Failure. It has multiple definitions but if we take “omission of occurrence,” then a failure is the lack of something happening. For example, you didn’t complete the art you intended. That doesn’t sound serious but we can make failure mean something much more heavy and dangerous – I am a failure. The mind complicate things by making it feel the stakes are higher than they actually are. The mind interprets failure as life-threatening and will try to avoid at all costs, which is why it feels so bad not to reach a goal. It’s trying to protect you from getting ‘hurt’ again. But picking up a pencil to draw is not life-threatening and ‘failing’ at making art is a vital tool in your art-making practice. How else are you going to improve as an artist and learn what you like visually?
Ken Robinson in Out of Our Minds talks about failure: “I asked the renowned chemist, Sir Harry Kroto, how many of his experiments fail. He said about 95 percent of them. Of course failure is not the right word, he said “You’re just finding out what doesn’t work,” Albert Einstein put the point sharply: “Anyone who has never made a mistake, has never tried anything new.” I don’t mean to say that being wrong is the same thing as being creative but if you’re not prepared to be wrong, it’s unlikely that you’ll ever come up with anything original.”
Expect to fail, expect to make mistakes, expect that there is no perfect way to make art and if there was is would be boring and predictable. The joy of making art comes from making messy mistakes, being open to spontaneity and colouring outside of the lines. Safe and perfect sounds far less fun. Robinson encourages us that “A good deal of creative work, especially in the early stages of a project, is about openly playing with ideas, riffing, doodling, improvising and exploring new possibilities.”
Failure is a vital part of creativity and not something we should try to avoid. So when your overdramatic brain whispers “You’re a failure,” know that you’re on the right pathway to letting more creativity into your life. Thank your brain for its concern and then go make more creative mistakes.
On the whole, we don’t like making mistakes. We may take them to mean we’ve failed or that we’re no good. When making art, thoughts like this can stop any future practice taking place altogether. This is a shame because mistakes are a valuable creative tool and a vital part of creativity. So what if we re-framed ‘mistakes’ to mean a twist or unexpected event? The illustrator Ralph Steadman was quoted talking about his art “People used to say, ‘Don’t you make a mistake?’ But there’s no such thing as a mistake, only an opportunity to do something else, change, adapt it as you go along.”
The artist Robert Motherwell encourages his mistakes “I begin a painting with a series of mistakes. The painting comes out of the correction of mistakes by feeling. I begin with shapes and colors which are not related internally nor to the external world; I work without images. Ultimate unifications come about through modulations of the surface by innumerable trials and efforts.”
What if you started off making art purposely making mistakes and see where it leads? Who knows what interesting things you may discover.
“The desire for everything to run smoothly is a false goal – it leads to measuring people by the mistakes they make rather than by their ability to solve problems.” – Ed Catmull, Creativity Inc
Is it risky to pick up a pencil and draw something? Logically it’s not. The risk of danger is minimal but your mind may have other ideas when you start to make marks. Notice the negative thoughts that pop up while you draw. Thoughts like “You’re no good at this” or “That line is wonky, throw it all away!” Greet them with curiosity and kindness and continue making marks anyway. It may be helpful to respond to the negative chatter with a friendly “Thank you for your concern but I’m doing okay and want to continue. I’m not in any danger so you don’t need to worry.”
The negative chatter, the unkind whispers of your inner critic are the mind trying to keep you safe from danger. The danger used to be lions and tigers for our caveman descendants, but today the perceived danger is failure. If you don’t try you’ll never fail so you’ll be safe, which makes sense to our 2 million year old brain wiring. But we are safe picking up a pencil and if you don’t try you’ll never know just how wonderful it can be to regularly make art.
“It’s essential that we differentiate between things that remind us of fear and those that are actually risky. In our adult world, the most valuable activities are actually inconvenient, fraught with the fear of failure and apparently in-doable.” — Seth Godin
It seems counterintuitive to decide on a career when you leave school given your work/life experience is so minimal. Many factors come into deciding on what pathway to pursuit, a big one being fear. The fear of not succeeding or it being too difficult to get ahead or too intangible to measure future success (the arts being a classic example) drives many to choose a ‘safer’ plan B career. If the thing you really want to do doesn’t work out, you’ve something safe to fall back on is something Jim Carrey’s 2014 MUM graduation speech addresses:
“Fear is going to be a player in your life, but you get to decide how much. You can spend your whole life imagining ghosts, worrying about your pathway to the future, but all there will ever be is what’s happening here, and the decisions we make in this moment, which are based in either love or fear. So many of us choose our path out of fear disguised as practicality. What we really want seems impossibly out of reach and ridiculous to expect, so we never dare to ask the universe for it.”
