How to Fail Like a Pro (Ep. 370)
The road to success is paved with failure, so you might as well learn to do it right. (Ep. 5 of the “How to Be Creative” series.)
Listen and subscribe to our podcast at Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, or elsewhere. Below is a transcript of the episode, edited for readability. For more information on the people and ideas in the episode, see the links at the bottom of this post.
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In our “How to Be Creative” series, we’ve talked to artists, scientists, inventors, and others about their creative process; about having good ideas and, even more important, how to execute those ideas. Today, we’ll hear about a part of the creative process that everyone can relate to — even if you don’t think of yourself as a “creative person.” This is something we all do, probably more than we’d like to admit; it’s something that almost no one enjoys; but it’s an inevitable, and absolutely essential, component of any success. I’m going to let you figure out what it is. Don’t worry, it won’t take long. Let’s start back in the late 1980’s. A young physicist named Saul Perlmutter, at the University of California-Berkeley, was looking around for a good research project.
Saul PERLMUTTER: And at that time I was lucky enough to come across the possibility that we could go back and make a measurement that people had wanted to do ever since the times of Einstein and Hubble, which was the measurement of how much the universe has been slowing down in its expansion over its lifetime.
Ever since Einstein theorized it, and Edwin Hubble observed it, everyone knew the universe was expanding. But another thing everyone knew was that all the matter in the universe — all the galaxies and nebulae and stars and planets and moons and comets and asteroids — all the stuff in the universe has gravitational attraction. So physicists assumed that, eventually, that gravitational attraction would slow down the expansion of the universe. For a physicist, understanding this dynamic was itself an attraction.
PERLMUTTER: If you could measure how much it was slowing, it would tell you a couple really amazing things. Like, first of all, you could find out: is it slowing enough so someday it could come to a halt and then collapse? And this was just before the millennium, so we thought we could walk around with those signs saying “The universe is coming to an end.” But if we found out that it wasn’t, then we would have shown that the universe will last forever. And also we would have shown that we live in an infinite universe. It just seemed like, whatever we found would be a great story, and we’d love to know the answer.
Stephen DUBNER: I have to say, I think the latter headline is much more exciting, personally — not just because of infinity and because long-lasting but it’s optimistic, yes?
PERLMUTTER: Yeah, I think that’s right. You start getting a little personally invested in our universe even though we’re talking about billions of years from now. We sort of would like it to go on, you know.
So you can see why it’d be valuable to measure the rate of the universe’s expansion. But conducting this sort of measurement — even for an astrophysicist — is, well, it’s hard. Saul Perlmutter had an idea. It involved measuring the light coming off of supernovas. But they had to be a particular kind of supernova. And they had to be very far away.
PERLMUTTER: We needed to find these very distant ones because we want to look way back in history. And the further away you look in astronomy, the further back in time you’re getting to see, because it’s taking light that time to travel to you from those very, very distant locations. We needed to look some, three, four, five billion years back in time for us to be able to see the slowing effects that we thought we were trying to track.
Given the specificity of what they needed, and the overall degree of difficulty, Perlmutter know the project would take some time.
PERLMUTTER: We wrote the original proposals saying that we did not expect to be able to find the 30-some-odd supernovae that we would need to make those measurements in anything less than three years. And we thought this was going to be like a long three-year project.
Perlmutter and his team built a tool for this project: a new kind of high-resolution, wide-field digital camera that could be attached to the big telescopes you find in observatories. Now all they had to do was get some time on one of those big observatory telescopes.
PERLMUTTER: Telescope time on these biggest telescopes in the world is really precious.
One observatory, in Australia, was open to a deal.
PERLMUTTER: And we traded the use of that camera for 12-and-a-half nights of telescope time. And so you’re doing everything you can to try to find the time that you’ll need to make the measurements you want. In those 12-and-a-half nights, we got two-and-half nights of good weather.
Two-and-a-half nights of useful telescope time, over three years. Remember, they needed to find “30-some-odd” supernovas to make their measurements. So how many did they find?
PERLMUTTER: At the end of three years, we had not yet found a single supernova.
