Public Humiliation Is The New Failure
For too long, failure has been this exclusive entrepreneurial-chic talking point and it’s time to expire it
In a 60 Minutes interview with Anderson Cooper, Actor and Activist Joaquin Phoenix shared that there’s something liberating about public humiliation.
Meme accounts captioned this “Joaquin Phoenix gives no fucks” when the truth is that he gives more fucks than any of us.
This was on full display earlier this year when during his Oscar acceptance speech, Phoenix shared “Many of us, what we’re guilty of is an egocentric worldview. The belief that we’re the center of the universe.”
Dedicating his time to share a statement focused on the practices of the dairy industry who artificially inseminate a cow, and when she gives birth steal her baby, and then take her milk, that’s intended for the calf, to put it in our coffee and cereal.
“We go into the natural world and we plunder it for its resources.”
Widely considered one of the most talented actors of his generation, it could be argued that his accomplishments have afforded him the luxury of a financially secure repercussion-proof platform unconcerned with public humiliation or rejection.
But watching how he delivers his words to Cooper one understands this man knows public grief and public humiliation. It’s shaped how he lives.
Grief, when in 1993 his 23-year-old brother, River, who had already been nominated for an Oscar died of an overdose, and humiliation from the response to his fake documentary I’m Still Here.
I’m Still Here was meant as a critique of fame and as part of the film, Phoenix announced he was quitting acting to become a rapper. It was all an act, but hardly anyone knew.
Phoenix method acted this character in public for more than a year, including a bizarre appearance on David Letterman which brought speculation that he was on drugs or having a breakdown.
When Cooper asked about the impact of this flop, Phoenix replied “there’s something liberating about public humiliation.”
The liberation Phoenix is speaking to is an admission that during this period he knew it couldn’t get much worse. This was his rock bottom, and as he surveyed his surroundings, he grew comfortable. Liberated, in the same way a high-school teacher might share that which doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.
Phoenix understands that all he can control is the quality of his work. When it is delivered to the public, it’s being gifted to critique, which he can only control how he is affected by.
If Phoenix now releases work to the public, sure he may have a desire as to how it is received, but should it be rejected, he remains generally unaffected.
That’s his liberation. Liberated from critique.
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In a parallel conversation, James Altucher, the multi-talented Wall Street Journal bestselling author, comic, chess master, entrepreneur, and investor said “Vulnerability sort of buys freedom. When you’re vulnerable, when you’re able to admit what can go wrong, what has gone wrong in the past, and the mistakes you’ve made, you’re free.”
He continued by inviting us into his mind the moments before publish, “If I’m writing something, I don’t publish it unless I’m afraid of what people are going to think about me.”
There’s an obvious danger in this.
Creating with the goal of fearing what people are going to think of you can embolden the worst of us, feeding into the media’s prioritization of if it bleeds it leads headlines.
Consider the Tucker Carlsons, Candace Owens, and lame-duck presidents of the world and their venomous language crafted to divide.
What’s missing in the above, are declarations of intent.
The latter is intended to divide, to instill fear and controversy, while Altucher’s fear comes from hours of curiosity and an inherent moral code that doesn’t promote, nor cause harm or suffering to any other beings.
In the same response, Altucher redeems himself, clarifying his pre-publish moments are an evaluation of uniqueness, not controversy.
“If you’re not afraid of what people are going to think, then there’s a chance that everybody else has already done it.”
I’ve experienced this fear. Prior to publishing my second soberversarry piece, I feared what family and friends would think of me. Isolated in the thought that who I was 5–10 years ago would define who I am today.
Or, in private conversations discussing responsible reproduction and why I, although I desire my own children, most likely won’t have my own in a response to our deteriorating climate, increasing numbers of orphaned children, and food deserts. As Yuval Noah Harari writes in 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, “There is no shortage of humans on Earth. We are driving the entire ecological system out of balance and causing the extinction of numerous other species.”
This fear is useful, it’s a final checkbox in a self-evaluation of alignment or quality of work, but one can’t allow fear to delay one’s work.
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Dave Chappelle doesn’t aim to offend. He uses humor to have difficult conversations.
Comedians are leaders in this regard. Removed from political positions, they offer state of the unions for and from the perspective of the common citizen.
None of these figures were ever given permission.
But, at some point, they experienced this liberation Phoenix speaks of.
They understand that how they are interpreted is beyond their control. They evaluate potential praise or consequences, find comfort, and continue.
It’s this acting without invitation that fascinates me.
In 2012, Tucker Halpern, of the 2x Grammy-nominated duo Sofi Tukker was en route to a professional basketball career when he received a complicated Epstein Barr diagnosis which derailed his career, effective immediately.
At 22, a year away from graduation, he switched the trajectory of his life, committing himself to music.
He couldn’t have rationally expected he’d form a band, nor that their first release would be nominated for a grammy, nor would their first album, or that he would tour the world and be hosting one of the most anticipated eConcerts of 2020.
His reality back then were the questions written in the fog of a bathroom mirror: What would people think of him? What if he sucked? Would he be taken seriously? Would he be any good?
Valid questions, that before he offered to the public, he answered for himself:
“Music was what I wanted to do. I believed in myself, I didn’t really have expectations, but I had goals, and I committed to working towards them. Fortunately, we got early traction and then I had to discipline myself into not allowing this response to become an expectation, nor to dictate how or what music I made.”
Another artist celebrating themselves is Gabriel Garzón-Montano, a multi-instrumentalist, and producer, who recently told SPIN “I’m doing whatever the fuck I want.”
Garzon-Montano, whose songs have been sampled by Drake, is doing what he feels rather than what’s expected of him.
This type of liberation is not to be confused with rebellion.
In Untamed, multiple times New York Times bestselling author Glennon Doyle writes “Rebellion is as much of a cage as obedience is. They both mean living in reaction to someone else’s way instead of forging your own. Freedom is not being for or against an ideal, but creating your own existence from scratch.”
The existence that Phoenix, Altucher, Chapelle, Halpern, Garzón-Montano, and Doyle all created from scratch is not unique to them. We can all develop this immunity. It doesn’t even require public humiliation.
We have ownership over our creations, but we do not own their responses. Once we push something into the world we can’t control how it will be received.
What we can control is how we define success. Answering the private questions of if we are fulfilled, if we are proud, and if we are happy.
Affirmative responses to the above self-evaluation is alignment, which strengthens our response to any type of humiliation and pulls into focus a creative resilience that leads to fields of liberated minds blossoming with confidence.
The fear of failure, or public humiliation, is often more significant than failure realized.
At worst, failure or public humiliation will impact one’s ego. At best, it will shed the final hairs of hesitation preventing one from realizing any of the dreams one has been deferring. It’s both inspiring and infectious.
When Joaquin Phoenix told Anderson Cooper that there’s something liberating about public humiliation, he neutralized any of his past failures from being weaponized against him and turned them into a strength, a creative superpower.
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