Plan A gets sidelined but plan B isn’t necessarily a ‘safer option,’ as Carrey suggests:
“My father could have been a great comedian, but he didn’t believe that was possible for him, and so he made a conservative choice. Instead, he got a safe job as an accountant, and when I was 12 years old, he was let go from that safe job and our family had to do whatever we could to survive. I learned many great lessons from my father, not the least of which was that you can fail at what you don’t want, so you might as well take a chance on doing what you love.”
Fear of failure and the unknown stops so many of us from even trying. If you believed the plan B pathway wasn’t actually safe, would you still pursue it?
The biggest obstacle to start making art? Yourself. We want to be good at everything instantly, even if we’ve had minimal practice. The fear that you might fail will keep you paralysed before you’ve even started. By comparing yourself to a prolific artist who has years of experience, work and failures under their belt, it’s no wonder you feel disappointed at the fledgling art marks you make. You want to make something worthy of the time spent on it (to be a constant human productivity machine) as well as seeking out approval from others. But Brené Brown in Daring Greatly suggests that if you attach your self-worth to your art then you’re handing over your self-worth to what other people think: “You’re officially a prisoner of ‘pleasing, performing, and perfecting’.”
Wanting everything to be perfect so you can avoid making ‘bad’ art will keep you stuck because the bar of expectation is immediately too high. Getting confident and making original art can take a lifetime and in the meantime decide to have fun. Get messy, make bad art on purpose, get into the flow of making something simply for the joy of making something. You are in control of how high your bar of expectation is, so you can lower it to “I will simply enjoy making art.” To experience satisfaction or even joy in creating something from nothing is a worthy goal.
In The Gifts of Imperfection, Brené Brown says “Overcoming self doubt is all about believing we’re enough and letting go of what the world says we’re supposed to be and supposed to call ourselves.” Let go of needing to be good art because it doesn’t matter if what you make is good, bad, ugly, masterful or simple. It’s not not about creating a perfected final physical thing, it’s about the process of self-discovery, joy and creativity by tapping into a part of you that normally lies hidden.
“Beneath our flaws, there are always two ingredients: fear and a desire for love.” – Alain de Botton, Status Anxiety
It would be wonderful to wave a magic wand and instantly reach the goal you’ve set or secretly dream about. That would make your ego very happy (well, for a little while, until the next goal). But skipping ahead to the success, when you think it will feel good means you’d miss out on mining gold. The gold is in the journey of learning, making, failing, gaining insight and not in arriving at an imaginary future arbitrary goal. You didn’t know what you need to learn until you’ve learn it. You don’t know how a failure or making something bad will provide insight, knowledge or a valuable lesson. Having it all handed to you on a plate means you won’t have built up the resilience to keep you motivated and committed when things do go ‘wrong.’
The danger of wanting to fast forward and avoid failure and uncertainty is to avoid future potential growth. You learn much more from a failure than you do if everything is smooth sailing. These growth spurts lead to bigger insights, more knowledge and ultimately make you a stronger person.
What does a tennis pro with 23 Grand Slam single titles have in common with an art-making beginner?
Fear of failure.
In Being Serena, Serena Williams talks about fear on the court: “People ask me have I ever been afraid on a tennis court? I laugh. Of course I’ve been afraid on the tennis court! When I was younger, going against big stars. When I was older and all the expectations that came with that. The fear of failing, it’s always there in one form or another.” The idea that success shields you from future fear of failure is an illusion because the fear remains within us at every single stage, from beginner to master.
At this years pre-Wimbledon news conference, Serena was asked if she’s used to her opponents upping their game because she’s the ‘one to beat’? She responded. “It’s what makes me great. I always play everyone at their greatest so I have to be greater… everyone comes out and they play me so hard and now my level’s so much higher because because of it, from years and years of being played like that… My level, if it wasn’t high, I wouldn’t be who I am so I had to raise my level to unknown because they’re playing me at a level that’s unknown. So now I’m used to it.” Serena embraced the unknown and used it as a strategy to improve her game.
Whether you’re making art or playing professional tennis at the highest level, the fear of failure never disappears. Walking alongside the unknown is an intrinsic part of life and is an important tool for growth. Try to embrace the unknown and see if you can implement it as a strategy and allow yourself space to get even a tiny bit more comfortable in the uncomfortableness of uncertainty!