TAKEAWAY: Set your goals pretentiously high, because even in failure you can achieve great things.
Don’t aim too, high, we’re told. What if you fail?
So what if I do?
Talk to any successful inventor or technological innovator, and she’ll tell you how many times she fell flat on her face before achieving that breakthrough discovery. But does the same logic hold true with an artistic pursuit?
Yes. This wisdom was shared with me by one of the creatives I interviewed on my 35-state cross-country road trip this summer, in which I interviewed dozens of artists and creators. In Philadelphia, I was welcomed into the home of Hugo- and Nebula-award-winning novelist Michael Swanwick. You can spend a few minutes with him in a video I produced (at the bottom of this blog post). His humor comes through in the video, but the story I’m about to share did not make the video.
Michael spent years pursuing one ambition — to write a science-fiction novel. After several years he achieved that goal, and had his first book published with a respected publisher of paperback originals. But he said there was another unknown writer in his field by the name of William Gibson, whose ambition was a bit broader.
Gibson, Michael told me, wanted to “rewrite the syntax of science fiction so that you’d never be able to write the old way again.” The result of Gibson’s experiment was “Neuromancer.” Gibson didn’t rewrite the syntax of his genre, Michael said, but he did write one of the most influential and impressive science fiction works ever published.
“It’s hard when you’re unpublished to aim that high,” Michael said, “but that’s the best thing you can do for yourself. Aim as high as you can. Be as pretentious as you can. Try to rewrite world literature. And the greater your ambition, the better your failure.”
As I pushed on from Michael’s house, about twenty-five more interviews and states ahead of me, these words lingered in my head. The artists I met consistently opened themselves to me, sharing their personal goals, often largely unstated to the larger world. Some of the goals seemed a bit outlandish. Some of them seemed, to the left side of my brain, ridiculously unattainable.
But they all understood Michael’s lesson. You can never aim too high.