On quitting, failing, and, “I find a lot of people who should quit don’t”

I recently posted my friend Vin’s blog post at Hacker News, where it sparked a lot of discussion. In particular, one comment by rcme stood out to me:

I find a lot of people who should quit don’t. Their taste becomes compromised and they fall in love with their own work. I have high school friends who have dedicated the first 10-20 years of their adult lives to artistic pursuits. Some have succeeded and some have failed. What’s interesting, to me, is that it was already clear who was going to make it in high school, but some people just didn’t know when to quit. The common factor among those who failed was that they felt their work was good, i.e. it met their “taste”, when a neutral observer could plainly see it wasn’t very good.

This observation is incredibly powerful, and resonates both emotionally and intellectually with me because it addresses a core tension: quitting your creative work. 

I highly disagree with the notion that, “A lot of people who should quit don’t,” as well as falling in love with their own work (e.g., Lil’ Wayne listens only to his own music), although I do appreciate the benefits of quitting and would propose a different perspective altogether on art and creative work:

When “quitting” doesn’t mean giving up

There is a lot of emotional resonance to the notion of quitting, often associated with disappointment, regret, and defeat. The truth is, quitting can be a really valuable thing to do; perhaps even the best decision a person can make. Annie Duke wrote an incredibly insightful book about quitting, including the shame associated with quitting and how perseverance is often framed inaccurately as a virtue. 

In particular, Duke writes: 

When we are in the losses, we become risk seekers. We want to keep going, hoping we can avoid ever having to realize the loss. Daniel Kahneman has characterized this as sure-loss aversion. In other words, we like to stick when we’re behind.

In one of rcme’s subsequent posts, he writes:

I was thinking about this particular issue recently because a good friend, one who falls squarely into the “should have quit” category, has recently become homeless.

I can see why rcme would make the generalization, “I find a lot of people who should quit don’t.” No person interested in art sets out to become homeless; it’s just that the passion that drives them is so strong that they are willing to endure homelessness—perhaps even death, in some artists’ cases—for dedication to their artistic pursuit. In Hustle Harder, Hustle Smarter, 50 Cent calls this the passion stance: 

Someone with a weak passion stance will probably get knocked over the first time they meet a little resistance. I’m not interested in being around that sort of energy….

Someone with a strong passion stance, on the other hand, will really dig in. Get their feet planted and shoulders squared up. So no matter how hard the world pushes back, or how much negativity gets thrown their way, they ain’t budging an inch….

’Pac committed to his passion the way De Niro committed to his role in Casino or Goodfellas. You could say that ’Pac was so committed that he ultimately paid for it with his life. I’m looking for the same kind of passion in the people I work with. Maybe not putting your life on the line, but at least being willing to consider it. Might sound dramatic, but that level of commitment is often what it takes.

50 would know, too. After selling millions of records, he quit the music game when he found hip-hop had moved on from his work. Similarly, he divested his acting commitments in spite of his passion and skill for it; he’d once lost 50 pounds for a role… in a movie that went direct to DVD. 

The market gave him the feedback he needed, so 50 took his insights and network, and made a show called Power, which was a major hit and launched his career in the film and TV business. Not as a recording artist or an actor, but as an executive. (50 still makes music and acts, just a lot less than before.)

It takes great courage and maturity to quit. Sometimes, that’s the best move. It’ll enable you to try something new, which perhaps suits your passions, skills, and temperament better. 

However, it’s also worth noting that 50 didn’t actually give up music or acting entirely. He just found another way to make it happen. He still acts in his own productions, portraying the role of Kanan in Power, and bundles in the music for it (see The Kanan Tape). 

There is no quitting; persevering means surviving and self-care first

There’s no shortage of examples of people who took decades before they were able to fully emerge into their artistic career, or got the break they needed. Angela Álvarez wrote songs in secret, and won her first Grammy at 95. Beeple worked a day job as a graphic designer. Here’s a listicle of others—including Toni Morrison, Morgan Freeman, Ang Lee, Junot Díaz, and Vincent van Gogh.

I recently came across James Harris’s description of William Blake:

“Despite the poverty and thanks to the support of his spouse, he kept going and lived until 69 while assembling a huge body of work. He must, as his paintings did not sell or sold as curios and the only reviewer of his only exhibition described him as a ‘lunatic’, have felt bitterness; yet towards the end of his life he was still able to wish a young girl who he met “May God make this world to you, my child, as beautiful as it has been to me.”

