Ty, the Rambling Artist
The art of making drawing smiles and making connections, anywhere in the world.
Most of us are afraid of failure to some extent. And yet, all of us fail at some point. Even the most brilliant minds of the day and history have been faced with failure. At one time JK Rowling was an unemployed single-mom sitting in a coffee shop scribbling stories about wizards onto napkins. Up to that point, much of her life probably looked like failure and yet, we all know what that failure led to.
Steve Jobs was once ousted from the company that he created in his garage. That must have felt like failure. And yet, he was later reinstated on his own terms and allowed to turn that company into the Apple we know today. In high school, Michael Jordan was on the bench, having been told by his coach that he wasn’t good enough. His mother addressed his disappointment with a great piece of advice “The best thing you can do is prove to the coach that he made a mistake” and Michael Jordan did, letting go of the criticism and using that knowledge to get better and get better he did!
Walt Disney suffered massive failures during the upstart phase of his animation company – even losing the rights to his beloved character, Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. But Walt Disney had a dream and knew that to make that dream come true, he would have to get back up and go in a different direction. After losing almost everything, a dejected Walt got on a train and, instead of giving up, sketched out a new character – Mickey Mouse. You may have heard of him.
How many of us are almost parallized at the idea of failing? We are raised with the idea that failure is not an option – and there are situations where that may be true. Many fail-safes have to be in place to ensure that surgeons do not operate on the wrong part of the body, or to make sure that airplanes do not fall out of the sky. There are situations where failure will result in catastrophe. The good news is that chances are, your potential failure isn’t one of those.
In my time as a caricature artist, graphic designer, ad guy and anything-else-you-need man, I’ve done a fair share of logos for start ups. I’ve seen people throw everything they have into an idea that may or may not work out for them. One of my favorite upstart logo designs was for a man named, Tony. Tony had been one of those lucky ones that got in on the computer/tech industry when it was still in its infancy. He had invested what little money he had just out of college in stocks that did pretty well. He was living life on his terms and enjoying every minute of it. In the late 90s he invested in what was to be his golden egg. A company that was sure to bring him a lifetime of ease. He was so sure of this company that he invested most of what he had, banking on its future success. That company was named: Enron. As you have probably already figured out, Enron didn’t prove to be what Tony thought it would be. He lost much of what he had then and several years later would lose even more after the housing bubble burst and subsequent stock market crash in 2008.
Tony’s funds were depleted, he was lost, he was broken and he didn’t know what he was going to do. In December of 2008 Tony went home to Texas to spend Christmas with his family. His parents had immigrated from Mexico when he was a teenager and Christmas was always a festive affair with all of the Hispanic traditions. On the morning of Christmas Eve, he woke up to a familiar aroma. His mother had started the annual tradition of making Christmas Eve tamales that they would later package up and take to all of their friends. Tony spent the day helping his mother and aunts meticulously make each bundle of seasoned pork with masa – lovingly crafted to bring joy to the neighborhood. That evening, when they delivered the hundreds of tamales to their friends, he saw the joy that they brought. Several days later he drove home with an idea. He would make tamales.
Now, making tamales is a far cry from investing in tech stocks but often the best ideas can come from a sense of desperation. Tony didn’t have the funds to invest in a massive start up – but he could buy a food truck. He didn’t have the ability to acquire a large staff – but he and his wife could make tamales. He had the recipes and the skill and most importantly, he had the desire to make people happy.
That was nearly 8 years ago and Tony’s tamales are a huge success. When he failed, he didn’t give in, he didn’t even continue on in the same direction because he knew that the direction he was facing was no longer a good path for him. What he did is find something he enjoyed doing (making people happy with food) and put his heart into it.
One of the keys in failure is simply to know how to fail early. Fail as quickly as you can – when you’ve not invested a huge amount of capital or time. And then be prepared to turn and go a different way. Don’t hold on to bad ideas stubbornly. Recognize that they are bad, admit the failure and then go and find a way to succeed. When I’m designing a project like the Illustrated Idea graphic novels, which require many hours of work, I try to fail as quickly as possible. What does that mean? I don’t send full-color beautifully-worked finished pieces in a first, second or usually even third proof. If I’m not on the right track, I want to know as early in the process as possible, so that I don’t waste my time and effort. The first proof is always a sketchy black and white layout of the story and the panels. If that isn’t right for my client, we can fix it there and not waste time. Once that concept is approved, I move on to less sketchy black and white drawings, and the approval process begins again. Only when I have full approval do I move into the tedious phase of coloring – the point of no return.
