The fine art of failing and failing better

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

Fear and riskiness

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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

Career plan B and fear of failure

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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?

Fear and self-worth

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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

The danger of wanting to fast forward

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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.

Serena Williams on failure and the unknown

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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!

Quick art and frequent writing

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In an interview with the contemporary visual artist George Condo, he remarked “I don’t see why it takes so long to make drawings.” He draws a large-scale drawing with oil stick on camera and the whole process take 16 minutes. It appears to be a very quick, dynamic and instinctive method of drawing. He explains “I kind of draw like you’re walking through the forest, y’know. You don’t really know where you’re going and you just start from some point and randomly travel through the paper until you get to a place where you finally reach your destination.”

The idea of making art quickly is echoed in an question on Seth Godin’s ‘Origin Stories’ podcast episode.: “What should teachers be focusing on to help young people write their best? Godin answered “… the problem is the word ‘better’, because when they seek to do ‘better’ writing, they’re focusing on… complying, on pleasing an anonymous reader or a teacher.” Instead, “… get kids to write. Get kids to do lousy writing, Get kids to do frequent writing, emotional writing, superfluous writing, useless writing, writing, writing, writing. That if they write often, then the fear of writing has to do away.”

Do more writing, do more drawings, make art quickly and often and don’t pay attention to the quality of what you make. Down the road, a bi-product of this practice will be ‘better’ technical skills. To focus on getting ‘better’ when you’re a beginner, is a way to stall yourself before you’ve had a change to get any momentum going.

Small adds up and 100 day projects

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Progress doesn’t happen overnight and there is no hack to becoming an overnight success at making art. Practice, consistency and commitment are the slow and steady route to growth. But that’s if you can stand it taking time to bridge the gap of where you are and where you want to be.

Practice making something every single day and you will improve over time. Seth Godin says “incremental daily progress (negative or positive) is what actually causes transformation. A figurative drip, drip, drip. Showing up, every single day, gaining in strength, organizing for the long haul, building connection, laying track—this subtle but difficult work is how culture changes.” The idea that any progress, even if you hate what you’ve made, will create future improvement is something to remind yourself of when you feel like giving up.

“Keep showing up. If it matters, keep showing up.” – Seth Godin

30 day or 100 day projects allow you a consistency framework to keep you accountable: Make something every day for X days and you can only stop once you’ve reached the final day. The great thing about this approach is a pile of work is created by taking a small creative action daily.

By focusing on the small, we let ourselves off the hook of only looking for big leaps in our progress. We don’t expect plants to instantly sprout from a planted seed, it takes time just to grow the roots. See your own daily project as an way to grow your invisible creative roots and focus solely instead on the enjoyment you get from making something.

Keeping your art secret

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The fragile process of beginning to make art again is hard for the ego, who wants to get everything perfect first time. Currently our culture encourages us to share our art with the world via social media. Why not share when you can get instant likes and feedback to encourage you to keep at it? But what if your audience isn’t enthusiastic? You feel proud you even finished making the thing but that feeling can feel squashed when someone says something even slightly critical.

You are your own worst critic and Julia Cameron in The Artist’s Way discourages critiquing yourself too harshly because “Judging your early artistic efforts is artist abuse.” But it’s not just yourself you have to worry about when “beginning work is exposed to premature criticism, shown to overly critical friends.” A well-meant comment can feel like a pin to your enthusiasm balloon and questions about why you’re not spending your time on more ‘important’ things can feel confronting.

It may remind you of a past time when you received harsh criticism about your art and this might be enough to completely derail you from being creative. Your art is going to be unrefined in the beginning and you have to face that while you’re making it but do you really need less than supportive feedback from others? What if you chose to keep your art-making secret and made it just for you?

The idea of your art making being similar to a private diary or journal process is echoed in Felix Scheinberger’s book Dare to Sketch sketch-booking process: “My sketchbook is something very personal. I draw in it for me and not for others; I use it to describe my world and my life.” How making art for yourself is the goal and nobody else need be involved. “It’s your sketchbook and yours alone, and should matter to no one else. once you are aware of this, it becomes a lot easier to work on a sketchbook. You are not drawing for any presumed critics or admirers, but for yourself. You aren’t producing a presentation booklet, but a creative space that consciously allows for mistakes and experiments. Your sketchbook is not a public space. Protect it.”

Protecting it and keeping your art secret is a way to help your fledgling artist grow stronger and limiting anything that endangers that. Elizabeth Gilbert in Big Magic talks of having an affair with your art: “Let yourself fall in love with your creativity… and see what happens.” The idea of an affair being something that you undertake in secret, something you’d make sure was hidden from the world: “Sneak off and have an affair with your most creative self… Conceal it from your family and friends, whatever it is you’re up to.”