So, picture that. You started with a quest, a creative scientific idea. Drawing on all the knowledge you’ve amassed over time, and all the knowledge amassed by earlier generations, you formulate a plan of attack. You write the grant proposals; you get the grant. You invent a special tool to facilitate your plan, and use that tool as leverage to gain access to an even more important tool. You’ve done everything possible, and you’ve done everything right. But you know what? You still failed.
PERLMUTTER: At the end of three years, we had not yet found a single supernova.
The failure of Perlmutter’s team was compounded by the fact that there was another team of physicists out there, working on the same problem, using the same technique.
PERLMUTTER: Which meant that we were going to the same telescopes and using the same instruments, and so we passed each other in the airports, you know, going back and forth.
The rivalry was not all that friendly.
PERLMUTTER: It was highly secretive between each other in general. I’d say the competition with each other was a big deal but it’s nothing like the competition with the ways in which the universe is trying to give you a hard time.
“A hard time” meaning instruments breaking; the night sky being cloudy.
PERLMUTTER: It was so hard to get these whole sequence of observations to work in a given semester that had to all run like clockwork. And if anything went wrong, the whole thing would fall apart.
The overall challenge was so difficult, the chance of failure so strong, that Perlmutter’s team and the rival team, led by the astrophysicist Brian Schmidt, would in fact help each other out.
PERLMUTTER: So there were several occasions where our sequence was about to fall apart and the other team would help. So one time we took some observations for that team and similarly there was one time where the other team traded night with us at a telescope so that we could keep our time sequence working.
Years of effort; years of difficulty and uncertainty; years of failure. But in the end, a breakthrough: Perlmutter’s team found the supernovas they were looking for; they were able to get enough observations to take their measurements; and those measurements led them to a surprising result: the expansion of the universe was not slowing down; in fact, it was speeding up. Saul Perlmutter’s team wrote up its findings and, in 2011, was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics — which they shared, by the way, with the other team. The lesson for Perlmutter in all this?
PERLMUTTER: One thing that’s really interesting that it’s important for people to hear sometimes is that a really tough, challenging problem is worth spending a lot of time on, and that you can be learning a lot while you’re trying to get there.
In other words: failure is an inevitable component of success. So in order to bring your creative project to a happy place, you’d better learn to handle failure well — or even better, as Perlmutter suggests, handle it productively. After all, failure provides data: this doesn’t work, that didn’t work, that didn’t work. Great! Now you can cross all those off the list. So what does work?
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This is not the first time we’ve discussed failure on this program. Episode No. 169, from 2014, was called “Failure Is Your Friend.” Episode No. 42, back in 2011, was called “The Upside of Quitting,” and it looked at failure as a signal that it might be time to just move on. But that calculus is very, very tricky: what if you quit too soon? What if all your failures are an unavoidable desert you need to trek through in order to make it to the promised land? In today’s show, we look at the relationship between failure and creativity.
Dean SIMONTON: The number one thing in my view is that people who don’t understand creativity, who are looking at it from the outside, don’t really appreciate how much you have to fail.
Dean Simonton is a University of California psychologist who’s spent decades studying creative genius.
SIMONTON: How many revisions this has to go through. How many masterpieces you put out there, and nobody even buys a copy. Maybe your mom does, whatever. But the failure rate is just horrendous, even for the creative geniuses.
Which genius does Simonton pick as the most successful hitmaker of all time?
SIMONTON: That’s Mozart. And he’s about 60 to 70 percent success rate. Well, you turn it upside down, and that’s a 30 to 40 percent failure rate.
On the other hand, consider Toni Basil. Or Nena. Or the Baha Men. Who? Yes, exactly. Toni Basil brought the world “Mickey.” Nena gave us “99 Luftballons” The Baha Men? How could you forget “Who Let the Dogs Out”?
The Baha Men, Nena, and Toni Basil were some of the biggest one-hit wonders in modern history. Which puts their failure rates a lot higher than Mozart’s. But what happens when you do succeed? Success can raise expectations to a level that’s crippling. The novelist Jennifer Egan had been writing for a couple decades when she had a breakout hit with A Visit From the Goon Squad — which produced, among other things, a Pulitzer Prize. And the book after that?
