Bruce Springsteen, Woody Allen, and the Long Tradition of Hating Your Own Work

For over 17 months in 1974 and 1975, Bruce Springsteen agonized over the creation of his third album, “Born to Run.” When he started out, Springsteen had dreams of making the greatest rock-and-roll album the world had ever heard. But the recording process was excruciatingly slow. Springsteen spent six months alone perfecting the eponymous lead single, and when the album was finally complete, he hated it. 

Louis P. Masur, author of Runaway Dream, recounts Springsteen’s soul-searching in an excellent Slate article:

Bruce kept struggling to get on tape the sound he had in his head, and at times it seemed like he was ready to give up. Long nights at the studio ended in misery, the atmosphere tense and rancorous. To stay awake, engineer Jimmy Iovine would take a piece of gum, throw it away, and chew on the aluminum wrapping. In the end, Springsteen was miserable: “After it was finished? I hated it! I couldn’t stand to listen to it. I thought it was the worst piece of garbage I’d ever heard.”

He almost didn’t release it. But Jon Landau, who had stepped in as a producer, helped persuade him to let go. According to writer Dave Marsh, Landau called Springsteen and said, “Look, you’re not supposed to like it. You think Chuck Berry sits around listening to ‘Maybelline‘? And when he does hear it, don’t you think he wishes a few things could be [changed]? Now c’mon, it’s time to put the record out.” The album appeared in 1975, and it launched Springsteen toward mega-stardom, getting him on the covers of Time and Newsweek simultaneously. Reviewing the album in Rolling Stone, Greil Marcus proclaimed, “It is a magnificent album that pays off on every bet ever placed on him—a ’57 Chevy running on melted down Crystals records that shuts down every claim that has been made. And it should crack his future wide open.”

Since then, Springsteen has gone on to win 20 Grammy Awards. Looking back from today’s perspective, it seems shocking that The Boss would have ever battled such self-doubt.

We hear a lot of stories about artists and innovators who persevered against all odds to have their work see the light of day: mega-author J.K. Rowlings’ pile of rejection letters, Thomas Edison’s gajillion attempts to invent a light bulb, Michael Jordan being deemed too short to play on his varsity basketball team. We view persistence — and grit! — as the key to success. Yet, after a certain point, persistence has a negative outcome: tunnel vision. You’ve been in it to win it for so long, you no longer know what winning means.

Let’s take Woody Allen as another example. When Allen completed Manhattan in 1979, he was extremely dissatisfied. He recounts his thoughts at the time in Robert B. Weide’s fascinating 2011 documentary:

“When I was finished with it [Manhattan], I didn’t like the film at all. I saw it, and I spoke to United Artists at the time and offered to make a film for nothing if they would not put it out. I just thought to myself, ‘At this point in my life, if this is the best I can do, they shouldn’t give me money to make movies.’” 

Fortunately for the rest of us, Allen did not succeed in suppressing the film. Manhattan was released to significant critical acclaim, earned two Oscar nominations, and became his second biggest box office hit of all time. More than 40 films later, Manhattan is still regarded by many as Allen’s best film, and has become one of the most iconic pictures ever made about New York City.

Of course, for Allen, failure is just another part of life and an inherent part of the creative process. As he says in the documentary, “I get more pleasure out of failing in a project that I am enthused over than in succeeding in a project that I know I can do well.”

As with Manhattan and Born to Run, it seems impossible to imagine a world where Franz Kafka’s novels — The Trial, The Castle, and Amerika — aren’t part of our cultural heritage. And yet, these works, too, were almost suppressed by their author. As Elif Batuman writes in an exhaustive New York Times article on the posthumous trajectory of Kafka’s works: 

During his lifetime, Franz Kafka burned an estimated 90 percent of his work. After his death at age 41, in 1924, a letter was discovered in his desk in Prague, addressed to his friend Max Brod.“Dearest Max,” it began. “My last request: Everything I leave behind me . . . in the way of diaries, manuscripts, letters (my own and others’), sketches and so on, to be burned unread.” 

Fortunately, Max Brod had told Kafka that he would never do such a thing when the author had made his wishes known before his death. And rather than burning Kafka’s novels, Brod instead set out immediately to have them published. (Which resulted in its own rather Kafkaesque process for Brod, which you can read about here.)

Without Brod’s work, we wouldn’t likely have the word “Kafkaesque.” Similarly, without Alfred Russel Wallace, we might not have the word “Darwinian.” Because Charles Darwin, in a way, is part of this infamous group, too. 

Darwin started exploring the theory of natural selection almost 20 years before he published On the Origin of Species in 1859. As an NPR story explains:

By 1844 he [Darwin] had written draft language that almost perfectly parallels what would be in “On the Origin of Species” 15 years later. But he was in no rush to publish; he knew he would take a lot of heat once his ideas were loosed upon the world.

In June of 1858, Darwin had yet to publish anything when he received a letter from a fellow biologist Alfred Russel Wallace, in which Wallace shared an essay articulating his own theory of “natural selection” (although he didn’t use that term). While the history isn’t entirely clear on what Darwin’s motivations were, it seems likely that he was spurred to finally publish On the Origin of Species, which he did the following year, by Wallace — lest 20 years of work go unrecognized.

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So what’s the lesson in all this? On a practical level, it may be that we all need a third party — a friend or a producer who’s truly in our corner — to keep us accountable, and make us publish, when we’ve persisted so long that we don’t have any energy left to cheerlead ourselves across the finish line. On an existential level, it may be that the difference, and the distance, between the idea and the execution is always just a little bit greater than we expect. As author Michael Cunningham has written, “The art we produce lives in queasy balance with the art we can imagine.”

How about you?

Do you have perfectionist tendencies that are holding you back?

More insights on: Perseverance

Jocelyn K. Glei

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As Editor-in-Chief and Director of 99U, Jocelyn K. Glei leads the 99U in its mission to provide the “missing curriculum” on making ideas happen. She oversees the Webby Award-winning 99u.com website, curates the popular 99U Conference, and is the editor of the 99U books, Manage Your Day-to-Day and Maximize Your Potential.
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