Twelve Works of Art That Helped Me Through Failure

I ran a business that accomplished great things due to the tremendous work of a huge number of people. It was acquired and then ran into financial trouble. When a business like that fails, a lot of people get hurt. I had a difficult time separating my personal identity from my professional identity. I also loved the business and the people. I held on for too long, and wrote some of the lessons of my failure here. The artworks here on this list helped to keep me from falling over the edge.

1. “If” by Rudyard Kipling

This poem is a study on how to handle failure with dignity. Because re-writing is a great exercise for deeply understanding a piece of writing, here’s the poem re-written and illustrated by myself and my kids. You can read it here in its entirety.

2. Tender Mercies with Robert Duvall

I watched this film over ten times over the course of the year that my professional and personal life was spiraling into despair. It was like looking into a mirror. “Tender Mercies” is the story of a redeemed drunk who finds love and tenderness. We learn that he used to be Mac Sledge, a famous country singer who drank himself out of a career. He is reconnected with the daughter that he hasn’t seen in many years, and — my favorite moment in the film — he sings a stunning and unaccompanied lullaby that portrays his loneliness, his longing, and the beauty he can still give to the world. I used to be Daniel Stedman. Who am I now? I ask this question in my paradox, and perhaps I’ve found the answer in “Tender Mercies”.

3. The Poems of Stephen Crane

Over the epic two-year failure of my business, I never stopped chasing the horizon, and anyone and everyone that told me that it was futile was lying.

Another. And another. And another. Holy sht they are so good.

4. Bob Dylan, 1974–1976

Desire, Planet Waves, and Blood on the Tracks have all played on repeat. So much so, in fact, that after many renditions of Black Diamond Bay to my newborn, Robbie, that he still thinks, to this day, that my father (his grandfather) died in a volcano.

This below verse was the inspiration to finally cut loose. (from Going Going Gone, Planet Waves).

“I been hangin’ on threads
I been playin’ it straight
Now, I’ve just got to cut loose
Before it gets late
So I’m going
I’m going
I’m gone”

5. Luchenback, Texas — Back to the Basics

iTunes tells me that I listened to this song over 432 times in the past year. The story of a successful has-been who is miserable and trying to get back to the basics. Click on Waylon to listen.

So baby, let’s sell your diamond ring
Buy some boots and faded jeans and go away

We’ve been so busy keepin’ up with the Jones
Four car garage and we’re still building on
Maybe it’s time we got back to the basics of love

6. A Star is Born

Anyone else suffer a bit of self-medicating during a downturn? After I’d watched this seventeen times, I could no longer get through the halfway point. I think I was on my way to recovery. The first half of the movie is one of the most beautiful love stories ever told. The second half is too difficult and heartbreaking to re-watch. Stay tuned for my upcoming essays about this movie and the death of Rock & Roll.

7. Opening image to The Cat From Hunger Mountain

This is an incredible children’s book by Caldecott Medalist Ed Young. It’s about a place called Hunger Mountain where there lives a lord who has everything imaginable yet never has enough.

I read this book to my son Graham many nights, and the opening page always gave me pause. The choice of illustration (cutouts and ripped papers) paired with the text are beautiful and mysterious. Why is deprivation a gateway to the riches of humanity? I’ve had this hanging over my work desk since I discovered it.

8. Memory Camera

Making my own art helped.

9. Fifth Business by Robertson Davies

The lesson here is right in the title. Don’t take yourself too seriously. You’re not the hero. You’re not the protagonist. You’re just a bit player.

Taking from the text “Those roles which, being neither those of hero nor Heroine, Confidante nor Villain, but which were none the less essential to bring about the Recognition or the denouement of the story were called the Fifth Business in drama and Opera companies organized according to the old style; the player who acted these parts was often referred to as Fifth Business.”

I discovered this book in my teens and rediscovered it when I moved to NYC. I re-read this book whenever I need that reminder that I’m just a speck of dust on a great big sea.

10. Deer Hunter

I saw this film with my 8th grade class. While my classmates shouted “Mao” and laughed and jeered, I was moved into a serious teenage existential crisis that had me deeply questioning the purpose of my own existence. I’ve revisited this film many times over the past years, whenever I’ve encountered my own personal, professional, existential or other crises.

11. Viva Terlingua

The dawn of outlaw & gonzo country. Jerry Jeff Walker and the Lost Gonzo Band. I listened to this album on repeat. Walker decided to hold a Saturday night concert at the Luckenbach dance hall. The cost for admission was one single dollar with an attendance of 900 people and created a revolution.

12. Still Willin’

In a two-year sea of promises, broken promises, signed term sheets, and dreams deferred, I was always Willin. R.I.P. Lowell George. Here’s my fave version, with Linda Ronstadt.

Well I’ve been kicked by the wind, robbed by the sleet
Had my head stoved in, but I’m still on my feet
And I’m still, willin’

13. Art Wall

Making art with children (particularly your own) is a good tactile reminder of what’s really important and who’s the hero (see: Fifth Business).



Co-founder @brooklynmag @TasteTalks @NorthsideFest (acquired) Student journalism advocate. Boxing record 1-0.

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Daniel Stedman

Co-founder @brooklynmag @TasteTalks @NorthsideFest (acquired) Student journalism advocate. Boxing record 1-0.