Jennifer EGAN: I sort of finally got into my new book and at first I was actually having a great time with it. It was really going well, I felt. And I was excited. And then things started to feel rockier and I really started to have serious doubts about whether I could actually pull it off at all. And then, I have to say, I kind of flipped out. I plunged into a state of despair over my work. And I really thought maybe my career was over, that maybe I was kind of ruined by all of this.
DUBNER: Was the problem expectation, then? Was that the barrier?
EGAN: I think the problem was that I actually was struggling with my book because every book is a struggle, especially if you’re pushing yourself. And at a certain point I started thinking about how I would be perceived if the book sucked. And it’s never good to be looking at yourself from the outside in. It’s very difficult to engage creatively when when you know, mean and horrible commentary is flowing through one’s mind. In retrospect, I thought, I was really an abusive boss. I was a boss who was telling her employee, namely me, that I was worthless. And it’s really hard to work in those conditions.
Nico MUHLY: I’m enormously self-critical. I begin and end each day with a litany of things that I consider failures and shortcomings.
Nico Muhly is a composer, the youngest ever to get a commission from the Metropolitan Opera.
MUHLY: Back in the day, it was a combination of self-flagellation and complete emotional neutrality. So, it was like I hated it, but I didn’t care. I didn’t feel anything, like I made this huge opera and I thought it was really good. But literally the sense of achievement was akin to like a successful morning of errands or like I went to the dry cleaner and bought dog food.
That began to change when Muhly started on a new medication.
MUHLY: I had a really dark like mental-health journey involving the wrong medication which I assumed wasn’t having a bearing on my artistic output, which of course it was. But the big change in the last three years is that I’m finally able to see some pieces as the end of the sentence of that conversation. So, it’s not, “I could do better next time.” It’s not, “I can’t believe I didn’t do better this last time.” And the difference is insane, to have written pieces now where I’m not in a state of constant self-flagellation. I think the first piece I wrote in my new and improved version was this mass called Spiral Mass. I can hear it and enjoy it and think that that was, you know, better than three minutes of silence.
It’s a fairly obvious fact that outsiders often overlook when they think about a creative lifestyle, and how cool it must be. In most cases, you are both creator and critic, boss and employee. Since many people who have a boss do not like their boss, it might seem incredibly attractive to be your own. But do you really want to be your own boss? Do you have the discipline to keep your projects on track? Do you have the temperament to drive yourself? Do you have the requisite paranoia?
John HODGMAN: I am a person for whom being creative is terrifying.
John Hodgman has done a lot of creative work over the years, most of it somewhere on the humor spectrum.
HODGMAN: It is the most rewarding thing that I can do. But it is a constant struggle with a very clear feeling that I am out of gas every day, every day. And that I will not be able to support myself or my family, because I have now finally run out of ideas, for sure, this time, I mean it. I started writing jokes for the Internet morphed into writing humor for books, morphed into doing T.V. on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, morphed into doing some ads for Apple Computer that gave me some acting opportunities, and all of these, I just sort of jumped from job to job very happily and very luckily, in no small part because it allowed everything to feel a little bit like a hobby. And at no point was I ever putting all of my eggs, say, into writing books, because my fear was, if I run out of gas on that, then I’m done.
If I lose the ability to write a book — which sounds irrational, but it is a true fear that I have — in fact, today I have it — then I can always fall back on the podcast, or I can always fall back on going out and touring my imitation stand-up comedy, or I can always try to get more work as an actor. It’s not even a fear. It is a certainty that I’m done, that I have no further ideas, and trick my brain into providing ideas again, because they’re in there. I’m 47 years old and I’ve been doing this — this and only this, whatever this is — now for 21 years.
DUBNER: And that’s not enough of a track record to persuade yourself that there will be 21 more?
HODGMAN: I figured out, sort of rationally, that I have enough data to support the suggestion that I will be able to continue. But even though I understand it rationally, in a deep part of me, I am certain it is done.
Don HAHN: I was lucky early in my life to have some successes in my 30s with Roger Rabbit and Lion King and Beauty and the Beast.
Don Hahn is a Hollywood producer.
