One of my close friends at college, and the best barber I know, decided to take a leave of absence from UChicago this quarter for various reasons. After listening to his podcast “Failwell” I was inspired to learn more about both the creative process behind it as well as his musings on the topic. I hope by sharing it here that you too might begin to consider failure and success, college, and maybe even life itself slightly differently.
In his own words, the podcast description is: “Failure is inevitable. But success is a choice. The podcast showcases how failure led two college students at The University of Chicago to question their purposes and ultimately their identities. What can come from failure may be something greater, but discovering what that "greater" is takes diligence, awareness, and sometimes the courage to say farewell to the very things we are most familiar with.”
Q: You made this podcast as your final project for a class called “The Mind as Stage: Podcasting.” Why did you decide to take that class, and what inspired you to tackle such a complex issue for your own podcasting project?
A: Podcasting as a media form was very new to me before taking “The Mind as Stage.” In fact, before taking the course, I had never actually listened to a podcast. From a young age, however, I do recall being pretty fascinated with vocal/audio-works like Morgan Freeman and Oprah’s narrating of National Geographic docu-series and jumped at the opportunity to do something similar. The fact that a voice itself has the capacity to create visual imagery through a sonic medium became my introduction to podcasting. I learned that podcasting was in fact that but also whatever else I wanted to make it. And I wanted this particular podcast to be real, honest, true. Vulnerable. Because that’s what I felt I owed my friends, my peers and myself at the time. In turn, the podcast “Failwell” was created. It represented where I was at the time, questioning the choices that led me to where I was and where I was going, wondering if the next stage would be healthier than the last, and thinking about the challenges that had influenced me. It was important for me to leave behind a message of encouragement that didn’t wash-over the hardship, and I am proud at how it turned out.
Q: The podcast is curated in a very specific way, with a frame narrative of chiseling away at a block of stone. How did that come about?
A: You know, the “idle stone” really was a God send. I mean, for me, the stone represented two things that facilitated the layers of storytelling that I envisioned showcasing in the podcast. On one hand, the “idle stone” and that moment of realizing its beauty was paralleled to my experience making it into college. Given my context as a young black man who is a first generation student, my family and I celebrated heavily at my college acceptance. And rightfully so. It was something glorious; to see my parents’ foresight and sacrifices made out of true love, graciously propelled me to where I am. On the other hand, the “idle stone” was simultaneously me. Upon seeing the stone for the first time, the stand in character asks himself, “is it a mirror.” Looking at the the stone becomes a question of identity. Was I just a smart kid that went to school, or could it be that I (we) am (are) more complex than that? Before I began writing the poetry for the narration, I watched how delicately stone carvers approached their work. With care and consideration, they struck heavy, resistant stone until it gave in to the image they desired. Coming to Chicago for school was truly the culture shock for me. It challenged me academically, socially, personally, and mentally in ways that I could not have foreseen prior to. That said, I held to the belief that fire refines gold and pressure creates diamonds, as a way of justifying hardship not realizing that as great gold and diamonds are, if you hit a beautifully positioned stone too hard, that chuck that falls out is done, and the slab you’re left with is forever altered. So, the stone, chiseling, hammer, all of that, seemed just fitting for this piece.
Q: You focus mainly on the stories of two close friends, rather than talking about your own experience as much. Yet, you still have a finished product that is very personal to your own story. What was it like creating something so complex, and how did you decide on that structure?
A: I had no clue I’d have had so much fun interviewing folks. Thankfully, I had to interview at least 2 people for my final project. Ultimately, I interviewed 3 preliminarily, and while one interview sadly didn’t make it to the final product because of technical issues, I kid you not, without provocation or prompting they all brought up the idea of “being the smart kid” and having their “identity based in being the smart person.” At that point, it was pretty clear to me what I wanted to draw out from their stories during the interviews. Still, amidst the similarities, they all had strikingly different accounts for why they felt the way they did about their collegiate experiences. I liked that. I liked hearing the differences in their stories because they shared so much common ground. As far as I can tell, any given listener may resonate with one speaker more than the other. I resonated with all of them in some way. The finished product here, you’re right, isn’t me telling my own story in the traditional sense at least, but I felt like even still as I listen to their stories, I find moments where I say to myself, “my goodness, I feel you.” I’m so grateful for my interviewees, my friends, because they added a layer of authenticity and person-ability that my voice or music or effects simply couldn’t do alone. Given that the poetry was created prior to the interviews, it gave me somewhat of an idea as to how I wanted to structure the final sequence. The toughest part was editing each of my interviewees statements into coherent and honest stories, constructed from 4+ hours of un-sequenced tapes from separate days. The truth of the matter is that each of them had so much more to say than what was captured here. For example, one of the interviewees, Melissa, spoke about how school really challenged her socially. I loved it. I felt it. But It wasn’t relevant to the part of her story that I wanted to showcase, so it got cut after numerous drafts of me trying to make it work. Decisions like that made the complexity of the project just that: complex.
Q: Since being on leave, how have your perspectives on these topics changed?
A: Failwell! For real. I’m quite a reserved person, but I find so much joy in opening up for the sake of others’ growth and encouragement. I made this as a challenge to myself to finish something before I left something else (college) unfinished. It’s comedy; before coming to school, I really thought to myself never would I ever take a leave. So to be here now is almost like what was wrong with me. I needed this. I believe that everyone has a limit, everyone has a back-story, and everyone has different reasons for making the decisions that they do. I for one am a go getter and a hard worker, but one thing college has taught me is that I’m also in need of rest and I really like joy. I’m grateful for the opportunity to say Failwell to the false fortune that I thought coming to college was. I learned that in the midst of something as spectacular as that, what I find to be more special is learning my identity is not predicated on where I go to school, how I feel, or even what I do. And for that reason, failingwell has become infinitely worth it.
Photo is of an apartment building on E. Hyde Park Boulevard at night. I just left Chicago and will not be returning until fall of 2020. Until then, I am working or studying abroad in Japan, India, Morocco, and Austria.