionally for exactly who we are. I can rest in the knowledge that my ‘good job’, whilst not enough for Fletcher, is more than enough for God. I am no longer defined by success. Suddenly, my life isn’t mediocre; it has all the meaning in the world.


[1] Ecclesiastes 2:11 (New Revised Standard Version)


Questions or comments? Email Naomi