HAHN: And 15 or 20 years after that, you start second-guessing yourself. And start saying, “Have I lost what I had back then?” Then you lose the process because then you don’t start. You just don’t start because you’re afraid that somebody is going to say, “Well, Don was really great back when he was 30 years old, but boy has he lost it,” you know? Those are really hard times to get over because they’re a crisis of confidence.
So how do you quiet those voices of disapproval — voices that are often imagined, either your own or someone else’s?
EGAN: It took a while. It was like a year and a half of that.
Jennifer Egan, remember, was stuck on her post-Pulitzer novel. Her solution was just to keep plowing through.
EGAN: I kept working through it because one thing I really know is that, you know, you can work through anything. I think we we think we are more fragile as artists than we really are. One thing that kind of helped me get through it psychologically was that I finally thought, winning a Pulitzer Prize shouldn’t ruin anyone. I mean, if I really can’t write another good book because of winning that, I was done.
HODGMAN: The only reason I’m terrified now is because I’m not actively working on it today, but when I get down into it line-by-line, something clicks, something comes together.
John Hodgman also finds the only solution for fearing the work is doing the work.
HODGMAN: It also helps to be in the shower. I remember back in early 2009 I was invited to do some comedy at the Radio and Television Correspondents Awards Dinner, which is sort of the junior-league White House Correspondents Dinner. The tradition was, the comedian would do comedy and the president would be there and say some words as well. This was a stunning invitation for me to receive. I had only been on The Daily Show for a couple of years. And of course, I had to say yes, even though I had no idea what sort of comedy I could do, on that stage, for then-newly-inaugurated President Barack Obama, whom I liked, but also who had no track record as a president to even make jokes about. And I really was frozen for a long time as I tried to think up “jokes,” to tell.
And then I was in the shower and I remembered, just sort of talking out loud to myself, I remembered that on a different radio show — Wait Wait, Don’t Tell Me — Peter Sagal had asked Barack Obama, who was a guest on the show at the time when he was a Senator, “Is it true that you saw Leonard Nimoy in the streets of Chicago, and did you flash him the Vulcan salute?” And Barack Obama confirmed that this was true. And I remembered that Barack Obama had been making jokes regarding dilithium crystals and Jor-El, the parent of Kal-El, who of course is better known as Clark Kent/Superman. And I’m like, “Oh, right. There’s a reason I like this guy. He’s a nerd. Yeah. Or is he a nerd? Or is it all an act?”
And I realized in that moment in the shower what my preoccupation was — what I wanted to know was, are you really a nerd, or are you faking it? Which, I realized in that moment, was sort of the question that everyone on all political sides were asking about Barack Obama. Are you for real? Of course, we remember a lot of people who did not like Barack Obama asking him if he was a real U.S. citizen, asking him if he wasn’t secretly a Muslim, or an alien, or whatever it was. We forget, there were a lot of people on the left-leaning wing of the spectrum who didn’t trust that he was a real liberal, and there was so much about him that was unknown. And for me, I had a genuine question to ask, “Are you really a nerd?,” that could serve as a metaphor for asking, “Who are you, and what kind of leap of faith are we taking with you?”
Hearing Hodgman describe this you may be thinking: wait a minute; you were asked to do comedy; is this nerd thing funny?
HODGMAN What’s more important than funny, when you’re creating comedy, is: what are you genuinely curious about? What are you genuinely feeling? Even the most absurd fake facts that I wrote for The Daily Show had to resonate around an ounce of truth. So tuning into that — what am I thinking about — knowing what you know, or knowing what’s going on in the back of your head, is kind of the hardest part. And once you get that out of there, suddenly for me, it all floods out from there.
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Failure is such an obvious component of any success that it probably keeps a lot of people from trying things they should. That’s a shame. Teresa Amabile is a social psychologist at the Harvard Business School who studies creativity, especially in work settings.
AMABILE: If people have a growth mindset, they believe, “I can always get smarter, I can always get better at something, and I’m not going to get better unless I try things that are hard, and sometimes that means I’m going to fail at something, but who cares?”
But a lot of people do care. For a lot of people, failure hurts; and it hurts to have other people witness your failures. So who are these people who don’t care? Where does that come from?
