May 12, 2012
"Oh, God, Tommy, isn’t it pathetic—isn’t it awful? That these poor people should hang round me and shout “God bless you, Charlie,” and want to touch my overcoat, and laugh, and even shed tears—I’ve seen ‘em do it—if they can touch my hand. And why? Why? Because I made ‘em laugh. Because I cheered ‘em up. Cheered ‘em up! Ugh! Say, Tommy, what kind of filthy world is this—that makes people lead such wretched lives that if anybody makes ‘em laugh they want to kiss his overcoat, as though he were Jesus Christ raising ‘em from the dead? Eh? There’s a comment on life."

— Charlie Chaplin’s Letter to his friend Thomas Burke, from Chaplin by Stephen Weissman, M.D.

February 17, 2011
Artist Biographies: A String of Hits, No Misses

I just Googled Charlie Chaplin and pulled up his biography:

I have a problem with this page because when you read it, it gives the impression that Chaplin has never failed before. There’s only one sentence that hints at Chaplin’s troubled childhood:

Charlie was thrown on his own resources before he reached the age of ten as the early death of his father and the subsequent illness of his mother made it necessary for Charlie and his brother, Sydney, to fend for themselves.

Anyone who knows Chaplin knows that he had a troubled childhood. His parents were split. His father died from alcoholism. His mother Hannah contracted syphilis, turned crazy and had to be put into a mental asylum. Before this happened Hannah’s stage career began falling apart and Charlie had to be put into to an orphanage for financial reasons. He was around 7 at this time. He and his older brother Sydney also had to eat from garbage pails at times.

It also doesn’t mention all the work he put in to his acting before he got famous. The biography marks his professional debut, but nothing before it.

There is no mention of all the hard work that he had put in. As a kid Chaplin learned a lot of acting and performing skills from his mother, who would entertain him and Syd when she didn’t have to perform. She gave spot-on performances interjected with brief explanations of acting technique. This helped a lot. Before his actual “professional debut” My guess is that he’s already put in a couple thousand hours into learning from his mother and acting on his own before he ever made his professional debut.

The page also doesn’t mention his failures, which I came across as I was reading up on Chaplin:

…Chaplin’s onstage debut as Nell’s grandfather…proved extremely mortifying because he lacked both the confidence and technical expertise in performing solo. (Weissman 89)

There you have it—Chaplin’s debut as Nell’s grandfather was a disaster. It would be a while before Chaplin performed solo again.

I mention this to point out that the road to success is never straight, despite what numerous artist biographies have you believe. It wasn’t straight for Chaplin and it won’t be for you. A lot of people today seem to want instant success, something that seems very attainable in the Youtube era. But most people never see the work and the time that goes into great craftsmanship. And they take failure as a sign to stop moving forward.

But as I said before, if you try your best you should accept coming up short. Because if you failed at something it means you were stretching your abilities. As late CMU Computer Science Professor Randy Pausch said, you can tell who the pioneers are by the arrows they have on their backs.

Sometimes I wish artist biographies would include candid details of failure. This is why I enjoy reading David Choi’s musical history.

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