The fine art of failing and failing better

The Sparkle Experiment small creative play equals connection

When making art, it can be hard to not judge work as failures. Thoughts around it not being good enough or not looking the way you think it aught to–or the hundreds of other judgments that pop up–can stop you from making anything else for fear of repeating the failure. The feeling of failure stings and this is something the mind wants us to avoid experiencing and therefore explains why you may feel like giving up so soon. Pema Chödrön in Fail, Fail Again, Fail Better speaks of the ‘Fine art of failing’ and how succeeding has a lot of emphasis and hype placed on it. But if you consider the definition of success as it working out that way you hoped, “failing by that definition is that it didn’t work out the way you wanted it to.”

Chödrön talks about hearing a quote from James Jocye’s Ulysses that described how failure leads to discovered, but instead of using ‘failure’ Joyce used the word ‘mistake.’ “Mistakes are the portal to creativity, to learning something new, to having a fresh look on things.” Reframing a ‘failure’ to a ‘mistake’ may mean you give yourself more space (and self-compassion) to not get things ‘right’ all of the time.

Failing better means seeing failure as part of the journey,”to see it as your connection with other human beings and as part of your humanness.” The idea that we should get everything right all of the time is an unrealistically high bar for ourselves and leaves no space of the unexpected, delightfully imperfect and spontaneous results that being creative allow us access to. “Failing better means when these things happen in your life, they become a source of growth, a source of forward.” Growth and forward is a bi-product of failure and making lots of mistakes, and is to be embraced instead of feared, when making our art.

Acknowledgment and failure

The Sparkle Experiment small creative play equals connection

If you want to be creative and innovative, you must acknowledge all your efforts. That includes the not-so-good outcomes as well as the good ones. Both are integral to development, gaining confidence, mastering skills and finding your voice as an artist.

Austin Shaw in a talk at Google explains why acknowledgment is beneficial within an organisation, (the idea also translates to self-encouragement): “You not only want to acknowledge when a person is doing well, but also their attempts when things don’t go well. We have to have license to fail if we’re actually going to be creative. We have to have that safety by which we can start to feel that we can try things and we won’t be reprimanded if it doesn’t go well… You’ve got to have it [failure] if you want innovation.”

Failure is often avoided at all costs when it comes to creativity. The experienced pain of ‘getting it wrong’ hurts our ego-minds who want to get everything ‘right’ immediately. But ironically failure is the secret sauce to innovation. It creates faster learning curves and allows for more spontaneity, the perfect ground for unexpected creative ideas to grow from. If you can start to acknowledge everything you do as a drop into the bucket of creativity, you could free yourself to be open to more creative possibilities. Allow yourself a safety net for failure because to fail is a wonderful tool for development.

Using mindful process orientation

The Sparkle Experiment small creative play equals connection

Art hung in galleries is the result of years of practice, experimentation and failures but we don’t see that process when we look at the art. We only see the tip of the art-making iceberg. Comparing our messy behind the scenes failure-filled process to other artists final work not only is discouraging, but it makes it seem other artists take a smooth pathway from A (making that piece of art) to B (getting it hung in gallery). We must be mindful that art making isn’t a smooth A to B pathway. Instead, it’s a long process of meandering, challenging, uncertain steps taken over time and through a lot of practice—a process orientation focus.

Ellen J. Langer in Mindfulness explains “A true process orientation also means being aware that every outcome is preceded by a process… A process orientation not only sharpens our judgment, it makes us feel better about ourselves. A purely outcome orientation can take the joy out of life.” If we only focus on the outcome (orientation), we ignore the work that went into getting us to the outcome and so diminish the bulk of our efforts, growth and lessons learnt.

But what if you struggle to believe you can make any art at all? Langer encourages you to ask: “How do I do this?” instead of “Can I do this?” and thus directs attention toward defining the steps that are necessary on the way. This orientation can be categorized in terms of the guiding principle that there are no failures, only ineffective solutions.” We have a sensitivity towards failure. We can see it in black and white terms of being “bad” and therefore to be avoided at all costs. But the mindful approach is to view it as it actually is: an ineffective solution to what was trying to be achieved. You worked out one way not to do it and that is valuable data and a learning opportunity. What you do with that data, in the face of failure, is what counts. Use it to guide you to wither by repeating or trying a difference approach, instead of being limited by a narrow and stifling definition of failure.

Black-and-white thinking is a growth block

The Sparkle Experiment small creative play equals connection

Negative black-and-white thinking about your art can be harmful to your confidence and future art-making practice. While you may think labelling the art as “rubbish” or “bad” is stating the obvious, it could be blinding you to all the positive aspects of your art. Whatever your brain focuses on expands therefore looking at only “negative” aspects of your art, they will appear bigger, especially with similar repeated thoughts over time.

Kevin Gyoerkoe and Pamela Wiegartz talk about this extreme viewpoint in 10 Simple Solutions to Worry: “All or nothing thinking, or black-and-white thinking means viewing things in extreme categories. For example, you might describe a presentation you gave as “perfect” or “horrible.” Instead of a more balanced, reasoned view, you overlook the shades of gray, the subtleties of life, and force experiences into either-or categories (ie. describing yourself as “irresponsible” if you overlook a task or calling yourself a “failure” if you don’t meet an important personal goal.”

If by giving yourself constructive feedback you feel encourage to continue practicing then that’s great. But if you feel disheartened by your own feedback—especially if it’s black and white thinking—look for the more neutral “grey areas” instead. If you’re unable to find any small areas of the art you like, can you find one positive aspect? One specific line or dot? You can’t notice what you don’t look for. And “perfect” art is overrated. If we could do it perfectly instantly, we’d get bored very quickly. There’d be nothing new to learn and no joy from each step of growth accomplished over time. Look for the grey and let go of the pressure for your art to “be better” than it is right this moment.

Taking action reveals the next step

The Sparkle Experiment small creative play equals connection

When you begin to make art as adult, it can be daunting deciding what to make next. Three things to bear in mind:

  1. There is no wrong decision
  2. No time making art is ever wasted (even if you think the result is a failure)
  3. Taking action will reveal the next step

You can get stuck procrastinating over what to draw/make/paint next when the answer may pop up whilst you’re taking action. In other words, make something – anything – and while you’re making it, notice what you enjoy most about the process. Say you start drawing a plant and feel satisfaction from moving the pencil in a curved motion. That feedback could lead to the next drawing, where you make more marks that mimic those curves. You then start looking for more curved objects to draw and this reveals more of the path to follow.

You cannot know what the next step is unless you’ve taken the previous step and standing still halts the creative process. Take action by making your art and keep repeating to discover more of your path.

Failure is a vital part of creativity

The Sparkle Experiment small creative play equals connection

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.

Creating with mistakes

The Sparkle Experiment small creative play equals connection

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