AMABILE: Partly that’s a trait. But it’s something that can be changed. Parents can talk to their kids about it and we can certainly do that as as managers of ourselves. “Look, I know that this is a stretch for me. I’ve been asked to take on this project but I’m going to go for it. And if it doesn’t work out that well, I will have learned how I can do better next time.”
James DYSON: I had to build 5,127 prototypes. So 5,126 failures.
James Dyson is the British engineer best known for having revolutionized the vacuum cleaner.
DYSON: And just when you’ve had enough, and you think you’re never going to get the answer, that’s the point where you must try even harder. Because that’s the point where everybody else gave up. So you must go through that pain barrier in order to succeed. I would say that for an engineer or someone developing technology, it’s really a life of failure. And you have to get used to that. Because your successes are pretty rare. But it’s not an unhappy life, I mean failure isn’t something that makes you unhappy. It makes you even more curious as to how to overcome the problem. And in order to fail, you have to experiment and experimenting is exciting. Even if it doesn’t work. In fact it’s almost slightly disappointing when it does work. Because you’ve then done it and that’s the end of that one, and then you’ve got to get on to something else.
RESNICK: So as you’re building things, you have one idea in mind.
Mitch Resnick runs a project called Lifelong Kindergarten at the M.I.T. Media Lab.
RESNICK: But then it works a little differently than you expect and that gives you a new idea and you start making adjustments. And I do think the most creative and the most enjoyable experiences come when you’re involved in that process at the intersection of making and playing, where you’re constantly experimenting, iterating, trying new things, refining. And I think it’s true that in today’s society oftentimes kids aren’t given enough opportunities for tinkering. They’re given fully made things that they just use, or they’re given instructions exactly how to do things. So I really do think we need to give them the tools, materials, and support where they can tinker, experiment, and iterate constantly trying new things. That’s the way they’re going to best develop as creative thinkers and be ready to thrive in a society that’s going to demand and require creative thinking more than ever before.
There’s one word that Resnick does not use to describe this iterative process: failure. He feels the negative connotation is just too strong.
RESNICK: Clearly things go wrong, things go unexpectedly all of the time, but you should become accustomed that. Don’t see it as a problem but see it as something of an opportunity. It’s really important to create environments where kids feel safe to take the risks, because when things do go wrong, if someone says, “Hey, you know, that’s no good, why’d you ever try that?,” they won’t take risks again. So we have to make sure to create environments where kids are encouraged and feel safe to take risks, to have things go wrong but then be able to recover and to take it in new directions.
The ability to recognize when something’s failing, or at least foundering, is important in the creative arts as well. Maybe you’ve had success doing one thing for a long time. But tastes change; technologies change. And the thing you’ve been doing — even if you keep improving — it’s just not connecting the same way.
Conan O’BRIEN: Fourscore and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a nation conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
Conan O’Brien is a history nerd; maybe he’ll become a U.S. ambassador someday.
O’BRIEN: I’d like to know what it pays. I’d like to know what kind of ambassadorial residence I would have. Am I really free to commit crimes in those countries?
In the meantime, he’s still a late-night TV talk-show host, which he’s been doing for more than a quarter of a century. But recently he made a change.
O’BRIEN: The story there is I realized a couple of years ago that I’m killing time at half an hour. When I first got the gig it was, you fill an hour because it’s this precious hour that needs to be filled and it’s all how you do it creatively. But over time you’re starting to say “and my next guest, and my next guest” And that felt artificial to me. And it felt like it didn’t fit this new world we’re in.
And so he reformatted his show, which is called Conan. It’s now 30 minutes instead of 60. He also did away with the stream of celebrity guests that march through most talk shows. Instead, he’s focusing on the comic pieces that have driven his massive online numbers.
O’BRIEN: We have YouTube videos that have had 70 million views. But no one’s watching the whole show. Other than my parents, no one is watching the show from 11 to 12. But there’s a whole generation of people that don’t watch anything like that.
There is another creative medium where taste changes so aggressively, so ethereally, that trying to outthink your audience, or the market, may drive you mad.
Jorinde VOIGT: I’m Jorinde Voigt. I’m an artist.