As I tell you to fail quickly, I also want to caution you against judging your own creative endeavors too quickly. We all image that the beautiful things that we see in this work were always so. Think about a movie that you love – a beautiful movie – a movie that is perfect for you. It’s probably hard to image that at one time, that movie, that script, that art that you have come to love so much was a horrible mess. Most works of art don’t start out that way. Most books are not published from their first draft. Even the most talented of artists usually start with something less-than-good when they are creating.
Ed Catmull of Pixar likes to refer to the first version of their films as “Ugly Babies”. But the thing is, ugly babies can grow into beautiful adults. They just need to be nurtured, taught and allowed to become the best that they can be.
When I talk about failing quickly and allowing your ugly baby to grow, they may seem like incompatible ideas but they are not. You can have an ugly baby that will turn into a beautiful adult but the process of nurturing it into adulthood is where the failure comes and needs to be recognized so that things can be adjusted quickly enough that we don’t have to throw the baby out with the bathwater, so to speak.
A good example of this from my life comes with The Illustrated Idea. I first had the idea for The Illustrated Idea – graphic novel-style recaps created for business and organizations to communicate with employees following meetings and conferences to help their teams understand and remember the information shared long after the event had ended. I knew that the idea was solid and I knew that I would be able to execute it in a way that would entice businesses looking to communicate better, especially with the younger generation of workers. What I hadn’t done, was any of the real work to figure out how it would take shape. In other words, this was my ugly baby. All idea – no execution. Around this time, I was approached by one of the leading graphic facilitators in the country. She was putting a group together to do live graphic recording at technology week at SXSW. I jumped at the chance to perform, thinking that this was a great way to advance my idea at warp speed. I’ve been speed-drawing for audiences for most of my life. How different could taking graphic notes at a live event be? On the day of my first event (we drew every day that week), I got up on the stage and came face-to-face with my “canvas” – a 4x8-foot piece of paper. I knew the objective – Capture what the speaker was saying in graphic form – turn his words into a work of art. “Easy enough. I’ve got this” I thought. As I sat and pondered my first marker stroke, the lights in the audience of about 5,000 dimmed. Bright, hot lights suddenly illuminated, not only the dias where the speaker would stand, but my paper. My perfectly white paper now stark and beaconing under the warm light. The speaker came out to rousing applause and I was introduced. Everyone in that room knew who I was. The speaker began his lecture on the creative innovation happening in technology and I began to draw. I was crafting a beautiful picture of a computer that would be the centerpiece of my elaborate design. I was focused and performing well, my brain fully engaged to what I was drawing on the paper. I was lost in creating my art. And then suddenly, something jarred my brain back to the room. The speaker had moved on. He was now talking about something different. “Wait? What was that? I missed those key points.” “Can you repeat that” “WAIT!”….
I failed that day. I went into SXSW underestimating the amount of preparation I needed to do for live graphic recording. I learned that live graphic recording is not about art – it’s about note taking. I learned that my strengths do not lie in quickly sketching other peoples words and having it presented as a finished product. I was far too concerned with the quality of the art and that is not what live graphic recording is. But I also realized that my Illustrated Idea was not the same thing as live graphic recording. I could have easily experienced that failure and given up on the ugly baby. Instead, I refocused on what I wanted to accomplish and learned how to make that happen.
Today, I travel all over the world producing graphic novels from meetings and conferences. I sit in a meeting and I take visual notes on my digital tablet. Sometimes, those notes are even projected so that the attendees can enjoy the process. But those notes are not the finished product and I don’t have to worry about their perfection. I can take notes and then go home and spend many hours transforming those notes into a beautiful finished product that companies keep and circulate for years following their events. That is how I work best and that is how I grew my ugly baby into a beautiful adult.
But that failure also did something else for me. I learned things I didn’t know about live graphic recording. I learned what kind of person it takes to be successful at it and I realized that, while I am not cut out for it, my wife, Crystal certainly is. We have now added live graphic recording to the services that we offer and she thrives on it. She also services as living proof of my belief that anyone can learn to draw. Five years ago she would have never had the confidence to put marker to paper but once we learned that graphic note taking was “not art”, she gave it a try and was wildly successful!
Failure can do a lot of things. It can teach you what not to do, it can give you direction in life, it can educate you in ways that you never imagined. Just make sure that when you fail, you fail as quickly as possible. Don’t allow yourself to get so far in process that when the inevitable failure occurs, it takes far too much from you. You always want to ensure that you have the energy and resources to be able to pick up that ugly baby, change paths and carry it into a beautiful adulthood.
From Ty Walls:
After four decades drawing smiles I often encounter remarkable people. I've learned to create little special moments for people from all around the world with my simple smile-drawing skills. But sometimes, life creates little magical moments for me. This blog is my attempt to share them with you.