It’s this attitude that exemplifies perseverance at its most admirable and idyllic; an artist gave it their full effort, appreciates the implicit reward of the creative process, and is grateful for the opportunity to create the work.

Perhaps in some cases, quitting needs to be redefined, or reframed, as creating a life. Even art and work are just two aspects of a life. The extremities are framed as homelessness or do a soul-crushing job; the realities are much more vibrant and rich with possibility.

In an essay that remains in my drafts, I wrote: 

I came across this story on [T.S. Eliot working full-time as a clerk at Lloyd’s bank], through poet Dana Gioia’s paper for The Hudson Review, entitled, “Business and Poetry,” which made a set of observations about poets with careers. Gioia himself started a business career at General Foods, where he eventually became vice president of marketing…. 

If he were writing the paper today, Gioia might’ve also added recording artist John Legend (who worked as a management consultant at Boston Consulting Group, before Ye discovered his musical work and provided him with a record deal), illustrator and author Gene Luen Yang who worked as a high school teacher, Dilbert author Scott Adams who worked at Pacific Bell, businesswoman and YouTube personality Cristine Rotenberg works a full-time job at Statistics Canada

I recently also came across Off-White founder and Louis Vuitton menswear designer Virgil Abloh saying, “Before I met [Kanye], I wasn’t even interested in being creative. I thought I was just going to work some regular job. My background is in architecture, so I was really going to be that.” (I recently wrote about some of my favorite Virgil Abloh quotes here.)

As another example, Ke Huy Quan’s acting career started early; he played Short Round in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom when he was a young boy. The industry had few roles for him though, and he had to quit acting, taking a job as a stunt choreographer. Decades later, at 49, he found his breakthrough role in Everything, Everywhere, All at Once.

Outside income can feed artistic integrity

In any case, all of these artists who gained recognition have one thing in common: they took on full-time work commitments outside of their art to pay the bills. They needed to put food on the table.

The insight is, worrying about money wasn’t going to serve their artistic practice, so they didn’t allow that to happen. Perhaps inverting that statement helps too:

Not worrying about money can serve your artistic practice, because you don’t need to think about what happens to the art. You can just focus on the process.

Perhaps many of us would be better served if we came to appreciate that the image of “the art life” isn’t mandatory to create art. It’s not “the art life,” or “no life at all,” but something more in the middle. You can work a professional career or a day job, and still have a thriving art career. 

P.S., A tangential note on van Gogh: In spite of Vincent van Gogh’s exceptional skill and talent, he died of suicide, broke and alone, with his final words, “The sadness will last forever.” When asked if Vincent van Gogh failed, rcme writes, “Most people aren’t Vincent van Gogh.”

I’d propose that Vincent van Gogh definitively did not fail at his art, not because of the significant legacy or commercial value it has now, but because it brought him purpose and joy. As Maria Popova says beautifully:

A number of artists are bedeviled by serious mental illness that makes them experience actual, real anguish in their lives and I have written, by the way, about the relationship between creativity and mental illness, if you’re curious. It’s far more complex than we realize. You can find that online. 

But, in any case, the reality of that is that, without their art, all of these artists would have suffered more. One of my big, big, big pet peeves is when someone, say, comments on Van Gogh’s letters to his brother – which are absolutely beautiful and full of so much wisdom and light – and somebody says, “Oh, well, why should we heed Van Gogh when he ultimately perished by his own madness?” 

Well, how many people are there, in the history of the world, who perish by their own madness and didn’t paint “The Starry Night”?

Van Gogh’s art didn’t take his life – it redeemed it.

Without it, he would have just been an average, unkempt, mentally ill man who died miserable in a small village. 

With it, he was able to experience moments of transcendent joy and meaning which also happened to produce some of the greatest, most lasting works of art of all time. 

And, of course, Van Gogh is an extreme case, both in his talent and in his misery but his life illustrates why every great artist – and I mean artist in the broadest sense of a human being creating work that makes other human beings feel something meaningful – why every great artist does what they do. 

That’s the key to both their consistency and their greatness. So, if you’re looking for a formula for greatness, the closest we’ll ever get, I think, is this: consistency driven by a deep love of the work.

Van Gogh’s work makes him one of the world’s greatest artists (according to Britannica!), and it gained the recognition it deserves largely through the dedicated work of his sister-in-law Johanna van Gogh-Bonger. Without Jo van Gogh-Bonger’s work, it’s possible that Vincent van Gogh’s work would remain less recognized, or even obscure. Most people don’t have publicists like Johanna van Gogh-Bonger. If you don’t, you’ll need to learn to promote your own work, your own way.

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