Jorinde Voigt, who lives in Berlin, has become quite successful: her paintings sell for a lot of money and they’re in the permanent collections of the Pompidou in Paris, the British Museum in London, the Museum of Modern Art in New York. But she doesn’t like this kind of success as a measuring stick.
VOIGT: It’s not about failing or winning, it’s just about being and doing. Failure is always part of it. To accept it and take it as part of a reason to do something new.
There’s one form of failure that Voigt celebrates …
VOIGT: Of course you could say a picture fails if it’s not sold. For a gallery it might be like that, for me not. I’m always happy when I get a picture back. Really! I mean really, because I’m — it’s also weird to sell the works all the time.
DUBNER: Yeah, is that right?
VOIGT: Yeah. It’s not made for selling. You made it because you want to know something. Yeah? And it’s ready, and you know something, then you don’t need it anymore and you are able to sell it.
I like Jorinde Voigt’s attitude: the failure of a painting to sell is actually a success because she gets to have the painting back. How you think about a failure, or what other people might consider a failure, says a lot about who you are as a creative, and as a person. Also as a brother.
Mark DUPLASS: This is Mark Duplass. I am a filmmaker.
Duplass and his brother Jay Duplass have been working together, extraordinarily closely, since they were kids. They wrote a book about it, called Like Brothers.
DUPLASS: Yeah, I mean the biggest failure we had in our career was making this feature film Vince Del Rio for about $70,000, that turned out terribly and we never even finished it. And then a couple of weeks later we turned around and we spent $3 making a short film in our kitchen and that was our first movie that went to Sundance. So we very quickly realized that being professional and making a movie for a lot of money does not mean it’s going to be a good movie. But staying near and dear to your anxieties, your fallibilities, your vulnerabilities, staying close to that conversation you had at 2:00 a.m. with your sibling or loved one or friend, where you were giggling with shame or crying about something that was so personal to you you think no one could understand it. As soon as you go into that stuff, I think that’s where you win.
The Duplass brothers over the years built an unusual and unusually robust career, making films and TV shows together. They wrote and directed together — sometimes inseparably. In the beginning, Mark did a lot more acting but eventually Jay was doing a lot too — most notably in Transparent. They made the films Cyrus; Jeff, Who Lives at Home, and they made the H.B.O. series Togetherness. That show was all-consuming:
DUPLASS: Yeah, we wrote, produced, and directed every episode of that series like idiots. And the main issue is that we had completely lost our desire to hang out with each other because we were essentially hanging out together 13 hours a day working. And we weren’t spending any time together as brothers and friends. And we always promised ourselves we would keep an eye on that, on that work and personal balance.
They’d had two successful seasons with H.B.O.
DUPLASS: And we were in the middle of writing season 3.
But there was a shakeup at H.B.O.
DUPLASS: And we got the news that we were going to be canceled, and neither of us wanted to be the first one to speak and we were both scared about how relieved we were as opposed to actually emotionally crushed and didn’t want to admit it to each other. And once we did it felt amazing. We realized that there was no way we were going to cancel Togetherness ourselves. There was no way, the situation was too good. The money was too good. The creative opportunity was too good. People were loving the show. We were going to go and drive that thing until it killed us. We had to actually have it taken away from us and that began the new phase of of Jay’s and my relationship.
So for the first time in forever, Mark and Jay Duplass weren’t really a team anymore. It was a sort of failure.
DUPLASS: And we both felt a little bad about it and both felt a little excited about it. And it’s been really healthy for us in the long run. I mean, I’ll be honest with you, there was a lot of tears and a lot of heartbreak on both of our parts. And there are times when I wake up and I miss so desperately the way it felt when Jay and I were 23 and 27 just moving through the world as one being. But we’re also aware that that was of a time and a place, when our life was a unilateral thing, and we can’t really get that back and we have to redefine what that thing is now for us.
DUBNER: Does the collaboration feel a little bit like a phantom limb that, like, “Whoa I’m used to this working this way.” And I guess another way of asking the same question is does it feel like something that you want or need to get back to or that you’re kind of happily or resignedly or just organically getting to a new phase and you’re willing to take it as it comes?
