Thursday, January 11, 2018

On defining success and failure, beyond the Linkedin model.

Meeting at the Alcoholics Anonymous bar in Corfu by Tarek Chemaly
Are you ever on Linkedin? If you are, the site is full of "success stories" - no wait, of stories of failure, lesson learned, then success stories. And on it goes - pre-packaged lessons for the uninformed. If you, however, live in the real world, you would be forgiven to redefine success and failure as you go along.
Sure, I will be the first to admit that, I almost made it straight out of the door. Right after graduating till the middle of the noughties I had a streak of incredible luck. Free travels, exhibitions, sponsored high-level courses, international clients, you name it, it was there. My first solo exhibition opened to several hundred people when the only two people I invited were my mother and my uncle, the rest? They came because they heard that a supermarket was about to hit me with a lawsuit because I hijacked their slogan for my invite card. Money was flowing for a long time, not necessarily coupled with either peace of mind or "happiness" (an elusive word I no longer believe in).
So by all measures and standards, I was indeed, a success.
Was I though?
Behind the shiny surface that people judge you on, many other things were happening. Some of them good, some not. Whereas the real trouble was to start later, even then, many things were just not making sense privately - or even publicly - but I was too insisting on making sure the mask would not have fissures in it for people to see what is under.
The very few people who know me privately, and yes, they are rare, know that I differentiate between my public persona and my private one. Put me in a classroom, or in a full-auditorium and you get gold material. No matter what happens behind closed doors, I am capable of delivering. Some of the rare images of me online, taken during the very successful opening of my solo show in 2013, reveal a bubbly, smiling man having the time of his life. At that time my life was literally into pieces, but again, I insisted no one knew about it. What happens to me is no one's business, "Tarek Chemaly" is to remain the brand everyone wants.
Which brings us back to "success" and "failure". I have not led a boring or straight-as-an-arrow life, that is for sure. I changed careers, dabbled in this and that, ruffled feathers, slammed doors, put my reputation online for other people I believed in, and so and so forth. So the many experiences I already gone through made me reevaluate what "success" is.
And no, the Linkedin definition certainly does not hit the mark.
Lately, I have opened an installation at Depot-Vente, a second hand and vintage clothing store. Considering my installation was composed of my own old clothes, and therefore I was burying part of myself, the place was perfect for it. I did not care much how many people actually came for the opening as opposed to the regular shoppers of the store. One person who did come, looked at the work and labelled it "incredibly courageous" (which is was, considering there were even underwear in it!). To me that was already, "success".
Since I do not do decorative artworks (or what I call artworks-that-match-the-sofa), I more often than not do not end up selling my artworks. In itself, this is "failure", but hey, if Vincent Van Gogh only managed to sell one painting during his life, comparatively the several I sold make me a runaway success. See how skewed the benchmark is?
My brother often told me "you cannot dream small". Maybe, as time goes by, the scale of my dreams did change. Perhaps I have downsized it. But well, as my former student once said "you need a vacation when you come back from a vacation" because I usually come armed with thousands of photos of things posted on walls to make a book out of them.
Success and failure are truly relative. A very very wealthy person I know, macho, braggadocio, is in fact very insecure - outside the glitzy life he lives, there is a shallowness he is aware of but not able to get rid of lest it reveal what lies beneath. He is, by society's criteria, incredibly "successful" if you judge by his house, his travels, the name-dropping and what  not.
I wish I could wrap this post with a clear-cut definition that would once and for all put the debate at bay. I cannot sadly. I do know however that each one of us has his criteria to what we dub "success" and "failure" and thankfully, we do not all want the same things.
My mother always told me that "no much how much money you have, you cannot wear one dress on top of the other", and that is true.
I just hope that, we do not end up with a uniform, bland, tasteless definition of what "success" is. The great Oscar Wilde did say: "There are only two tragedies in life: one is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it." Just don't tell this to Linkedin. In the end, success may not be about what we "want", and failure is not either.
What is imposed on us, however, is a different story.