On Monday, January 20, with #FreeFail, the Sundance Film Festival will dedicate a day of panels, workshops, and special events to exploring a vital aspect of the creative process: Failure. To lead off the festivities, Sundance alumn, entrepreneur, and former professional skateboarder Stacy Peralta recalls some of his most illuminating bouts with failure.
I’m a Venice, California native. I grew up here. My mom still lives in the house I was raised in and still has the same phone number. I graduated from Venice High School.
I was part of a group of teens who came out of this area in the 1970s—we were known as Dogtown’s Z-Boys, or the Zephyr skateboard team. We wanted to become the first professional skateboarders in the world. The problem was, there was no such thing as being a professional skateboarder. There were no skateboard shops, skateboard parks, skate magazines—there was no skateboard industry.
I’m often asked today, “Man, when you guys were skateboarding in swimming pools back in the ‘70s, did you have any idea how big skateboarding was going to become?”
Imagine this. Imagine walking into a department store today and finding a teenager shoplifting. Imagine asking him, “Do you know that in 20 years shoplifting is going to be a major international sport?” I’m not saying skateboarding is equivalent to shoplifting, but it was illegal. It was illegal to skate in the street, in parking garages, on school playgrounds, in front of buildings, in public parks, but most importantly it was illegal to skate in our favorite places: in empty swimming pools. Of course, inherently, the challenge with skating in pools was that we had to learn how to deal with concrete.
The urethane wheel had suddenly made it possible for us to ride terrain that was previously impossible to ride. Now we could ride inside pools with 10-foot high solid vertical walls. Remember, this was before the advent of skateboard helmets, pads, knee or elbow or wrist braces. Our safety equipment was a t-shirt, a pair of shorts, and a tiny pair of Vans deck shoes.
When we skated inside empty pools, we went back and forth, up and down like a pendulum. When we fell, we usually fell from the top, and falling from the top of an empty pool is exactly the same as diving into an empty pool.
So here is the rub. You could be the best pool-rider in the world, but if you couldn’t fall properly then the dream was over. So learning to fall, or fail, was our most important move, our most important trick. It even superseded our talent. It became our most valuable skill and we developed a very important technique: arms out, touch, elbow, shoulder, roll. You can’t go head-on into concrete and survive, so we learned to roll out of our falls—it was the underpinning of our success. It was the one skill that allowed all of our other skills to flourish.
I learned how to fall off my skateboard. The secret to following my dreams has been my ability to navigate and manage failure. I fail more than I succeed. And in order to succeed I needed to understand how to fail.
And I’m not talking about one failure; I’m talking about all types of failure and especially failure that persists, over months and sometimes over years, in the pursuit of a dream. Because it’s not failure that is the real danger, it’s when repeated failure leads to defeat. If you’re defeated, your dreams vanish and if your dreams vanish you’re left wondering, “What if?”
When I think of land developer Abbot Kinney, I can’t imagine the failures he endured converting a coastal swamp into the vibrant beach community that is Venice. I know when I walk out of these doors today I’ll be walking back into Abbot Kinney’s dream, which is as alive today as it was over a century ago.
I’ll also be walking into my own dream. I’m still making films and what’s totally surprising to me and completely crazy, is that I’m a middle age man and my name still appears on a skateboards, wheels, and shirts, which is something that began as a foolish teenage dream.