Failing Available for Pre-Order: Foreword by Jeffrey Koterba


Failing: A Self-Hurt Guide to Business Success is available for pre-order!! 

Below is the foreword by Jeffrey Koterba, internationally syndicated editorial cartoonist, frontman for the swing band Prairie Cats, author of the memoir Inklings and creativity advocate. An all around multi-talented guy who knows that inspired creativity and success only come through developing an intimate relationship with failure.


When I first heard that my friend was editing a book about failure, I had just given a Ted Talk at Omaha TedX. It wasn’t about failure exactly. It was about authenticity. Having the strength to fully embrace ourselves quirks and all. You see, I have Tourette’s Syndrome. I’m also a political cartoonist, musician and published author. I say this only because most people looking at me tend to think “success” not “failure,” or at least that’s what I’m told to my face. And I do seem to have all the trappings of success.

But I know better.

As I talk about the importance of authenticity, I also talk about my failures. The pain of them. My inability to gloss over them, because when you have Tourette’s you learn to live your life without the luxury of being able to hide.

I think most of us grow up learning about what to say and do in order to play the game. Excel but not too much, stand out when it’s a good thing, fade into the background when the atmosphere doesn’t want much of your personality. Whether it’s stifling and whittles away at the kid’s personality as it does in some cases, or is simply part of teaching a child how to get along in a society of other people, we all grow up learning some kind of a dance that supposedly gets the best results. And, we’re told, success.

If you grow up with Tourette’s, however, you’re kind of screwed. Right out of the gate I didn’t fit in. With every look, every comment (kids can be cruel), I was reminded that something wasn’t right about me. And when you’re trying to find your place in the world as a young child or a teenager, not being “right” is equivalent to failure.

In my talk I mention my dad who also had Tourette’s and who would calm his twitches by playing the drums. I point out that he was trading one vulnerability for another, because when you put what’s in your heart—be it art, or music or a business idea—out for the world to see, you make yourself vulnerable to failure. You also make yourself more authentic.

My first memory of being vulnerable and, indeed, already a failure in my chosen career, was at a very young age. I was five, maybe six years old, when I first began dreaming of becoming a cartoonist. I would copy Snoopy from the comics. Line by line. But my dad would say, “Dammit, kid, be original. Don’t you know what a sin it is to not be original?” He would scowl, maybe grunt and twitch.

So I crumpled up Snoopy and threw him away. And after a few hours of pouting, I went back to the drawing board. Or in my case, to my bedroom floor. I wanted to prove my father wrong. That I could be unique. And so I came up with my own dog character—Dogie. 

My dad and I were also big fans of the space program. And in the spring of 1969 I declared that Dogie would become the first dog to land on the moon. But just a few weeks before Neil Armstrong became the first human to set foot on the lunar surface, I saw a display at a department store. The display showed Snoopy as an astronaut who had landed on the moon. Snoopy had once again done me in and I was devastated, of course. I put Dogie away in a drawer and forgot about him. But by creating him, I had put myself out there. I had made myself vulnerable. And I didn’t stop drawing. Or twitching.

From a young age failure rained on me with annoying consistency. Looking back on it now, I can see what happened. I stopped hearing it. And once that happened, once I absorbed the failure into myself as just how things were, I was then free to keep going anyway. And that’s what I did, not out of anything particularly honorable but because that was another part of my strange makeup. I find it nearly impossible to not be creating.

With as much physical compulsion as a tic, I have to put pen to paper, fingers to guitar, bellow words into the air. There are those who believe in a neurological connection between Tourette’s and creativity. I mean, I believe it, but I’ll leave the science to the scientists. Still, over the years, nearly everyone I’ve met who has Tourette’s is creative in some way.

I especially remember meeting a third grader with Tourette’s. Her mom wanted her daughter to meet me, so she could show me her drawings and to tell me about the plays she had written at school. This kid was incredibly talented. But the mother asked me, in front of her little girl, do you think my daughter can have a normal life?

A normal life? I looked at the little girl and said that not only was she going to have a normal life, she was going to have an extraordinary life.

When we embrace our obstacles we make creative connections.

Success in any form tends to take a long, obscure, circuitous route. To even mention that there’s failure along the way is almost laughable. Part of being a cartoonist is to listen to the audience. And often the audience has a lot of anger in it and directs it at me depending on what I happened to publish that day. I get hate mail, email, tweets, Facebook messages, you name it. I hear it on a regular basis. And do you know what’s crazy? Even after 25 years of doing this, I’m still not immune to the criticism. I like to think I handle it better, but every dose of ridicule or censure feels like a little failure.

So think about that. I acquired one of only a few full-time newspaper staff positions as a cartoonist, what many would agree is a great career success, but underlying that is a constant refrain of failure. Now, you could say that the applause I also get cancels out the criticism, but if you’ve ever been criticized, you know that’s not how it works.

On top of that, because I can’t stop trying to create something, anything, new, I have various projects going at once, all meeting numerous forms of failure as they slowly inch toward a hoped for finish line of success.

Some failures that come to mind: a memoir published by Houghton-Mifflin Harcourt that got “orphaned” during the merger; a long series of rejections of my most recent novel that I labored over for years; another failed relationship; we’ve all had those, right?

Am I complaining? No! The opposite. I’m saying all of this with a hearty, “This is life!” It’s messy and heartbreaking and exciting and beautiful. If anyone knows about failure, it’s me, and I can tell you that the minute you let go of your aversion to the word, your world will open up in ways you can’t even imagine. I urge you to embrace life, failure, successes and all, which is what this book is about.

As I said before, success takes a long, circuitous route. I have to tell you about a strange thing that happened several years ago. I was at my drawing board and an email popped up with the subject line: Greetings Earthling!

I first thought the email was spam and nearly deleted it. Yet, my curiosity got the best of me. The email had come from Clay Anderson, an astronaut who at that moment was flying aboard the international space station. Because Clay is also from Nebraska I had drawn a cartoon about him…and the cartoon had been transmitted to the space station. He was messaging to say how much he had enjoyed the cartoon. I was blown away. To receive a communication from space!

Clay and I became friends and a few years later, when he returned to space, on the space shuttle Discovery, he asked to take along a couple of my drawings.

One of the cartoons I was to draw for the newspaper. But the other one was for me. I thought and thought about what it could be.

Remember I was telling you about my childhood character, Dogie? The one I wanted to send to the moon but he’d lost out to Snoopy?

Well, I reached into the deep recesses of my brain, and found Dogie waiting for me.

And then I launched him into orbit. After being locked in a drawer for close to forty years, this little, fictional dog finally made it into space. Failure…and, finally, success!

Jeffrey Koterba

Editorial Cartoonist, Omaha World Herald