The idea of making art in the dark, away from any other eyes could be the freedom you need to unleash your creative spirit. By treating your sketchbooks and notebooks as a private journal, you allow your confidence and skills to grow stronger undisturbed.

“[Creative recovery] It is an awkward, tentative, even embarrassing process. There will be many times when we won’t look good – to ourselves or anyone else. We need to stop demanding that we do. It is impossible to get better and look good at the same time.” – Julia Cameron

Lego Serious Play, the Lego House and creativity

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Lego is not just a toy as it can also be used as a design thinking tool. Lego Serious Play – born from the Lego company’s search for ways to get businesses using Lego – helps organisations to get creative and innovate.

In the article Using Lego Serious Play as a Design Thinking Tool by Designorate.com, it describes how “Design thinking is a complex process which combines both logical thinking and creative imagination in order to build innovative products and services.” A range of tools can be used to help the design thinking process such as “issue cards, group sketching, role play, design games and Lego Serious Play.” By playing with colourful bricks, teams can share ideas and problem solve together. “Visualizing the ideas into a model eliminates the fear of failure as it is treated with a prototype that can be modified during the design thinking process.” With fear of failure being a huge roadblock for many people – not just in the creative world – tools that can help move things forward are invaluable.

This open style collaborative approach to design thinking allows everyone to contribute and share ideas. The idea of using play as an approach creatively learning is something that Mitch Reznik, a professor of learning research at MIT Media Lab addresses in the documentary Lego House: Home of the Brick. “When I think about play, I don’t see it as just fun and games, but rather I see play as a type of, a way of engaging with the world.” He suggests that by giving children the opportunity to explore through playing and creating, “they’ll be prepared for a world which is going to require creative thinking more than ever before.”

“Where you’re willing to take risks, to try new things and the greatest learning, the greatest innovations come when people are doing things in a playful spirit. It might be building a sandcastle or a Lego castle or building a poem – whatever they’re creating is a way for them to create new ideas. So there’s this constant cycle between children building things in the world to build new ideas, to let them build things in the world. That cycle provides the basis for the best learning experiences.” – Mitch Reznik

Additional content: For a deeper dive into in the Lego brand, The Toys That Made Us (2018) S2 E3: Lego revisits the journey from wooden toys to the present day brick system. For more on the architect who designed the Lego House, Abstract: The Art of Design (2017) S1 E4 – Bjarke Ingels: Architecture shows more of his innovative architecture and design process: “In the big picture, architecture is the art and science of creating the framework of our lives.” And “He never follows the rules.”

Chameleons, untrained artists and beginner’s mind

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Becoming an expert can lead to playing it safe by repeating the same patterns of what’s previously worked. What if you fail once you’ve had a taste of success? Better stick to what you know because that’s what worked in the past…

But in Bowie: The Man Who Changed the World, David Bowie’s chameleon approached to making music was highlighted. “As far as style is concerned, I don’t really think that I want to have a style. Sort of ‘Oh yeah, that’s a David Bowie sound’ y’know? I’d much prefer to be sort of a free agent as my enthusiasms take me.” Bowie followed his curiosities, even if they were different to what what he’d been inspired by before. His enthusiasms were his pathway to the next project.

Cai Guo-Qiang in Skyladder: The Art of Cai Guo-Qiang is asked is there is something he particularly likes about collaborating with untrained artists? He replied “Yes, a lot of artists do things that are too commercial. It lacks some compulsion and sincere emotions that should exist in all art.” Becoming commercial may mean following the same formula of creation which becomes more important than pursuing new avenues of creation.

‘Shoshin,’ a word from Zen Buddhism meaning ‘beginner’s mind,’ refers to having an attitude of openness, eagerness, and lack of preconceptions when studying a subject, even when studying at an advanced level, just as a beginner would. In Shunryu Suzuki’ book Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind “In beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few.”

Beginners mind allows you to experiment with more freedom and discover unexpected and divergent results. Ultimately this creates richer, more diverse work because you’ve cast your research net wider. We can become rigid when making art by sticking to ‘rules’ adopted in the past. We initially created those rules from the unknown through experiments, but they become fixed quickly. We can tightly cling to them as we try to create order out of chaos because perhaps then we feel (perceived) control in an uncontrollable world? Take inspiration from Bowie and Guo-Qiang and follow your curiosities, be open to new possibilities and don’t be so concerned with everything being in the same style. Adopting a beginner’s mindset allows us to be open to new, divergent and unexpected ideas, where magic could be revealed and explored further.