The Fruits of Adversity: Finding Clarity With Failure

Posted by Derick Tsai and A GOOD Sponsor

In 2010 I was in the middle of a failing sabbatical. A couple of years before I had put my successful design studio on hiatus in order to pursue creating my own original content. I loved working for our clients, but there was something inside of me bubbling up, trying to say something and I felt like I owed it to myself to figure out what it was.

I quickly discovered that designing for a client was very different than trying to generate something original from the ground up. I didn’t have a clue where to start, so for two years I sat in a room with The Lord of the Rings Trilogy playing in the background, my cat Lando purring next to me and just drew. I drew steampunk cowboys, musical gods that looked like Tibetan sculptures and cybernetic space marines.

Nothing looked or felt right.

The brutal truth was I had bumped up against the limits of my abilities at the time. I was going to have to drastically up my game in terms of storytelling, design and production methodology if I had any hope of realizing my projects. Like Sam and Frodo, I was in an unfamiliar space and out of my depth. At one point I was reduced to moping around in sweats all day and constantly stressing about running out of money.

While I was spiraling downwards, something woke me up and put everything into perspective. My good friend and fellow concept artist Francis Tsai (no relation) was diagnosed with ALS, more commonly known as Lou Gherig’s Disease. ALS is a motor neuron disease that attacks the nerve cells responsible for voluntary muscle control so it paralyzes you little by little. Unfortunately Francis eventually lost the use of his hands, but thankfully he still had his feet. So he used his feet. He began to create these cool little portraits with his big toe on an iPad. When he lost the use of his feet, he began to create art using technology that scanned the motion of his eye.

The art he was creating was incredible, but what I found most amazing was the way he was handling the adversity he was facing. Every obstacle wasn’t stopping him, but pushing him to a higher level. The resiliency, adaptability and resourcefulness he exhibited in his fight was something I started to apply to my own flagging efforts.

I picked up the pieces of a prior failed project and created Mythika, a fantasy epic inspired by my love of ancient puppetry and mythology. Mythika was the project I felt had the greatest creative potential, but it was also the one that gave me the most problems. I had worked in a realistic style my entire career and switching to something so graphic was a difficult transition. I thought to myself that if I could crack this nut, it would be a great first step in a new direction. When I finally finished the project it looked like the physical manifestation of those first nebulous bubblings I experienced inside of me at the beginning of the entire process. I could feel the tide beginning to turn.

As I showed Mythika to various colleagues and shared Francis’ incredible story with them I realized they all had their own dream projects they wanted to make. Like me, they all had a creative itch they wanted to scratch that wasn’t being fulfilled by their day jobs, so I challenged them to take the leap and do the work that could reinvent their lives. The end result was our book RE:INVENT, which debuted this year at San Diego Comic Con.

I look at Mythika and RE:INVENT as the fruits of my failures, because both projects were possible only after bottoming out. This is going to sound strange, but there’s a certain amount of comfort and clarity that comes with complete failure. You know for certain your old ways of doing things are obsolete and you’re suddenly free to adapt and try new things. For example I changed the way I thought about art and design by switching from a realistic style to a graphically stylized one. I also had to adjust what I saw my role as being in the creative process. When I first started my sabbatical I was hellbent on creating every last element of the work myself so I would have a high degree of ownership over the work. That narrow thinking led me to do things I had no business doing, which severely dispersed my focus and energy. When I let go of my ego and opened up the creative process to other artists with RE:INVENT, that’s when everything took off. Abject failure jolted me out of the rhythms I had built up over the years and gave me an opportunity to look at myself in a different way.

I feel like there’s such an unfair pressure (usually self-imposed) to be perfect every step of the way, when in actuality, failures are a natural byproduct any time we leave our comfort zones and strive for something more. In fact I think they are often the catalyst for our greatest breakthroughs, because we don’t fulfill our potential by just having the big ideas. It’s about what we do when those big ideas don’t work.In the end it’s the getting back up, the second tries, and most importantly what we learn from our mistakes that determine how much of our potential we fulfill.

For some people their talent sits close to the surface and it’s easy to see where they fit in and how they can contribute. There’s an obvious need in the world for what they have to offer. They have a “spot”. For others, like myself, it’s very much a process of trial and error to find the place in the world where our unique talent shines. Falling down along the way is simply part of the discovery process and is something that shouldn’t be feared, but embraced. I believe that if we can use our failures as a tool to learn about ourselves and what we have to offer, we can accomplish more than we could ever imagine.

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