The F Word: How Failure Can Lead to Success
Who She Is: Fifteen years ago, artist Lily Yeh gave up on trying to make it in the art world. It was the 1980s, and as former classmates from the University of Pennsylvania graduate program were winning Guggenheim fellowships, Yeh was getting a form letter of rejection for every application she sent out. Almost without meaning to, she started a small park project on art in one of North Philadelphia's most drug-infested neighborhoods, and it blossomed into the Village of Arts and Humanities, a nonprofit organization that builds community through art both locally and around the world, in places as various as Nairobi, the Republic of Georgia, and Ecuador. As Yeh looks back, she believes that original park site was simply her destiny.
Her Failure Story: "My career was a big flop. I had been trained in the Chinese scholar painting tradition and I was just struggling. I remember Rilke in Letters to a Young Poet. He said, 'Don't write poetry unless you'll die if you don't.' I was searching—and I didn't know for what. The first grant I ever got was this funding to make an art park out of a trash-filled lot. I had a huge lot. I was scared. I wanted to bow out. I thought, 'You're Chinese, you're a woman, you're in the drug-infested badlands, you don't have the skills, you haven't even heard about community building before.'
As I was getting ready to write a letter of resignation, a voice in me said, 'You have to rise to the occasion or the best in you will die.' We always have that voice; we just have to make a choice to listen to it. We all have it; that's God's given light. It's just whether you have the courage to step into your destiny.
Through the Village, I am connected to a deeper source. It's not for recognition or reward or money. We are still not recognized as art for art's sake. We're seen as art for the purpose of building community. But that's not my problem. If I don't do this, I die inside.
If I had been very successful—lots of sales and tons of money— the success might have been so glamorous and the profit so great that it would have made me not listen to my inner voice. I would maybe have been seduced by success in the world. Failure was a protection for me.''
Subject #4: Carol Venezia
Who She Is: Carol Venezia has exhibited her series of photographs on American boxers, Italian craftsmen, and living saints around the world. She lives in New York with her second husband, painter Michael Venezia. They have a lively marriage, full of laughter and adventure and tremendous respect for each other's art. They've been married for 21 years and have a college-age son. Carol says with no uncertainty, "The success of my second marriage has a tremendous amount to do with the failure of the first."
What She Told Us: "I had been hanging on to this marriage, hanging on to my hopes for it."
Her Failure Story: "The deal with my first marriage was that I would go to graduate school at the Rochester Institute of Technology and my husband would support me, and then he would go to graduate school. He hated the city. He ended up getting a job out of town, and things deteriorated quickly from there on. We were going to therapy and trying to work it out and he was writing me letters philosophizing about how we were soul mates, but we should be like Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, who didn't live in the same place but had this lifelong love. Which was convenient for him, but I really needed his financial support. I needed his emotional support.
I finished my graduate work and I had to find a teaching job somewhere. I was nervous. I knew things weren't great between us, but I was assuming we would work it out. I called and said, 'I'm job-hunting. And I don't quite know where to start. Where should I look?'
And he said to me, 'If you find a job somewhere I like, I'll come. And if you don't, I won't.'
Something in that was the final straw for me. In my mind, my marriage ended at that moment and I knew I was going to move on. It was like my spirit, my inner self, was speaking to me really clearly, which it hadn't been doing. I had been hanging on to this marriage, hanging on to my hopes for it. And I was trying to adapt to all his ideas of being separate but together. But it didn't fit for me. It didn't make me happy.
The bad news was my marriage was ending, but the good news was I was doing what I wanted to do in photography, being nourished artistically for the first time in my life. So I got a job in the New York area and started seeing Michael, who was an artist. I was terrified to open my heart to him. But even though I was an emotional wreck, I felt stronger as a person. So I could be with this powerful man, who was a challenge and an equal, not one of the troubled boys I'd always been the caretaker for.
At that time in my life I was really broke. I'd had surgery recently; I had student loans and a broken-down old car. One of the first things Michael did was to hand me $100 to get the car fixed. It was like, 'Here—no strings attached.' I just wept. I don't think anyone had ever done something like that for me in my life. Even my parents. It was a real turnaround.
The hard part was giving up on my first marriage, acknowledging its failure. I was trying to hang on to the positive things. And maybe I learned that from my mother, who hung on to what I think was a failure in terms of a marriage. Certainly the message I got from my mother was: You don't give up. But it was the failure of my first marriage that led to my resolve to be with someone as different and unknown as Michael—and to say, 'I'm going to make this leap. Even though it scares me, it's for good reasons.' I finally said, 'Wait a minute, I'm not going to hold back my life for a dream that hasn't worked out.'"
Confront Your Failures and Flaws With Confidence: