For Success, Learn to Fail

At a local bookstore/cafe, I was chatting with an old friend. Her youngest brother is now in high school. More than making us feel old, he’s about to make his first big decision for his education. He’s struggling with French and curious about trying an engineering class instead.

Underlying his choice is something so many of us face: Does he choose the challenge or the easy route? Is he willing to face failure? Or does he prefer to find success no matter what?

Failure is a dirty work in America. Failure often implies you’re stupid or lazy. People are afraid of failure because we assume that failure shows something is wrong with you.

But failure in creative fields is common. For every poem I’ve had published, at least ten have been rejected. My first short story was rejected at least six times before it was published.

Failure isn’t a disaster. Failure doesn’t mean anything is wrong with you. It’s a tool for learning and growing. More importantly, it’s not one thing. In fact, it shows up in many different ways.

Here are a few scenarios I’ve faced the ugly beast and how I handled it without breaking anything.

Great tastes, lousy work

Ira Glass has a great video on what happens to so many creative people at the beginning. We start off having awesome tastes. We know what great paintings, great literature, great music is. But when we try to reproduce it? Sad and awkward trombones, your work isn’t there.

At this point, it’s easy to give up. Screw it, you could say, I’m not creative. But you don’t have to. You can move on. You can start again.

I won’t lie to you: sometimes my writing is total crap. I’ve written confusing essays, melodramatic poems, and saccharine short stories. My voice has cracked while singing. My legs have gotten bruised while dancing. I’ve fucked up many, many times.

I know I’ll fuck up at least another hundred times. Yet, I still try new things. Why? Because it’s not just about the finished product. I love chasing a new idea. I love watching it evolve with me. A great finished product is icing on the cake.

Creativity is a process a process you should enjoy. If you aren’t, then it’s time to make it fun. Struggling to paint? Open up some cheap acrylics and finger paint on color paper. Can’t get the dance quite right? Put on an oldie you love and just start moving.

Not everything you make has to be good immediately. But if you love doing it even 75% of the time, why should you give it up?

The awkward silence

No come back

You’ve worked on a project for weeks. You love it like a small child, thinking it’s a beautiful, wonderful piece. You’re so excited you have to show SOMEONE. You share it with someone or a whole group and–

Crickets. Or worse, you hear the lukewarm “nice” or “that’s interesting”.

This has to be one of the worse reactions. In the silence, you assume they hate it. You feel crazy for thinking that it was any good at all. Worse, it feels like they pity you for trying at all.

I’ve gotten this response more times than I can count. I write sad poetry. I write some pretty messed up short stories. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea, including some of my family and friends. I had to wise up really quickly that certain people? Well, they just wouldn’t love my work. It wasn’t meant for them.

Very few people have a universal audience. Do I love Harry Potter? Meh. I wouldn’t have missed it if I never read it. Does that make J.K. Rowling’s work any less awesome? No. I’m just not her core audience.

Sometimes we fail, not because our work isn’t good, but because we aren’t reaching the right people. As much as you love what you do, there’s a lot of content in the world. Getting noticed? That takes a whole other level of work.

It’s ok to make bad shit

Snapshot

Even after a few or a dozen successes, you will still have failures. We can make awful, ugly things. The other night I had this great line in my head

Some loves will save ya and some loves will kill ya.

I kept trying to write more for it. Yet, nothing I wrote was good. It wasn’t cohesive. It was too much about rhyme. Honestly? It sucked.

Some pieces will never get out of the gate. Some will take time to come out. Sometimes, you need to get the shitty stuff out so you can create the great pieces.

Allow yourself to make bad stuff. Permission, as simple as it sounds, can be hard. At the core, it’s about embracing more realistic expectations. Sometimes you will make an ugly mess. There’s no one on the planet that has made a masterpiece every single time.

Creativity isn’t a linear process. We are organic, not mechanical creatures. Instead of a factory, imagine creativity as a series of rivers and streams. Some of them are dead ends. Some of them have surprising journeys. It’s just the nature of things. The more you allow yourself to embrace your creative process, the more you’ll create and improve.

Are you failing?

playing in the field

Sometimes, I get upset over nothing. My blog post only has 20 views what?!?!?! Oh man, only 5 people liked that poem??? My work must be awful!!!

As a recovering perfectionist, I can easily see anything as a failure. In high school, I judged myself for being in AB calculus instead of BC. I didn’t focus on the fact that I got good grades or was working my butt off to achieve great grades. I don’t even like math! Yet, there I was, in the second best class and it got to me.

In creative fields, it’s easy to compare yourself against unrealistic other people. Fact, Margaret Atwood has had millions of books sold and a movie deal. Me? Not so much. But does that make me a failure? I don’t think so.

As we evolve, our definitions of failure and success change. Once, getting published at all was a big deal for me. Now? I am more selective about where I submit my work. It’s ok for your expectations to evolve and change. However, it’s up to you to decide what failure looks like for you, your work, and your personal goals.

Consciously deciding will help when you face rejections and other bumps along the road. It will keep you grounded and focused on what truly matters to you.

Conclusion

No matter what situation you see failure in, keep a few things in mind.

  1. Failure happens. Embrace it as part of the process.
  2. Your audience isn’t everyone. Jesus may have an audience of billions but even he doesn’t even have the whole market.
  3. What does failure mean for you? Define it and hold onto it.
  4. Failure isn’t a sign of your worthiness. It isn’t even a sign of your creativeness. It’s just a sign that you’re human.

From Michelangelo to Michael Jackson, all creative people face failure. Failure is inevitable, but how you deal with it? That’s your choice.

How do you deal with failing? Share it in a comment below! 

13 Comments

  1. There is a very thin line between failure and giving up, and it is extremely easy to fall into the other side when we feel most vulnerable. I have failed in several fields such as studies (I quit a degree in Psychology to jump into English) and I don’t regret it. That made me discover something true and unique about myself.
    However, there are other kind of failures that touch you more deeply, and those are the kind that can destroy a person. And it is failing in what you love. Getting up from that stumble is one of the hardest things I have ever done, and I am sure many other creatives, and what you talk in your article is that. I can feel it in your beautifully shaped words. And I know those are true words written with passion. If you are able to continue despite all those failures, you will grow up stronger and your passion will lead you further. I would never give up on what makes me truly happy, on what makes me feel alive and unique. But I would quit things that are simple showing me that THAT is not my way.
    Thank you so very much for this inspiring article. Keep at it and never, ever quit!

    1. Alba, these are great points. Failing at something we want so badly can be really really hard. It requires not only a lot of faith in yourself but also surrounding yourself with people who will support you through those times (no person is an island after all.

      Deciding what’s ok to let go and what you want to fight for is an important decision, one that people don’t think a lot about. people are often more worried about failing than knowing if it’s worth fighting for.

  2. I am so grateful for stumbling upon your blog here. Thank you for writing this and I am eagerly waiting for some time to read through your previous postings as well. I’m going through some pretty big life changes myself. I just created a new blog, mostly to explore my own art making processes, utilize art therapy techniques, and to connect with others who may be or have been through some tough times, or maybe are interested in art, etc. This was a great read!

    1. Thanks so much! So honored you took the time to read my blog. I’ll have to check out your blog as well. I always find it fascinating how different people use art/their processes. There are so many different ways to do it. Good luck with your work!

  3. Hi there! This post couldn’t be written any better! Reading through this post reminds me of my previous room mate! He always kept talking about this. I will forward this article to him. Pretty sure he will have a good read. Thank you for sharing!

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