Consider this : be a failed artist

Emma Shell Go broke, get lost, run out of gas, lose your job, watch your beautiful plan go down the drain…

Jams arched an eyebrow.

“Izzat supposed to make you a better person? Like zen or…just busted. Bobby McGee, as in.”

No. No, man, I don’t think I am any better a person. Or leastways it’s not about becoming any kind of person.

It’s kind of, see, like until you run outta gas that one time the idea of running outta gas is pretty bleak. That little needle dipping below the line is life-and-death for five miles. Forget even thinking about losing a job. in. this e-co-no-my.

It’s all lousy. None of it fun. Those folks who cheer you to fail faster don’t mention that failing sucks. Bigtime.

The thing is, once it happens, it’s happened. You still sleep. Find a way to eat somehow. Are still capable of laughing at the dumb things your friends do. And you get yourself somewhere a little less bad. Start making a new plan.

Heck, even without trying, life will hand you these “opportunities” in abundance…but it won’t make you a failed artist.

I loved being an artist. Breathed it. It’s what I was. But I was always terrified of becoming a failed artist. Couldn’t stand the idea of going broke doing it. No money in it. No way to make a living. Loved it so much I was scared to death to even try to be it.


So I gave it up. Never gave myself a chance to fail at it. Tried to be something more conventional. Something ‘with a future’…and searched twenty years looking for what else I was supposed to be.

I never did find that out. But I did find a lot of ways to be a kind-of, almost-visible, in-cognito artist impersonating something else.

And all that other stuff still happened to me.

How much more fun life can offer if we allow ourselves to be instead of trying to be something. In 37 days or 350 you’ll be what you are. You can’t go too broke remembering that.

-Jeremy Reynolds

And that is why I love Jeremy B.B. Reynolds.

I am gathering wisdom from the far corners of the earth to give my older daughter, Emma, as she graduates from high school. What would you say to her? Or to your own 17-year-old self? What thoughts would you ask her to consider? You can submit your advice (instructions here) and 37 of those will be posted over the next 37 days, one each day, culminating in a free e-book of all the submissions after her graduation on June 14th.

[drawing by Emma Ptak]


  1. Wow. What exquisite timing, seeing this on this particular day.

    I’d say it’s quite a coincidence, but I don’t believe in coincidence.

    Gifts, though. I totally believe in gifts.

    So, thank you, Patti. And thank you, Jeremy.

  2. Beautiful insight. I made a career with a ‘future’ and after twenty years it all fell apart. Now I am living close to the street in Chicago writing poetry and performing – what I always really wanted to do. You are right about life handing you what you need – if you are honest with yourself and your art. But it takes clarity which becomes difficult when things get rough. And actually – the fear itself enriches your art beyond anything you might achieve safely. Who knows what tomorrow may bring?

  3. This is most exactly everything. This is most exactly right.

    Going for broke. Because broke comes anyway.

  4. I’m not so much afraid of being an artist…I’m afraid of being the artist that gets hit by the UHaul Trailer, because my ear plugs were working too well.

  5. This is it exactly–fearing disappointment stops us in our tracks. So there we are hiding and not doing AND disappointment happens anyway. And we live through it. And often go right back into hiding…

  6. I love this post. It reminds us to let go of control and accept that failure is a part of life, a part of success too.

    It has inspired this comment, which is more to other kids who are graduating, than to Emma. I hope you and Emma don’t mind.

    From where many come from, failure is an expected part of life. Not being admitted, not being given recognized and successful mentors, not not not- have not.
    So this question of “Will I fail and Survive?” doesn’t come up. It’s a given. Yeah, you’ll survive. And some who come from “I don’t have it like that” tell ourselves early on, “I can live this entire life without the experience of prison”. It’s a huge accomplishment to stay out of prison, when every male you grew up around and some of the females, did time. Running out of gas, the electricity being shut off, school classrooms with scared teachers and no books… in these United States, there are far too many who read the privilege in this post and wonder what it’s like to wish failure on yourself, because it is so unlikely.
    To those kids who are graduating from high school across the tracks I say:
    Listen to this post by Mr. Reynolds and know this equation: That survival you learned while growing up= a gift, a privilege. That laughter in the face of poverty= a strengthening tool and a privilege. Falling in love when you don’t have a bed to rest on= poverty’s mentorship. Bless that gift of survival as you let it go and learn to ask for what those who have a different kind of privilege ask for. You are entitled to that. Repeat after me, “Prison? That’s something I can live this whole life without experiencing, thank you very much!” And even if you do find yourself living part of this life experience behind bars, know that you can survive it, like the water being shut off, your mothers exhaustion, no vegetables in the neighborhood stores, no flowers guiding your walk home from a school with money for metal detectors, but not books. You can survive and even thrive that and any horror life contains.
    “Prison? That’s something I can live this whole life without experiencing, thank you very much!”
    I hope you’ll exercise your liberty like the muscle it is.
    No matter what, be grateful for the privilege you have as you transcend survive to thrive.

  7. I think that you will soon not only have a wonderful manuscript of life lessons and wisdom to give to Emma, celebrating this next chapter of her life – - – but you may also have a book to publish so that the rest of us can give it as a meaningful gift to our own graduates.

  8. For 50 years I was afraid. No more! Emma’s drawing is exquisite! I did not know she had this talent.

  9. Is this an Emma drawing? That would be lovely. :-)

  10. This so speaks to me today! I have resisted creating art in so many forms because it was not “perfect” or not what I thought art should be… but it just should BE!