DUPLASS: It doesn’t feel dissimilar to a really amicable breakup, and I would liken it to a couple that breaks up because one wants to have kids and the other one doesn’t. They still very clearly love each other but they have different views of the future and they would miss each other desperately but also know that it doesn’t work right now if they were to do that. Right. And so that’s very similar to the way Jay and I are. There’s actually kind of a working rhythm that we have developed into where my brain is this very firework-y, loud, explosive place where ideas tend to come whether I want them or not.
DUBNER: You’re the barfer, correct?
DUPLASS: Yes I’m the barfer, and they’re noisy and they are at times quite annoying to Jay because he can’t get the space to incubate his really well-crafted, quiet, thoughtful, soulful ideas. At the same time, Jay can be really annoying to me because I’m ready to go. My fireworks are going off and he’s holding me back because he’s like trying to do his thing and so we had to get honest with each other and be like, “Uh-oh, we might be creatively bad for each other right now. And this is just one rhythm and one phase we’re in.”
And God knows what’s going to happen a year or two from now. We might listen to this podcast and be like, “Whoa, you were totally wrong you just needed six months away and then you’ll be fine.” But you know, he’d be the first one to admit he feels like an albatross to my rhythms at certain times. It’s really good for us. But the phantom limb thing is I would say very, very accurate. I can go make a project on my own. I can literally hear what Jay is saying to me without him saying it because I know what he would say. And I can get a lot of his feedback.
DUBNER: So who needs him?
DUPLASS: And — yeah who needs him, yeah? And then the other element is that we have been able to take some of the lessons we’ve learned as collaborators and collaborate with other people and make those collaborations pretty successful too. Because I will say this to anyone out there, if there is anyone in the world who is interested in collaborating with Jay Duplass, there is no greater, more self-aware, sweeter, more generous collaborator in the f—ing universe.
DUBNER: Would he say the same about you roughly? Slightly different adjectives maybe.
DUPLASS: I think he would use different adjectives. I think what he would say — I know what he would say. He would say that there is no more generous collaborator than Mark. There’s no one who is willing to drown himself while holding you above water so you can achieve your glory than Mark, which is you know something else I’m working on in therapy too but, you know. That’s a whole other podcast.
Thanks to Mark Duplass and everyone else who’s shared their ideas, their fears, their advice in this “How to Be Creative” series. If you want to hear some of the full interviews from the series, check out Stitcher Premium — you’ll find my full conversations with Jennifer Egan, Conan O’Brien, and Wynton Marsalis.
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Freakonomics Radio is produced by Stitcher and Dubner Productions. This episode was produced by Matt Frassica, with help from Stephanie Tam and Harry Huggins. Our staff also includes Alison Craiglow, Greg Rippin, Zack Lapinski, and Corinne Wallace. We had help this week from Andi Kristins. Our theme song is “Mr. Fortune,” by the Hitchhikers; all the other music was composed by Luis Guerra. You can subscribe to Freakonomics Radio on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts.
Here’s where you can learn more about the people and ideas in this episode:
- Teresa Amabile, psychologist and professor emerita at the Harvard Business School.
- Mark Duplass, film director, film producer, and actor.
- James Dyson, inventor, industrial design engineer and founder of the Dyson company.
- Jennifer Egan, novelist and journalist.
- Don Hahn, filmmaker.
- John Hodgman, humorist.
- Nico Muhly, composer.
- Conan O’Brien, television host, comedian, and writer.
- Saul Perlmutter, astrophysicist at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.
- Mitch Resnick, leader of the Lifelong Kindergarten research group at the M.I.T. Media Lab.
- Dean Simonton, professor emeritus of psychology at University of California, Davis.
- Jorinde Voigt, artist.
- Creativity In Context by Teresa Amabile (Routledge 1996).
- A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan (Knopf 2010).
- “How to Be Creative,” Freakonomics Radio (2018).
- “Where Does Creativity Come From (and Why Do Schools Kill It Off)?,” Freakonomics Radio (2018).
- “Where Do Good Ideas Come From?,” Freakonomics Radio (2019).
- “A Good Idea Is Not Good Enough,” Freakonomics Radio (2019).