One of the best and most underrated Pixar movies is Monsters University. Though it’s often damned for leaving no cinematic college cliche stone unturned, it’s filled with solid jokes (“I can’t go back to jail!”) and features a subtle, devastating lesson that would be daring even if it wasn’t in a kids movie. But it is in a kids’ movie. And it’s amazing.
SPOILERS if you haven’t seen M.U.: Mike Wazowski is a young monster whose dream is to be, like his heroes, a scarer. The problem is that he is not scary. He’s funny and cute. Doesn’t matter that he’s the smartest and hardest working in class, he’s just never going to be able to achieve his dream because he’s not built for it. The point of this movie–the actual lesson at the end of all of Mike’s striving and years of dreaming–is that he has to give up his dream and move onto something else.
Now, I’m a dad so I feel like I can say this with confidence: giving up your dream is the literal opposite point of 98% of every other piece of kids’ entertainment out there. Usually, our kids are taught to NEVER give up. Keep going. Keep striving. Live your dream because dreams come true if you want it bad enough and put in the work.
We are told to dream big and never give up.
I’ve thought a lot about giving up . I think more than failure, I’m afraid of being like Mike Wazowski and being guilty of kidding myself. I’m afraid of people looking at me like, “Man, if only somebody would tell him it’s not gonna happen.” I’m afraid of failing and never stopping.
I know all the inspirational quotes about how the most successful people have also failed the most–Thomas Edison’s perspiration and all that. I’m not talking about sweaty Tommy Edison. I’m talking about all the other guys who also thought candles were old news that you don’t know about because lights belong in bulbs, not pineapples (or whatever they tried). I’m talking about all the guys (and gals) whose failures led to nothing.
* * *
I had no idea I enjoyed writing until I wrote my first blog at 28 years old. Five years later I wrote a memoir called Raised By a Dead Man: A Coming-of-Age Story Between Two Shootings about my relationship with my father and the two armed robberies at his store. I sent dozens of letters out to agents over a period of 9 months, received many, many rejections, and finally was fortunate enough to sign with a literary agent who believed in me. She was everything I wanted in an agent: attentive, smart, and had connections to all the best publishing houses. Mine was only the second book she ever pulled off the slush pile and chose to represent. Mine was also the first book she never sold. Raised By a Dead Man went to the top–to gatekeeping editors in big, fancy New York offices who repped Pulitzer Prize-winning authors and sucked down $500 scotch all day (I assume)–and they all rejected it. Some thought the writing not good enough (and they weren’t wrong–I’m much better now), but others raved about it. The big problem? They didn’t know how to sell it.
My agent, still believing in me, asked if I had any other ideas. I told her about another memoir I wanted to do, The Impossible Girl, a romance I pitched as a Romeo and Juliet story between a Mormon and a Protestant. She thought that sounded amazing and encouraged me to write it because it sounded more marketable. If I could sell it, then Raised would be more viable coming from an established author. I spent three long years writing the book and promptly handed it off to my agent once I felt it was worthy. She read it, was enthusiastic about my growth as a writer, and found the story fascinating. Also, it wasn’t quite what she was expecting. She had no idea how to sell it and didn’t see how it could possibly fit in any market, national or religious. I understood and set off to NOT write a wholly unique story no one wants to sell. Forget memoirs, I was gonna write a novel.
So, I wrote Paper Bag Mask, a YA heist story that’s a bit like The Breakfast Club by way of Ocean’s 11. Seemed like the kind of story that would be pretty accessible and fun. When I brought it to my agent, she had to pass simply because she does not represent YA. I understood, we parted ways amicably, and I headed back to the trenches of emailing and querying potential agents. By then, 9 years had passed since I first decided to be an author.
14 months ago, the rejections began pouring in again. A couple of times, I got really close! There were agents who were incredibly enthusiastic about what I had done and the unique way I’d done it (three sections of the book feature sequential art)! But still I received no after no after no. Over 200 of them by the time I was ready to give it all up. Over 200 rejections on top of the (now) 10 years of rejection I’d already received.
I had to face facts: was I kidding myself? How long do you hold onto a dream before you realize it’s just not going to happen?
* * *
The most nuanced part of the lesson in Monsters University is this: our dreams should be focused on the things we can do. While it’s true that it’s possible to get really good at something (or luck into something) that you’re terrible at, it’s also true that we all have to face this one reality: we cannot be good at everything. It’s just not possible. So, if you can’t be good at everything, then you’ve got to get to terms with this other truth: the thing you want to be good at may not be the thing you CAN be good at. Anyone who has ever seen an episode of American Idol should be able to acknowledge this, but somehow people who can’t not sound like my garbage disposal keep coming back to audition anyway.
And, like the good-for-television-but-not-good-for-my-ears “singers” on American Idol, it’s possible there are people in your life who secretly think you should give up, but are afraid to tell you. Or, your own insecurity invents those people and you doubt yourself. Or, they are actually people in your life who tell you you’re terrible. Or, like me, failure after failure after failure has you doubting yourself. However you’re arriving at the secret suspicion that maybe you should stop dreaming so gosh darn big, the question comes down to the same thing: should you give up?
I don’t know. How could I? But you know who I think does know?
The difference between failures that serve as track being laid down on the path of success and fooling yourself is in how honest with yourself you can be. It’s in your gut, in your soul. I believe we all know who who are and what are our capabilities. I’m not saying you know straight off, but it is discoverable. And when we make that discovery, that’s when either we back off that dream we’ve been holding onto, or we go all in. But knowing the either/or on that is entirely up to your capacity for self-awareness and truth. It’s not up to other people to confirm or deny it for us*, it’s up to us to discover and commit. One way or the other.
*Though they will try and they should not be dismissed out of hand–critique and feedback is part of the process of discovery.
How honest are you with yourself? And I don’t mean that in the way you’re prone to thinking about honesty, which is are you honest enough to know if you well and truly suck? That’s only one side of it. The other side is being honest enough to say, “No, actually, I’m really good at this.” I don’t know about you, but that’s almost harder. It’s taken me a long time to get to a place where I’m comfortable enough to say with confidence, “I’m good at this, the world be damned.“
I’ve know for awhile now I was going to be a writer. I didn’t know that was who I was until well after college, but it is who I am. I may have hard times and times of doubt and people telling me I suck, but deep in my gut, that’s what I know. I know that I not only love writing, but that I can do it. It’s not arrogance, it’s not fooling myself, it just is.
Paper Bag Mask will be published this Fall by Pen Name Publishing. Those 10 years–all that striving and failure–brought me to this major, major milestone. There will be more. My path to success is not complete, but I cannot help but be grateful and acknowledge that all my failures led to this success. There are many things I’m not good at, but:
I’m good at this. The world be damned.